The Great Cape Town Hunt

The sweat dripped from my brow, and my knees trembled with the pain of exhaustion as the last dusty box hit the tiled floor. Looking around at the towers of luggage, and piles of bags its hard to remember how all of this fit into the back of a VW Golf just a few months ago however, the feeling of having all of it back in one room is an overwhelming relief. It has been 2 months since we set off on our Cape Town bound adventure- yet we have lived in 3 houses. Our bodies are tired from packing, lifting, stairs, and narrow corridors, unpacking and loading. Our brains our running on fumes, from the nerve racking, and never ending house search.

When we arrived in Cape Town, it seemed fate that we were able to arrange a short-term apartment through a friend of a friend. A small studio apartment, converted from a garage, on the end of a cute little suburban house. The two other tenants were welcoming, friendly and extremely hospitable; we couldn’t believe our luck! As a Virgo, our plan was to use December as time to get to know the many areas of Cape Town. Much like Chicago, CT is comprised of a variety of little suburbs surrounding the down town area. Some areas are primarily students attending one of the many universities; others are beach-bound surfer communities, while others are entirely young families who all push their expensive strollers down the same leafy streets at the same time every day. We spent most of December narrowing down the areas we would potentially live in. The options were so vast, but we somehow still felt the need to fit ourselves into a tidy little box: Who did we want to be? Where was the best local pub? Who had restaurants we could afford to dine in. Was it close enough to friends? Work (oh wait we don’t have jobs yet…)? We spend countless nights discussing and debating where and how to pick our ideal spot to begin our new lives.

January rolled in, bringing in a few twists and turns into the plot. George was fortunate enough to receive a job offer after his 2nd interview, working as a real estate agent with Century 21. The office was stones throw from our current little studio retreat. The overall radius of our search became just a tad smaller as we focused our search on the overall area of the “southern suburbs” of CT.

It was just a few days into the New Year when our car was broken into (*to read more about this go to the footnotes J). One of the first pieces of advice we received from the locals was not to leave ANYTHING in your car; not a bag, not a hoodie, not chopstick- it will be gone by morning. We were not surprised when our car was broken into; in fact we considered it a kind of right of passage- a way to earn our Captonian badges. Coming from our tiny little Kingdom of Swaziland, where we slept with our gate wide open, and the keys in the ignition, it was only a matter of time before habit got the best of us, and something (like an empty backpack) was left laying on the backseat.

That same day we received a phone call from a friend informing us that the one other person we knew in CT had been in a terrible car accident over the weekend. His job keeps him extremely busy and always on the go, which was what he was doing while winding down one of the narrow, crowded, and always busy costal roads in the Beverly Hills area of CT known as Camps Bay, when he was knocked off his scouter by a sedan backing out of his drive way. He spent a week in IUC, in and out of surgeries to repair his crush aorta. It was a miracle that he survived and is expected to have a full recovery with a few months of rest.

Never the less, our house hunt continued. The second week in January, George began meeting landlords wishing to rent out their apartments through Century 21. One of which was charming, lofty little apartment, complete with subway tiled accents, on the 5th floor of a building just down the road from us. We wanted it! And she wanted us to have it! “Sweet”, we thought to our naive little selves… “The house hunt over”. The one loop hole in this arrangement, was the timing, as in she was not expecting to find tenants so quickly, so before she could move out, she would have to find a place to move to. So the hunt was back on, this time I rummaged through the internet for apartments fitting her requirements, setting up viewings, emailing agents – the search was going well, and her budget allowed for many suitable choices.

It was mid January when our current landlord asked us if we would be staying for the following month. I had already started decorating the new elevated apartment in my head, and once again started to pack boxes, so I said with 100% conviction “ nope, we found a place.” And viewings for our first apartment were advertised.

On the same day people were coming to check out our little studio, the landlord for the new house phoned informing us she was going to stay in her apartment a little longer, and wouldn’t be needing tenants.

It was like the climax of an action film, when the unlikely heroine leaps up, in slow motion to block the bullet from her love, screaming “nooooooooo” in that low, distorted voice. We rushed back to our studio, hoping to find our landlord standing in the driveway waving off the last of the potential new tenants. The words I wanted to hear were being whispered on the wind, “no, I just didn’t like anyone…” and then I would eagerly jump in, but not too eagerly as to look over zealous, “well… we could stay a little longer”. And then we would all drink wine, and laugh into the evening in the back garden. But, alas… this is not what happened.

We had less than 7 days to find a new apartment; back to the Internet. Staring at the same pages I had memorized by heart in the last month. Searching the listings, each day checking fewer and fewer “amenities” boxes to limit the search. I sent thousands of emails the first day. The second day I started to include a short Bio about George and Me. The third day I included a picture. As the days past, I was no longer checking any boxes of preference, including the area. We applied to studio apartments over garages. We applied to Wendy Houses in people’s back yards. We applied to suburbs I’ve never heard of before. Suburbs we knew were a bit dodgy. We applied for apartments, where the only furniture in the pictures was a plastic garden chair in the living room.

On the fourth day I started to receive a few responses for viewings, and one house was absolutely dreamy. 2 bedrooms, with a yard, open plan kitchen, dog friendly, in our budget and desired area—be still my beating heart! I knew this would be the place; it had to be (we had no choice)! We arrived at the viewing 15 minutes early- but could barely find parking. On the walk to the front door, my nerves were on edge, and when I noticed the line of people filing outside the door, waiting to get in, my heart sunk. We proceeded to the back of the line, and following the mass of people inside, 2 by 2, through the first bedroom, around the lounge, into the second bedroom, a small circle around the backyard, arriving back at the kitchen counter 2 minutes later. The landlord met us there, were she was repeating “name…. email… next” over and over again, breaking off the front of the line like chomping off the top of a slim Jim. I tried to get a few more words out of her when it was my turn, trying my best to be one of the people remembered from the massive crowd of applicants, but didn’t have much luck.

On the way home, feeling a bit glum, my email notification sounded, with an application of the house we had just seen. I was so excited and went home straight away to fill it out. After only an hour, my email notification sounded again- the apartment had been taken.

Day 5 we were getting desperate, and decided this email business was as efficient as sending the landlords a postcard. We began phoning the adverts. Newest first, some adverts less than a minute old. “Hello, I’m calling about your apartment for rent?” “Sorry” was the response, “it was just rented”. Rinse repeat.

We were running out of time, the new tenant was moving in in 2 days, and we had NOTHING. Then a friend of a friend called and said he had an open apartment, but it was a little shady. We didn’t care, anything with 4 walls would be safer then the old refrigerator box I had been eyeing in the alley. He said, he wouldn’t be able to go with us to view it, but gave us the security guards cell phone number… strange we thought. We arrived in the up-and-coming area of Woodstock-, which still has some “up” to do. For the first time since arriving to Cape Town, I felt like I was in Africa. It smelled like the busy markets of Nairobi, fish, fried chips and BO all mixed together, impregnating what should have been the fresh sea breeze not far away. There were so many people sitting on the sidewalk, I couldn’t tell who was homeless, and who was selling something, or if the homeless people were selling something. As we got out of the car, I wished our windows were more tinted, thought we should’ve invested in one of those gorilla locks for the steering wheels.

