Finetastic Adventures

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Our Summer Festive Season Vacation

We made it back home from our first vacation leave, and though it feels good to be home, we really enjoyed our time away-traveling through some of this beautiful country and spending time with Alyssa. I'll try to give a 'brief' synopsis of our trip so that you will read this whole blog, otherwise you'll get bogged down in the details. This is a popular vacation time for PC Volunteers, since schools and NGOs are closed for several weeks. It's also, as you would expect, a primary vacation time for S. Africans In fact, for education volunteers this is the mandated time for vacation since they must travel only during times that schools are closed. Our SA 15 group was fortunate that our lock-down period ended on December 21, allowing us to travel legitimately over the holiday period.

Dave and I hired (rented) a car, leaving Polokwane on December 22, with Alyssa still with us. We had decided to head south towards Lesotho and KZN (KwaZuluNatal, a province of South Africa very popular with tourists), knowing it would be a bit cooler there. We bought a tent and sleeping bags before we left, so we were able to save some money by camping a few times; one of those times was at the home of a PC couple of our age from last year's group of PCVs. We had met Tom at our Pre Service Training and looked forward to seeing him again and meeting Brooke. They were very hospitable, putting up about 10 of us, with Dave and me being the only ones from this year's group. We spent two nights there, cooking wonderful dinners using the fresh vegetables from their garden, and enjoying the company of other volunteers. During the day the three of us drove to Royal Natal, the northern section of the Drakensberg Park, about an hour away, for hiking. The Drakensbergs are a beautiful mountain range on the border of Lesotho and South Africa. On the first day (Christmas Day) we did a circular hike, passing a popular pool created by Cascade Waterfall, and climbing into the hills, past another waterfall swimming area, and passing through forests and ferns. The park was filled with families, mostly appearing to be of Indian descent, enjoying the holiday by swimming and having picnics. The following day we hiked the Tugela gorge, a 7 km hike into the gorge created by the Tugela River and ending at the falls, the second highest in the world. We reached a point where we couldn't see where to proceed once we reached the riverbed. Another couple was there with a map and they couldn't find it either. We would have tried a couple of options of walking across and/or through the river, since we knew the falls had to be near, but loud thunderbolts and threat of the typical afternoon storm prevented us from trying. On the return hike we were passed by a man whom we had seen hiking in; he asked if we had made it to the falls. When we told him where we had been stymied he said we were about two minutes away; we had just needed to walk through the river around a couple of bends. The rivers were all high now with the summer rains and made many of these trails impassable. We just made it back to our car before the skies opened and the worst electrical storm I have seen in years began. Needless to say, we were disappointed, but Dave and I will have other opportunities to make it back there and make the falls, maybe when the weather will allow us to hike without so much water or threats of summer storms. (The rains tested our new tent and it passed! No leaks, so it just has to last us another 21 months.)

We spent the evenings shooting the shit with the other volunteers. It was great to share stories about our experiences and to learn new ideas; there is an immediate bond with other PCVs that is wonderful. We talked not only about PC, but books that we had read and what was going on in the world. With Tom and Brooke we were able to share concerns facing volunteers and couples our age. We even laughed together about the odd things we now find ourselves picking up off the street: wires, tool parts, etc that we find uses for in our PC home, things that we never would have given a second look in the US. (Mike M, I thought of you here!) In ways we could not imagine prior to being here, we were able to share this very small house, dinner made in a kitchen on a two burner stove (virtually for free since many of the vegetables came from Tom & Brooke's garden, pasta and cookies were made from scratch by other PCVs), one table with four seats, one shower, one toilet, etc. While we take some liberties, we try to live within our Peace Corps stipend whenever we can. Alyssa enjoyed meeting some of our cohorts and she especially enjoyed talking to one of them who had been a public health nurse in her pre-PC life. Alyssa has spent the last year trying to figure out her life's 'path', with the health field always resurfacing. The conversation she had with Dawn that evening cemented the decision she had just made, to join the health field. Now she has to decide if medical school or nursing school, or something in between, with a public health focus, is the right means to her end. It was so wonderful to have her with us when she came to her conclusion; she feels so relieved to know in what direction she is headed. Her research in Mauritius is coming along; she is studying sexual harassment, which is truly a challenge in that country.