We found the security guard, and with Congolese French accent, we were able to explain to him our situation, and he agreed to show us the apartment. The climb up the stairs was long, mostly because I was trying to decipher the graphti on the walls. Was it the hipster urban art that is common in up and coming areas? Or was it the territory markings of a drug lord? As we stepped off the top step, we were left on a large shared balcony on the second story, directly over the road. Not the yard we were hoping for, but maybe a few pot plants could help? The security guard knocked on the front door, and it slowly creaked open- that’s when we noticed there wasn’t a door handle. They spook for a few moments, and then he waved us inside. My first impression was of the old Chicago apartments I use to rent, creaky wooden floors, and small rooms divided oddly, but with a certain old world charm. As we entered the long hallway to the back of the apartment, we stopped at a door that was slightly ajar. One small push, and it opened enough to see 7 pairs of dirty feet laying on a mattress on the floor, all in a row. “Ah yes, the bedroom.” I thought to myself, “must have a nice closet for all those people.” I pondered trying to make myself feel better. The hallway was long, and every so often someone would come from the shadows and pass by, making me feel like I was in some crowded back alley bar. The end of the hall was the bathroom, which I assumed at some point had white tiles, floor to ceiling, but have not become a marbleized brown/grey. I leaned in to get a better look, but the security guard reached out his hand to stop me, and then pointed down, “mind the hole,” He mumbled. I failed to notice the gaping hole in the floor, which had been filled with rubbish- I couldn’t think of a positive spin on that amenity. The kitchen was the last room, but George made such a quick turn out of the room, and past me I barely saw anything past the corner of the door. Only a long enough glimpse to get an overwhelming sense of brown, in colour and smell, leaving us with a heavy sensation of cooking oil lingering on our skin and sinking into our pours. I hastily followed George and the security guard out of the apartment, squeezing past crowds of people as we went. I’m not sure if we said anything as we crossed the balcony, or went down the stairs, and dashed across the road to the car. As the doors slammed shut, I had an overwhelming desire to dip myself into a mixture of hand sanitizer and bleach, but I was still trying to find a positive—this was our only option.

We went home in silence, slept on it and woke up to our last day with an apartment to sleep in. I decided to reach out to the few remaining contacts we had met during our stay in Cape Town, most of which were our friend Matthews work mates. It is remarkable to me the kindness complete strangers can show others, within my first email we were offered to share a studio apartment with a friend of a friend we had only met once. By the next day, we were moving in.

Our stay with Tamara was amazing, even though we were sharing extremely close quarters. We continued our house hunt, and had a few plan b’s for the end of the month. But our sprits were lowered by the experiences our last few promising options had bestowed upon us.

Then out of nowhere I received an email. At some point during this mad hunt, I created an advertisement for a “young married couple, seeking apartment”. I had completely forgotten about it, but here, on this random day I received an email offering an apartment. I nearly fell out of my chair, jumped up and down and screamed at the same time. The pictures were amazing; the landlords sounded just like us! By the next day we were on our way to view the flat. After a short tour, the landlord turned to us and asked “where would you like us to fit these cupboards?” I about fell on my back! No other questions were asked, no applications, no lines of people, we were going to get this apartment! And 2 days later we were moving again, to our new little house.

It’s been a month in the new apartment, and for the first time in Cape Town we are completely unpacked. The new apartment is just big enough for the two of us, and the little personal effects we were able to pack into the Golf when we left Swaziland. We have even started a small garden in our tiny front courtyard. It has been an adventure of note, but through it all, we have made life long friends and with their help have found our way home.

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**Unemployment in CT is at an all time high, not to mention a bit of left over segregation from apartheid- which is a very relevant topic with the locals. There are thousands of unemployed communities of people here, mostly in the coloured community (“coloured” is a race category here, and not at all an offensive term as it is in the USA. It simply means mixed race). This community in particular was not a factor during the “clean up” after apartheid, and was for a large part forgotten about- leaving them to fend for themselves. They have set up squatter camps, or informal settlements, all over the cape- some of them housing 3 million residents (this is 3x the population of the entire country of Swaziland btw). There was nothing the police could do, and nothing we could do either, so the window was fixed and we cared on.

dips (never posted blog)

2.28.12

I was startled awake by Trixie licking my my face. The warm doggie breath was a shock to my senses, and pulled me from my sleep. I roll over, nearly falling off the couch, and gave Trixie a good scratch behind her ears- she immediately drops to her back, with all four legs wiggling in the air, offering me her belly- it makes me laugh. I hear movement in the kitchen; the boys are awake. I follow the smell of fresh coffee into the next room, and join the small crowd. Everyone is buzzing, preparing for work, making breakfast, fighting for the last few clean dishes. This place reminds me of home, of being with my friends in the states, I feel like myself here; I am not ready to go.

I’m heading back to my homestead after 3 days with my friends in the city- I’m not prepared to go back to the silence yet; to the empty hours of my weekdays. I have a line graph hanging on the wall of my hut that shows the average PCV morale throughout their service- a sharp line with deep dips and high peaks. Months 10-12 are a dip- and I’m in it.

Ever since I came home from my vacation in Mozambique I have been fighting to return to my optimistic, productive state but the bundu is making it difficult for me. My work partners at the clinic are gone, teachers at the schools have left to find better schools, the kagogo centers have locked their gates, my homestead is empty without Bulanda who is now in Zambia and Hacheema who stays in Siteki during the week. I am often alone, and can’t find motivation beyond watching entire seasons of ‘Dexter’ in my hut.

The Peace Corps is hard. Its hard in ways you don’t really think about when your in the states. Bucket baths, spotty electricity, ridiculous transportation- those are insignificant bumps in the road I don’t even consider anymore. The Peace Corps is like being unemployed, but you can’t find a job, and you don’t speak the language anyway, your painted purple, have 3 eyes, and wear a clown suit (because apparently you are very funny- all the time), your unemployment check never came, and you can survive on only plastic cheese and moldy bread, everyone around you has the mentality of a 3-year old “what’s that? What’s that?”, you live in a glass box- or at the zoo where you are the main attraction, and your starting to think you have narcolepsy because everyone else thinks you sleep all the time (even when you are clearly awake in your house). You have good days that are amazing. The kind of days where you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, and you want to shout “THIS is why I’m here!” You have days when you think to yourself, “how did I get here??”. And you have lots of days when you just ponder, “well this is more interesting than a cubicle…”

I know this is just a temporary state of mind… the graph supports my theory and I know myself well enough to know that I can stay in a lull for long. I am grateful for my skills as a graphic designer- who knew it would be so handy in a 3rd world country? I spend a lot of time making logos, business cards, flyers, brochures and websites for friends who own businesses. I may not be saving the world, but it makes me feel productive. It makes me feel good that I am helping people build their businesses and I have been able to bring in local people from my community to help with the web codding too.

Honestly I think the hardest part of the Peace Corps is getting over the idea that you are going to save the world. The process from application to invitation is long, and then when you arrive in country you spend 3 months learning skills so you can go out and conquer anything. The reality is you will do lots of little things that will ripple into change; and it will probably be a little change. You will talk to someone at the bus rank, or teach someone something new about HIV, tell someone something about life in the states, talk to someone in the states about living in rural Swaziland (or write to 300+ random people subscribed to your blog), encourage someone to get tested for HIV, help someone start a business, teach someone how to create a business plan or just teach a young group of guys the lyrics to your favorite lil Wayne song. The change part is subjective, and small– it takes some time to convince yourself that these ripples are what your here for.

My blog helps. Knowing that so many people are interested in my life (sorry this one is a little ranty and depressing), helps me get through some days. People I have never met, read this and email me that they are proud of what I’m doing. Its crazy, and awesome. I received a random email the other day from a guy in New Zealand that is writing a book about a NZ settler that lived in Siteki. He stumbled across my blog about the history of Siteki and wondered if I could help him collect information for his new book. It’s things like this that keep me going. Thank you all for your support, warm wishes and encouragement. It’s true what they say, the Peace Corps is the hardest job you will ever love- and knowing I have friends here and at home helps me through the dips. :)

11.7.13

 

A line of baby chicks cross my path, scurrying behind their mother. The parking lot is littered with cars, parked anywhere a vehicle can park; on the sidewalk, in the grass, half-way up hills. We wind our way between them like a maze, toward the underpass of the building. Every patch of shade is cluttered with people sitting on the muddy, dirty ground. Some people look like they have been here for days, propping themselves up with tired hands, or giving up completely, stretched out on the pavement napping in any hope of shelter from the blaring sun. we enter the first block of the building and the stinging aroma of old urine hits me like a backhand to my senses. The signs are confusing. We turn down one hallway and end up outside, along an open air corridor filled with people sitting along each side. They watch us like walk in our quick-step like entertainment they have waited all afternoon to arrive. Its strangely quiet, and our footsteps echo on the cool, cracked tiles beneath our feet.

 

We are wandering, and i’m concentrating hard to not touch railings, walls or anything my fingers may unintentionally linger on. George asks someone who may have worked there, where ward 18 was located, and she kindly directs us with little words, just a hand motion that suggests straight until a bend to the left and then possibly in the area directly over our heads. She tries to shake Georges hand, but George politely pulls away and gives her two phantom pats on her back. We speed off in the direction to which she indicated.

 

Ascending a long steep ramp to the second level. Whats left of the ceiling is stained with brown water marks. The brightly painted walls is peeling to such a degree to looks like the whole wall is covered in a colorful fringe; one gust of wind through this hallway could send the entire wall to dust. Someone has tried to paint a uplifting, childlike mural along the wall, no doubt to indicate the direction of the pediatric ward, but the paint dulls in the dim light, and the state of the rest of the wall, creating the feeling like we are walking down a dark alleyway in a bad part of town. I can’t stop staring at the ceiling as we continuing ascending up this never ending ramp. I wondering how old this hospital is, and can’t help thinking this collapsing ceiling is made completely of abestise, a once common mineral mined in Swaziland; although no longer used for construction, can still often be found in standing buildings throughout the country.

 

We pass a sign for operating theaters, and I glance down the narrow hallway. The ceiling is hanging low, and covered with the same brown spots. The wing is reeking from the bleach, in a poor attempt to disguise the gaping potholes in the tiles on the floor. We reach another outdoor corridor, connecting two wings of the building, again lined with people camping in the shade with expressionless faces. A sign directly in front of us reads “WARD 18 -WOMANS WARD”. For the first time I realize this is going to be one big room. The thought hits me, and I immediately am bewildered why George’s mother has come here and not to the nice clinic down the road.

 

Approaching the two parlor doors to the ward, I can see metal bars, and pink sheets hanging around each bed, of which, there are at least two dozen. There is no one at the door, and we linger for a moment before we open, breathing against the tiny glass windows searching for something familiar. I’m half hoping this isn’t the room. It can’t be. We enter and take a few unsure steps, George is scooping the room looking for any sign of someone coming to stop us, as I try not to make direct eye contact with anyone. I feel like I am invading at least 40 people’s privacy, especially the woman in the second bed, closest to the window who is sleeping upright, with not a stitch of clothing on her body, aside from the scarf wrapped loosely around her head.

 

Luckily Georges mother is in the second row, first bed by the main aisle. I am happy to see her face resting peacefully, and estactic that we do not have to venture further into this sea of strangers, searching their weak and tired faces. George gives her a gentle shake on her shoulder, and stands over her until she opens her eyes. “hi mom.” he says. I want to hug her, and steal her away from this place. He doesn’t seemed phased, and I am traumatized.

 

We chat for a while, she should be going home tomorrow. Her diabetes has been uneasy as of late, and the weekend festivities of a retaliative Lobola ( the cultural tradition of deciding a new brides price with the grooms family, which is usually proceeded by a party something similar to an engagement party, meets a BBQ), sent her blood sugar sky rocketing. The Taiwanese doctor attending to the female ward, refuses to discharge her until her levels stabilize. Her spirits are high, as they always are, and she begs us to bring her something edible for lunch. Hospital food is a universal desperatity, so we don’t waste time making a plan to smuggle her a nice take-away from our favorite restaurant. We laugh as George coughs and I sneeze, and she asks for a phone number for a casket maker. I’ve never quite understood the dark swazi humor, but looking at the 3 of us in our separate ill states, we could take bets on who would need it first. I have grown very fond of George’s mom; she is strong willed, but kind natured. Evident by the immensity of friends she had made with all the staff and patients in Ward 18. She reminds me daily at the school that she runs, and where I work, of her kindness with her endless involvement in every child’s life and concern for their well being. This is a commonality that both of our mothers share.

 

As we leave, George says “don’t ever take me here…” I burst out a quick, “ummm… yeah… me either.” I realize at that moment, that George isn’t as comfortable as I thought about his mother being at the government hospital, and i’m relieved, but curious. Before I can ask, he explains, “ at least she is only paying 10 Emalageni a night, the private hospitals charge a couple grand a night.” it suddenly all makes sense, although I would still prefer to go to a private health care clinic , especially in Swaziland, I am reminded of several moments in my own life, living in the USA, where an option of government health care could have saved me thousands of dollars.