After packing the car on Wednesday morning we left Ladysmith and drove the short distance to the Central Drakensberg where we had a reservation in a beautiful backpackers/lodge. South Africa has a terrific system of 'backpackers'; these are inexpensive hostels that will always have dorms and usually have some private rooms, sometimes en-suite (with a bathroom). The three of us had a huge quad room, en-suite, in this gorgeous mountain setting. The shared kitchen was clean and fully stocked, so we went to the store and bought food for a braai dinner. We cooked over their outdoor braai, went to their pool, and relaxed outside and enjoyed the views of Monks Cowl. The next morning we were served an incredible breakfast before driving to the trail head of our last hike, a loop which took us to Sterkspruit Falls, through the Hlatikulu Forest to Nandi Falls, then back through the river gorge. What we had thought would just be a 'nice' hike turned into a beautiful, challenging one, with several river crossings and plenty of climbing, plus it was longer than we expected. All three hikes had been great, but I think this turned out to be a favorite.

We then had to begin our drive to Durban, where we spent our last night with Alyssa. Entering the city was a shock; it reminded us of driving into Chicago; the city is big and busy and very western looking. We were lucky to find this hip restaurant in Durban directly across from our hotel. It was lucky because, as in most of SA, you really do not want to walk around at night. We treated ourselves to a nice meal and then spent some time in a Jazz club in the basement of the same building. A great night on the town in the big city to celebrate Alyssa's last night with us. She left on an early morning flight on Friday, the 29th back to Mauritius. It had been an incredible time with her, a wonderful 16 days, after not having seen her for 6 months. She had been very excited to return to SA; she had last been here 18 months ago and it's her favorite place. We all commented on the changes being made here, especially noticeable is the reduction in the number of shacks. Though poverty, AIDs and unemployment are still a huge issue, it's promising to see the quality of life changes being made in short periods of time. Our next visit with her will most likely be when Dave and I go to visit her in a few months. We are already looking forward to that trip.

After leaving Alyssa at the airport Dave and I drove south to Warner Beach, just 30 minutes from Durban. We met up with 3 other PCVs from our NGO group. Jeff, Steph and Sophia had been there a couple of days already and we found them on the beach. It was great to catch up with them, having exchanged only SMS's and/or emails for the last 3 months. All seemed well as we got caught up with our current PC experiences, world events, and just general talk about back home. I am able to report to Steph's mom in Mequon that she looks very healthy and happy, and yes, I gave her an extra hug from you.

Relaxing on the beach with friends was great, but New Year's Eve day was an experience. The five of us piled into our car and drove the two hours or so to visit a friend of Jeff's, with whom he worked in his village. Driving to this remote rural village was amazing; Jeff knew this incredible route through the Valley of 1000 Hills. Though most of that day was raining and miserable, we had enough clarity to see terrific vistas. But meeting Jeff's friend, whom I'll call Baba, was the most incredible part of the day. Baba is 60 years young. Last year he started running, but he must not have read the manuals about how to gradually work up to running long distances. Within a few months he ran an 80 K race in KZN ; that's 50 miles!! In the hills! But that wasn't a fluke; he arises at 2:30 AM every Tuesday to run a full marathon, then does a full day's work in the fields when he gets home. Needless to say, he is in incredible shape. And just a wonderful man. We were all in awe, sitting there talking with Baba. Upon our arrival at about 2 PM, we were greeted and served a meal of chicken and rice. Then a couple of hours later we feasted on a braai of the meat we had brought with us. The hospitality shown us seemed such a great effort, though this is typical of all South Africans we have met, and made us appreciate it even more. Baba's small compound is made up of three rondavals (round huts typical of Zulu homes) that were likely built by Baba and are about the size of our SA house but without walls and with thatched roofs. This compound is in the middle of fields, with a couple of other compounds nearby, but nothing else within miles. All of the rondavals had electrical connections but none had running water or indoor toilets. Baba and his wife lived in one and Gogo lived in another. The third is the kitchen, storage, etc. While Baba's running accomplishments are amazing, knowing that he is doing it without the Green Bay Packer training camp makes it even more remarkable. Since it was pouring out, the fire was built inside the kitchen rondaval on the compound. Several family members were there, planning a big party for New Year's eve, including the 92 year old gogo. For some reason, the speakers for the party were set up in her rondaval; it was a site to see Gogo sitting silently while the dancing music blared right beside her. We kept warm by the fire until the smoke drove us outside for fresh air; then we were driven back inside by the rain. After the braai, we had to start driving back to the beach since we didn't want to be on the road on New Year's Eve night. The weather was still bad, and some of the roads weren't in great shape, so going was slow. We did get back about 8:30, a little later than we had hoped, but in time for the next meal of the day and celebrating the beginning of 2007 with the staff and other guests of the backpackers. The 'guest list' included South Africans, Australians, Canadians, and Irish, an atypically small crowd for this particular backpackers. Another braai was forced to be cooked inside due to rain, and no fireworks could be seen or heard, but we were just glad to be off the roads and dry. It was definitely an unusual celebration, but also enjoyable.