 

The more I thought about it, the more this somewhat traumatizing visit to the government hospital had me concerned, I was actually jealous. I thought about the sea of faces I passed, in the open-air corridor. People that had no doubt traveled great distances to come seek health care. People that probably used their last, worn out bills in their wallets to get to the hospital. Maybe they don’t have running water. Maybe they don’t have electricity. Maybe some of them live in a house built with mud-bricks and sticks. Then my thoughts turn to writing this blog, as I sit here typing now. I think about my friends and family and how they must have been worried by the end of paragraph one, what if something were to happen to me? Where would I go? Its ironic really, that in the states I rarely had health care. I made over $40,000 a year, plus benefits, and I still couldn’t afford a trip to the doctor, let alone the emergency room stateside. Not to get into a political rant about universal healthcare, but after living here, and seeing how a government hospital can help the mass majority, despite insurance benefits or community standing; it amazes me that a 3rd world country, such as Swaziland, can care for its people better, and with more options then a country as rich and powerful as the United States. Something worth pondering don’t you think?

a journey to Cape Town…

12.30.14

Its Friday afternoon, and my leg is endlessly bouncing as I sit waiting in anticipation. Glancing out of the lounge window I can see the red VW Golf, sagging with the weight of our life, which has been packed and stuffed with our belongings in every available crevice. I look at the clock for the millionth time in the last 60 seconds, its nearly noon; our cut off time for being at the border. The second hand of the clock is moving so slowly I wonder if the clock may be broken, I stop myself from checking the battery. George should be back soon, hopefully with the final paperwork we will need to start our lives in South Africa. I part the lace curtain and stare at the gate, willing it to open so our journey can begin. Then the phone rings, George is coming home, but there were delays at the government offices, of course, we will have to wait until Monday to leave for Cape Town.

The weekend drags. We are fugitives, waiting for our release. In hiding from our friends and family; we had already said our goodbyes and don’t want to give reason for anyone to doubt our intentions of going. Cape Town will not be a “Swazi plan”. We stay inside, willing ourselves to sleep until Monday morning comes.

Monday morning is like de ja vu. I sit on the couch bouncing my leg, staring at the gate, waiting for George to return home. My fingernails are nubs, and my heart feels like it’s trying to escape through my chest. I am about to start walking to the border, if only to release some energy, when George returns. “Its time to go” he says, the words drifting through the air like perfume.

The drive to the Swaziland/South Africa border seems longer then usual, but they are playing our song on the radio. Our smiles are infectious, and for some reason we can’t stop high-fiving ourselves—something we have never done before. High-five for the song on the radio. High-five for the impressive packing that is nearly overflowing into the front seat. High-five for the sign that says 10km to the border.

Our energy continues past the border and a few hours into South Africa. Every song on the radio seems to be our favorite song we have never heard before. We dance and do our best to sing along to the words. Then without warning, the radio began to fuzz, and we lost our station. The “red rocket”, as we were now calling the VW Golf was imported from Asia, and only had a few low frequency stations, and we had just lost the only station we could get. But the sun was shinning, and my hand is surfing the wind passing outside my window. We pass small towns and farmland stretching out in front of us in every direction. There is a storm in our review mirror, that can’t seem to catch us. Whenever we stop for a moment, the rain trickles on our windscreen briefly, and then we are off again. Its like the rain clouds are chasing us south, encouraging us to head toward the sunlight.

By the time we get to Bloemfontein, the halfway mark, we are exhausted. Lack of radio has left us like zombies, and we tried desperately to fill the vacant, hollow noise inside the car with noise. When conversation grew restless, we tried the knobs on the radio, eventually arriving at merely one static station, some news broadcast in Lesotho, a language neither of us can understand. We are only halfway to our destination, and already I feel my backside forming to the hard bucket seats. We have traveled 8 hours, and my eyes are burning from watching passing headlights on this endless stretch of highway. Our bodies sag with the need for a recharge, but our brains are too excited for sleep, they are urging us to keep going, just a little further- striving to get us to the city at day break. We pull over for coffee; maybe some caffeine will clear our heads enough to make a proper plan.

We decide not to tempt fate, we must get a few hours of sleep before we carry on. Our budget is nearly non-existent, and we decide R350 will be a nice meal in Cape Town tomorrow, so why waste it on a hotel? We are adventure seekers on a mission, we will do what any seasoned road tripper would do and sleep in the car, and so we park in the back of the petrol station off the freeway. Our seats refuse to recline against the piles of luggage in the backseat. We try slouching down, using towels that wouldn’t fit into bags as pillows. Three minutes later our backs are complaining so we try extending our feet onto the dashboard. George’s legs go across to my side of the car; my legs are draped over his. His knee keeps turning on the radio filling the car with endless meaningless chatter, and I can’t stop laughing. We struggle on, tying our limbs into knots, I’m on sure if we will be able to untie ourselves in the morning. When we get situated enough, a car parks next to us, releasing several loud children who for some reason feel the need to inform everyone in a 10km radius about their bladder issues. They stay next to us for longer then we could handle, with no apparent agenda other then to keep us awake. We start the car and move to another area of the parking lot and retie ourselves into some kind of tortured comfort.

Fifteen minutes later the car starts again, and we are back on the road, failing to find any kind of peace. The road is straight as an arrow, and drenched in complete darkness. The one lane highway is torture on our struggle to keep going. One moment we are full speed ahead, then the taillights in front of us grow larger requiring us to brake to meet the speed of the semi truck in front of us. We count the headlights passing, praying for a break and then press the gas petal full force again. This game carries on, until 2 headlights become four, and we compromise with our weary brains for rest, pulling over on the side of the dusty highway.

I was startled awake by the key turning the ignition. The sun is slowly creeping over the stark, flat horizon in the distance casting a beautiful sepia hue over the landscape. Some time in the night, we had made it to what would be our last stretch of the journey, crossing the Karoo Dessert. It would take another 8 hours of driving before we reached the mountains that shelter Cape Town on its northern border. The dessert naked with beauty and only covered by a thick blanket of white puffy clouds that draped low over the hills in the distance. As we drove closer to the mountains that had been teasing us for hours the clouds lifted to the peaks, and hung there, as if there was a cloud making machine, spewing out fresh cotton puffs from the top. When we reached the main string of mountains, and passed through two large peaks, the white clouds that were billowing over the cliffs on the northern side, turned grey and dark with rain into the southern skies. These clouds didn’t break for several hours, but only seem to sink lower and lower to the ground, until we were completely surrounded by an eerie fog, and then without warning we escaped through the wall, like traveling through a worm hole to another galaxy.

The landscape is different now, green, lush bushes are creeping closer to the road. The red mountains have turned grey, and are jetting up from the ground all around us. The road becomes windy, and the clouds have regained their rightful place in the blue sky, high above us. There are vineyards appearing in the distance, and we are certain with each new bend in the road, the skyline of Cape Town may appear.

The road widens, and traffic appears from seemingly nowhere. We begin the dance of large city highways everywhere, bobbing and weaving, merging and passing. Taking spaghetti weaved exits, and on-ramps. GPS is set to our new apartment in the southern suburbs, and after nearly 16 hours in the car, we are confident in our navigation skills—and it’s a good thing because our phone GPS died as we entered the city.

When we arrive on our little street, the house numbers are not in order, and we struggle to find our front door. The houses are small, and stacked on top of each other like little dollhouses packaged together on a shelf at the toy store. There are huge trees shading the fresh tar road, and we can hear people busy in their tiny yards busy with projects, hiding behind tall privacy fences. We locate number 45 in between 37 and 50, we find no one is home; the time to explore is now.

Just around the corner is the main road of Kenilworth, lined with a shopping center, a few franchise restaurants, clinics, vets, and lines of cars. Overwhelmed from our journey, our bodies ached with discomfort from our now outstretched legs, as if they have forgotten how to do this thing called walking. We find a small bar with a beer garden, and decide it would be a good place to waste some time. The beer is cold, and has never quenched our thirst this well before—they must make it differently in CT we think to ourselves.

Later that evening, we surprise ourselves with a second wind. Our small apartment is taking shape with a few items from home, and now we want to see what CT has to offer. Our dear friends Matthew and Franco come to pick us up. Entering Franco’s KIA Rio was like entering into a racecar, or a space shuttle, or a death trap. The gas was heavy, the brakes were heavy, the spaces were too narrow, my heart was in my throat, and all 10 of my fingers were tightly gripped around the headrest in front of me. Matthew is talking so fast, he might as well be speaking Chinese, and all my brain is left to register is the blurred lights passing outside my window. I try to catch a few signs along the racetrack, to gain some reference to where I am in the world, but fail. We are suddenly off the highway and onto a narrow street meant for 2 lanes, but with a string of cars parked along each side, we are constantly dodging oncoming traffic and pedestrians. There are so many people on the street! For a moment, I forget that there are usually many people in a big city, but my Swazi brain cannot compute this at the moment. The ocean is beautiful, when I can catch a glimpse, or focus on anything but the loud, booming music coming from the speakers, as Matthew plays DJ with the volume knob to the beat. We take a shape right turn, causing all people, and lights to disappear in an instant. It takes me a moment to adjust, we are parked, and we are alive.

Our first meal is at the Waterfront, on the Wharf. With the Ferris wheel glowing in the background, I feel as if I am on Navy Pier in Chicago for a moment. Time is moving in and out, and once I am finished eating, an overwhelming desire to sleep is upon me.

For the next few days the four of us tour Cape Town in Franco’s space ship. Time slows down and I spend every car trip re-associating myself with this massive city. For some reason CT is nothing like I pictured it. Possibly because I have always under estimated anything “city like” in Africa. What has been described to me as urban before, has never come close to matching my own experiences—but this city has left me eating my words. I come home, laying down new roads traveled on my map, connecting dots, and putting together the many neighborhoods like a giant puzzle.

The first few days I am like a tourist, taking it all in, taking pictures and marveling in the amazing mix of international food options. Cape town is the most beautiful city I have ever been to. Flanked by the Atlantic and the Indian ocean and a plethora of bays, there is no shortage of beaches or scenery. Table Mountain sits in the center of the city, like a compass. Signal Hill (on the northern back of Table Mountain) faces towards the north, and leads us home every night to our small valley in the Southern Suburbs. Lions Head sits prominently on the southern side of mountain, facing the ocean. Below it sits the posh, wealthy area of Clifton and Camps bay, lining the cliffs above the ocean with multi-million dollar homes.

Traveling east on this costly road, along the 12 apostles mountain range leads you to Hout Bay, an amazing little fishing area, now home to many artistic dwellers. They have craft market every Sunday with some of the best food, wine and craft beers I have ever tasted. Along this bay there is also fishing port where fresh fish and seafood can be bought, while casually observing the many seals that hang around begging like dogs for the scraps.

A bit further down the road is the southern peninsula, which has quickly become one of our favorite spots in Cape Town. Muzienburg sits on a quiet bay, and is always littered with surfers of every kind. The white sand beach stretches on for miles, and is dotted with colorful lines of beach chalets from the early 1920’s. The surfer vibe fills the air with a kind of carelessness peace that is contagious.

If you follow this bay north, across from Muzienburg the charming beach towns continue. This coastal road walled on one side by a steep mountain that extends higher then visible from a car window, and leaves you wishing for more ground on the other side with a steep drop to the crashing waves of the ocean below. The road eventually parts with the seaside, and begins to wind through the mountains, giving way to green pastures and vineyards. Wine country is all around us. Vineyard after vineyard with wine tasting and tours at every corner.

Its now just shy of a month in city and already it feels like home. We have spent everyday exploring a new area, and then going back for seconds or thirds. There are surprises everyday, and we have been left trying to figure out which aspect of our personality to call on to fit with an area to live in next month. It will be a difficult choice, but I am certain there can be no wrong answer. Today George started his new job, as a real estate agent. We have been joined at the hip for nearly a month straight, living in a small square box, and exploring in a small hatchback. Watching him walk out the door today, I was torn; happy that our new beginning is really starting now, and a little sad that I won’t have anyone to high-five today. Change is good. In fact if this adventure has taught me anything its that sometimes a little crazy is good- for we have been rewarded on every step of our journey this far, and I know that the good luck will continue through 2015 and beyond.

wedding drums: my swazi teka

5.4.14

 

There is a large cliff at Mantegna Falls, a steep and rocky climb. My fingers barely grip in each small crevice, and my toes cling to every small overhang as I pull my body up the face of massive rock. At the top, I am too out of breath and too dizzy from the steep drop to remember why I have put forth so much effort. I only pause for a moment to take in the grand view of mountains divided by this river pushing through between the rocks, and the top of all of these old trees staring up at me. The waterfall is just to the right, sill towering over me, blessing me with mist as it falls 20 meters below. Its urgency to continue on its broken path is loud, and distracts my thoughts of the task at hand. I step out to on the ledge; shaking as a few small pebbles roll past my white knuckled toes and tumble down, vanishing into the cloud of mist. There is no turning back, for there is no other way to get down off this ledge but to jump. Every second spent looking into the depths below make it 100 times more difficult to rationalize this daring fete. Eyes closed tight, lips pressed tightly together as if not to let a word of good reason to slip out. I push off the rock until there is nothing but air and drops of mist pushing back at the souls of my feet. I am suspended for what feels like hours, feeling heavy as I fall, feeling as if I will never reach the pool of water that awaits me. Screams cannot escape my lips. There is no time for fear, only to fall. When I finally hit the water, it is like hitting a brick wall, but the sensation is euphoric. Blissful happiness and relief fight through feelings of exhaustion and terrifying apprehension. This mix of emotion, this level of complete and utter exhaustion, is how I can best describe the weekend of my Teka.

 

Preparations have been made for months. It has all been a checklist of things to do and things to bring to our rural homestead in Mankayane. We have made endless trips to the far west side of Swaziland, winding around mountains, and through forests, down a long and rocky gravel road to the homestead of George’s deceased uncle. This homestead has become our second home in recent months, an hour away from the lights, and busy roads of Mbabane, where cellphone reception happily disappears for a few hours. As we make our way there, on the way to my teka, the air in the mountain seems thinner. My fingernails are feeling the gravity of my nerves, and the dust in my lungs won’t settle, making me forget to breath. What normally feels like a long drive is passing in seconds today; and within one long blink we are entering the long grassy driveway of the homestead.