On New Year's Day Dave and I left the twenty-somethings behind at the beach and began our drive north, along the Indian Ocean coast. Our destination for the night was St Lucia Wetlands Park, also on the coast. We drove through the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Park, where we spotted zebra, giraffe, rhino, a cheetah, elephant, buffalo, warthog, wildebeest, kudu, impala and many birds. A two hour boat ride through the estuary of St Lucia gave us a glimpse of this World Heritage Site (the Drakensbergs are also one). We saw many hippos and a few crocodiles, along with some spectacular birds and a kudu or two.

The drive back to Polokwane was uneventful, but beautiful. We had driven through much of KZN and some of the Free State and Lesotho, and now through Mpumulanga where we had lived during our first two months here. Add this to the Western Cape which we had driven through three years ago when here visiting Alyssa, and then of course finishing up with Limpopo on the final leg of this trip, and we couldn't help but notice how just incredibly beautiful this country is. Much of it is hilly or mountainous, with varying landscapes that keep you from putting the camera away. We drove through spreading wheat fields, enormous sugar cane fields and pineapple country, where we stopped on the roadside and bought 8 fresh sweet pineapples for R20, less than $3. We picked up many South Africans, usually women, and gave them rides for varying distances. Most spoke English and we had some interesting conversations; some didn't speak at all, but were very thankful for the ride. Typically these women were going to town to go shopping, which might mean an hour or more taxi ride from home in the village. One woman made our day, when she told us as she got out of the car, that she would never forget us, this white couple who gave her a ride. (We know that people are always suspicious when we stop for them.) She would remember us and that day forever. It's times like this that we are reminded of two of the goals of Peace Corps: “to help promote a better understanding of the American people on the part of the peoples served” and “to promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the American people”. We couldn't have ended our first vacation on a better note.


  • Marti and Dave
    So sweet you are! Our hearts skipped a beat and we said,"aaaauuuuuhhhhh" when we read the part about being with Steph and giving her a big hug. Thank you so much for that! Sounds like you all had an amazing time and you definately deserve it. Welcome back "home", glad you are safe and the very best for 2007!!
    By the way, it is unseasonably warm in hit 50 the other day.
    Take care!!!!
    Bill and Anne Frazier

    By Anonymous The Frazier's, at 4:29 PM  

  • We are so enjoying reading about your amazing adventures there!! Everything from chicken eggs on your bed to great expanses of beautiful landscapes.... Keep up the great writing. It's all so colorful and so interesting....

    We miss you!
    Rena and Avner

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:02 PM  

  • The amazing adventures of the Fines! I just came back to finish reading this masterful essay! Marti, thanks for the wonderful 'word pictures.' And, of course, that final touching story of the woman on the road.

    Not only are you & Dave promoting understanding between cultures, you're also showing those twenty-somethings a thing or two!

    Love, Barb

    By Blogger needabike, at 10:45 PM  

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