 

The yard is busy with people; although it is still afternoon and the festivities do not begin until the early hours of morning. We unload our supplies, build a fire and wait as more and more people arrive. I felt like a statue watching the fire, as people shift and move around me, the clock completing it’s circles in fast forward. There was no sleeping, my eyes were too nervous to blink. By 2am, I was forced to retire, as tradition with the teka requires an early morning rising. Although with a true teka, the bride-to-be in completely unaware of the events in store, and the wake up in the morning is suppose to take you by surprise; my suspense of knowing, but waiting is far worse. I lay in bed, listening to the bustle outside my door for what seemed like eternity. Fighting between wishful thoughts of them to just begin already, and longing for sleep to come so I can postpone the events for just a little while longer.

 

I lay there for hours, staring at the corrugated iron ceiling, until finally I heard the words that would set the teka in motion, like a gun firing to begin a marathon. The pounding on the door was almost mistaken for the beats of my heart, that I thought would certainly leap from my chest. Three people entered the small room and grabbed me from my bed. A crowd was outside signing traditional teka songs. They wrapped a heavy, black terry-cloth skirt around my waist, removed my shirt so I was left with only a sports-bra to cover my nakedness as I was marched out into the cold winter night. I followed a procession of woman to a make-shift kraal which was thankfully empty of cows. They placed me in the middle of their circle, and gave me a spear to hold. This spear would represent my eternal marriage to George; if he were to die before me, I would be able to fend for myself, and these same women would come to me upon his death and shave my head with this very spear to mourn his passing; I am bound to this spear for the day as I am bound to George in life. I stand gripping the shaft tightly, fighting the cold, and the confusion of people surrounding me, who are signing loudly. I am supposed to cry now, but nerves stunt the tears. George’s sisters, to encourage the tears, sling a few words in my direction– it is their sole duty to make me cry until sunrise. I must shed tears to mourn the family I am leaving behind and to honor the family I am joining. It is also a test, as is the entire ceremony, of how great my love is for their brother- how much can I take from them willingly, before I give up and if I give up, the test has been failed and I am not worthy of him.

 

I laugh to hid my feelings, knowing that George’s family isn’t one to purposely hurt anyone without cause- I am failing to take them seriously. I try and fake cry as George’s mom had instructed me. I close my eyes tight, and block out the many voices circling the air. I think of everything that has ever made me sad: Sally Fields screaming in the graveyard in the movie Steel Magnolias. The dog Hackio waiting for his dead owner to get off the train. My family at home who I haven’t seen in over two years. Letters from my Grandmother about birds and the weather. Then without warning, something happened, tears began to roll down my cheeks. Their cold, wet trail caught me by surprise, but their flow was unstoppable. I looked up at the early morning sky, which was unbelievably bright and full of stars. Little puffs of white breath floated above the heads of those around me as they sang, creating one large smoke ring above our heads, with myself in the center. It was beautiful. I cried at its beauty. I cried feeling tiny under this massive sky of spot lit stars and planets looking down at me. I cried until their was no sound; the sobbing escaping from the depths of my belly were canceled by the voices joint in song, and the songs were muffled by the waves of my heaving cries. Although I was standing among a crowd, I felt alone; but not abandoned. I felt as if I was watching everything from above- seeing my body among these people, on this homestead. Watching the men by the braai peek around the corner- stealing glances at the ceremony. Seeing glimpses of George’s parents walking by, holding back cries of their own for me. Watching the women sing and dance in unison. Feeling the neighbors smile in their beds in their own homes, knowing that a special union was taking place today. It was a strange sensation. I felt the love and warmth of those around me. I felt the guidance of loved ones I have lost in my life. It was a truly spiritual experience; a graditude of which I have never experienced in my lifetime.

 

For 3 hours I cried, but time didn’t feel like seconds, minutes or hours… just space. Every few songs, one of the woman in the group would stop their singing and make crying sounds for me, so I could take a break. The auntie leading the ceremony would nudge me and say, “hey, don’t cry now. When someone cries for you, you must rest.” But the tears wouldn’t listen, they just kept coming. I would sob quietly and watch the mesmerizing shuffle of the girl with the sequence mustaches on her shoes, waiting for the next opportunity to release. It was a very transcending experience. I felt closer to God somehow. I felt lighter. I felt as if my Grandmother was there guiding me, and encouraging me—she would’ve been so intrigued by this adventerous life I am living.

 

The sun rose from behind the mountain, and warmed my tear-streaked face. I felt so happy. Happy this part- the part I had dreaded the most- was over, but also just happy. When George’s parents are satisfied with my mourning and it was time to leave the kraal, the Ngozolo, who represents George’s family, runs to the gate, chasing the woman away with a branch. The women scatter like livestock, and I run as well. I’m confused, tired and light headed but I run in every direction my feet will carry me, like a chicken just let out of cage. He catches me and I push him away, unsure if I am suppose to be caught. He grabs me again and whispers in my ear, “It’s ok, come with me.” I am still trying to catch my breath from the running, and convince my lungs to slow their convulsions from my crying as he calms me down, leading me to a far corner of the homestead with the other woman, where we sit on reed mats and make a fire.

 

I’m left with these woman for a few hours, warming ourselves from the cold of the early morning by the fire. They bring tea and bread, and then boil water for bathing. We take turns washing in a bucket, preparing for the introduction to the elders.

 

The night before, George’s mom, whom I adore greatly, told me she was no longer my friend during this ceremony. Her role is to dislike me, and show all those around us that I am not worthy of her son. As she walked toward the small group of woman sitting in the corner, with 2 Bogogo (grandmothers), I could see her sympathy lingering in her eyes, and a small smirk on her face that screamed to me, without words, of her pride in me. It was hard to play my role of submissive mourner as she approached, her presence alone warmed my heart, and I had to hold myself back from leaping from my seat and wrapping my arms around her in embrace.

 

I sat quietly as the elders talked to the group of us in SiSwati, and tried desperately to train my ears to understand the words. They passed around a pitcher of Umcombotsi (traditional homemade wine) and Mahewu (fermented pourage), which we shared as they talked about why I was brought to this homestead, what my intentions were, and why I thought I was good enough to be here. The conversation, although very important, was short and warm in question and the responses given by the woman next to me.

 

It was a short time later that I was instructed to stand; a welcome task, as my back was burning in pain from sitting in the Swazi traditional way with legs stretched in front, and hands folded in my lap. We stood in a line, with myself leading, head down, walking slowing like a captive in a chain gang. The woman sang behind me, gathering the chaos of people in the homestead as they stopped and watch the procession return to the kraal. We did not enter this time, only stood by the gate, with the woman to my back as they sang, and I bowed my head, holding my spear. George’s niece, Jade, had been chosen by his family to be my Inhlanti, which is a child that is given to the new couple to help them in their new life together, in Swazi culture we become this child’s second parents. Children in Swaziland are very important in the roles and responsibilities of the home, helping with the cleaning, cooking etc; traditionally this child would be sent to live with us to lessen the burdens of our daily lives. Jade is sitting nearby, playing with a blade of grass, confused by the day’s events, and I can see she is longing to come a stand by me. She has always been my shadow, since my arrival in Swaziland. She gets her opportunity when the Ngozolo comes running back to the group of woman, and chases us away. I grab my Inhlanti’s tiny little hand and we run to the gate of the homestead. We run, as they chase us, until George’s mother screams “BUYA!” (come back) when we have run far enough. This is my official acceptance by his family, and the first words George’s mother has spoken to me. They have allowed me to stay, but my test is not over.

 

I am ushered back to the homestead by a mighty sea of people, and made to sit on another reed mat in the dusty yard in front of the house- the first time I have been allowed in the main areas of the homestead. I sit with Jade who is confused, and staring at me with big wondering eyes, as a hundred eyes and camera phones stare back at us above. A Gogo comes to us with Libovu (red mud) in an old beer tin that has been cut in half, and begins to paint my face. One quick mark on my forehead, each check, nose, chin, each shoulder, inner elbow and one on the top of each foot. Then the tin is handed to me to paint jade in the same manner. This mud is made from the red African soil of Swaziland, shared by the soles of all Swazi’s including my family, who is being represented by the family I stayed with when I first came to this little Kingdom as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The soil is sacred and shared, and as I paint it on George’s niece, our families are also shared together.

 

We are then led into the house where we again sit on another reed mat. Legs stretched, back paining, and a never-ending crowd of people entering and exiting the house around me, taking pictures of our freshly painted faces. After a while, the Ngozolo enters holding a large white goat by the horns, a gift to the teka by his father, George’s uncle. The goat will be slaughtered in our honor, although I am not allowed to eat it. The head will be eaten by George, which is a great honor reserved for dignified members of his family- today he becomes a man in the eyes of his community and the men of his family. The forehead of the goat will be skinned and made into a bracelet that represents my wedding ring. It is cut and twisted onto my wrist and then covered by a handkerchief that is tied tightly on top, until the fresh leather hardens. In a month I will be allowed to cut through the leather and remove it, until another traditional event of importance arises. The meat will be delivered to my family in Tikuba on Sunday, as a gift in return for the Lobola (dowery) that was paid to them, in return for the bride they have provided (me). Because my true family is an ocean away, my Tikuba family will be offered 1 pregnant cow for representing my family during the teka ceremony, the remainder of my Lobola, 14 cows will be paid to my father in the USA, but will remain in Swaziland on our homestead.

 

The waiting continues inside the house. Michelle (George’s sister) comes to visit with me, which is a welcome distraction. She brings me food, the first meal I’ve eaten in 48 hours. She keeps me awake with conversation, and finds excuses for me to escape and have a few seconds for myself outside of the small, crowded room. When the goat is slaughtered and divided, it is time to fetch water for the men who will be cooking the honorary parts. A large crowd of women gather inside the house, and out– singing me to the car that will bring us to the river that flows 3 km’s away. I am so thrilled that we are cheating, instead of walking the long distance. As I get into the car, ready to escape, for just a moment to anywhere outside the homestead, the auntie’s face appears through the tinted glass of the truck. The Ngozolo is by her side, carrying a thick, freshly fired hunk of meat. I my rumbling stomach screams in excitement for just a split second until I remember where I am, and this meat is most likely not meant to cure my hunger. I am instructed to take a bite, chew and spit out. The goat’s heart is tough like taffy, and tastes of iron. I do it quickly like ripping off a Band-Aid,  but the taste remains. This goat is a gift to me directly, and the heart is the most sacred part. I am not allowed to eat the goat because it is mine, but no one else may eat the heart. My quick taste is my acceptance of this gift, and my understanding of its cultural significance.

 

The back of the truck is standing room only, as we drive slowly down the rocky gravel road. Songs echo off the surrounding mountains as we pass, alerting the entire community that a teka has and is taking place. We arrive at the river and I am given soap to wash myself and Jade as the crowd looks on, never ceasing their song. When I am clean, I am undressed, and adorned with a new dress, Sidziya, a traditional outfit of the bomake (mothers) in the rural areas, and includes a Liduku, a small piece of matching fabric that covers my hair. I am now a Make, a wife, and most wear this Liduku and a skirt whenever I enter a Swazi homestead- a way to show my ranking to other community members wherever I may be in Swaziland. It is stiff, hot fabric, and the fatigue is beginning to set in.

 

We drive to the turn-off to the homestead and file out of the car with two buckets of water. I take one 10-liter jug on my head, carrying my spear in my left hand and gripping tightly to the top of the jug with my right hand, willing the water inside to stop slushing against the sides. My steps are even and slow, but the water continues to pound against the side of the container, digging into the top of my skull and increasing the nagging headache I’ve suffered from since morning. The crowd of women follows me, singing as usual, and the sun allows me no mercy from its burning rays, that are trapped in this stiff dress. A crowd gathers on the homestead, I can see people dancing in the yard as we approach. As I get closer, the camera phones, are out and I am poparozied near tears. A cousin takes the jug from my head and as soon as the soothing feelings of relief are felt they are drowned in the water being spilt on the ground, as George’s family dances with misguided joy around the puddle. I knew this was part of the test, and I expected the water to be spilt as I walked with it on my head to the homestead, but watching it happen sent a stabbing sadness to my core. I turned away quickly so no one could see my tears, and began walking to fetch the second bucket. I cried silently, with the crowd’s song in toe, covering any sign of a whimper that escaped and keeping my cover safe. By the time I reached the second bucket I had convinced myself to stay strong and finish. I rose the bucket to my head and marched. It was a much easier journey, although this bucket was open at the top and I was expecting to be wet with water by the time I reached my destination, I was somehow able to avoid it. I walked into the yard, and the crowd had grown. People were stopping in front of me to take photos, therefore stopping my determined march. I could feel the frustration rising faster then I could keep it in check. I reached what I thought was my finish line, but the crowd urged me to continue. Arms shaking, neck breaking under the weight of the water. Finally another cousin removed the bucket from my head, and I felt no sympathy as is a little spilled on him, when my knees gave out and turned to jelly. The procession that had followed me for the last hour danced around me in a clostrophobic circle, whistling and singing at the top of their lungs and then led me out again into the yard. I must bring back firewood, and I am happy that Jade is by my side again, distracting my thoughts for just a moment or two. The Ngozolo has prepared a bundle of small branches, so small I laugh, but am relieved that again they are allowing me to cheat just a little. The parade continues back to the house, as cameras click, click, click around us. We unload and voices rejoice that I am done. I have finished all of my tasks.

 

I am so overwhelmed with happiness and relief that I have to fight back tears. Then a hand grabs my arm and begins leading me away. What now, I think to myself as I see another empty reed mat laid out on the lawn in front of the house. My back stabs with pain before I am even instructed to sit. I look for George’s face among the crowd, but cannot find him. Just eyes staring back at me, and cameras reflecting my own distraught face back at me through their lens. I have an overwhelming feeling to run away and I begin looking for a break in the crowd, but find none. My breathing quickens, and the claustrophobia sets in, I have to go. My emotions of joy, happiness, fear, fatigue, anger, frustration, sadness are colliding and are about to explode. I get up quickly and run to the backside of the house, passing whispering voices as I go. The open air of my hiding spot is a welcome sensation, and within moments George appears, dressed for the first time ever in full traditional attire. He is a sight for sore eyes, and for the first time all day I am able to hug him. I relish in his company. I am happy to have someone else dressed up traditionally, and it somehow gives me the strength to go back to my reed mat, in the middle of the crowd.

 

I do not sit for long before the Gogo returns to me and beckons me to follow her into the house. My arm gripped tightly in her fist, and George’s arm in the other. We are led to yet another reed mat on the cold cement floor of the house and instructed to sit next to each other, with our new daughter between us. The Ngozolo appears, holding what appears to be a blood covered, brown balloon. I am not phased, and before I am educated to what this grotesque thing is, I know this next task will not be pleasant. The Gogo says a few things in SiSwati, I am grateful I do not understand until George says “open your mouth”. The Ngozolo holds the thing over my head, purposely dripping a few drops of the putrid liquid on my forehead before I taste the bitter, sour landing upon my tongue. The Gogo kneels down and puts a few drops on my right shoulder, inner elbow, and the top of my foot. Swallowing is hard, and I fight the urge to return this thing filling my mouth back to them. George receives next, and I am secretly happy that at least this time he has had a taste of my days ordeal. He looks at me with big sad eyes, as he too struggles to swallow, but I know his look says he is grateful for my strength throughout the day. It is only after I was able to wash down the powerful lingering bitterness from my lips, that I could ask what this substance was. Bilal from the goat’s stomach, to represent the long hard, and sometimes, bitter road of marriage. Opposed to the sharing of a single slice of wedding cake, this tradition prepares the new couple for a true and realistic life together, it is not always sweet, and if we can share in the bitterness and fight the urge from the deepest part of our bellies to give up, then we can make it through our marriage together.

 

The day ends with songs and traditional dancing. I sit with Jade and George’s mother, clapping, laughing and smiling despite my eyes that are heavy with the day’s exhaustion. I greet my new family, share a drink to seal the ceremony’s events, and converse with a few friends who have joined us late to witness and celebrate our union. When every ounce of energy has been spent, every last word my few remaining brain cells can collectively combine to create speech has been utilized, I am struck by the most desperate and demanding urge to sleep. I sneak off to my little mattress, in the dark and welcoming cold room where it all started. I remove my traditional dress with a stifling relief and redress myself in jeans and a t-shirt, despite my desire to sleep, I am unbelievable happy to have a little piece of my former life on my person- I feel at home. I lie down and sleep comes easily; I smile as I go over the day’s events briefly in my head. I’m proud. I have made George and his family proud. I hear the whisper of voices through the wall, praising my commitment to Swazi culture and welcoming me, through conversations between others, into the family. For everyone this has been a once in a lifetime event, and my commitment to this traditional ceremony, as a non-swazi, has left behind something of a legacy to those who where there to witness. As my head becomes heavy with sleep, I don’t dream, I don’t stir, I just sleep… the most peaceful, blissful, fulfilling sleep of my life; my first as a Swazi wife.

 

 

DOCTOR DOCTOR

11.7.13

 

A line of baby chicks cross my path, scurrying behind their mother. The parking lot is littered with cars, parked anywhere a vehicle can park; on the sidewalk, in the grass, half-way up hills. We wind our way between them like a maze, toward the underpass of the building. Every patch of shade is cluttered with people sitting on the muddy, dirty ground. Some people look like they have been here for days, propping themselves up with tired hands, or giving up completely, stretched out on the pavement napping in any hope of shelter from the blaring sun. we enter the first block of the building and the stinging aroma of old urine hits me like a backhand to my senses. The signs are confusing. We turn down one hallway and end up outside, along an open air corridor filled with people sitting along each side. They watch us like walk in our quick-step like entertainment they have waited all afternoon to arrive. Its strangely quiet, and our footsteps echo on the cool, cracked tiles beneath our feet.

 

We are wandering, and i’m concentrating hard to not touch railings, walls or anything my fingers may unintentionally linger on. George asks someone who may have worked there, where ward 18 was located, and she kindly directs us with little words, just a hand motion that suggests straight until a bend to the left and then possibly in the area directly over our heads. She tries to shake Georges hand, but George politely pulls away and gives her two phantom pats on her back. We speed off in the direction to which she indicated.

 

Ascending a long steep ramp to the second level. Whats left of the ceiling is stained with brown water marks. The brightly painted walls is peeling to such a degree to looks like the whole wall is covered in a colorful fringe; one gust of wind through this hallway could send the entire wall to dust. Someone has tried to paint a uplifting, childlike mural along the wall, no doubt to indicate the direction of the pediatric ward, but the paint dulls in the dim light, and the state of the rest of the wall, creating the feeling like we are walking down a dark alleyway in a bad part of town. I can’t stop staring at the ceiling as we continuing ascending up this never ending ramp. I wondering how old this hospital is, and can’t help thinking this collapsing ceiling is made completely of abestise, a once common mineral mined in Swaziland; although no longer used for construction, can still often be found in standing buildings throughout the country.

 

We pass a sign for operating theaters, and I glance down the narrow hallway. The ceiling is hanging low, and covered with the same brown spots. The wing is reeking from the bleach, in a poor attempt to disguise the gaping potholes in the tiles on the floor. We reach another outdoor corridor, connecting two wings of the building, again lined with people camping in the shade with expressionless faces. A sign directly in front of us reads “WARD 18 -WOMANS WARD”. For the first time I realize this is going to be one big room. The thought hits me, and I immediately am bewildered why George’s mother has come here and not to the nice clinic down the road.

 

Approaching the two parlor doors to the ward, I can see metal bars, and pink sheets hanging around each bed, of which, there are at least two dozen. There is no one at the door, and we linger for a moment before we open, breathing against the tiny glass windows searching for something familiar. I’m half hoping this isn’t the room. It can’t be. We enter and take a few unsure steps, George is scooping the room looking for any sign of someone coming to stop us, as I try not to make direct eye contact with anyone. I feel like I am invading at least 40 people’s privacy, especially the woman in the second bed, closest to the window who is sleeping upright, with not a stitch of clothing on her body, aside from the scarf wrapped loosely around her head.

 

Luckily Georges mother is in the second row, first bed by the main aisle. I am happy to see her face resting peacefully, and estactic that we do not have to venture further into this sea of strangers, searching their weak and tired faces. George gives her a gentle shake on her shoulder, and stands over her until she opens her eyes. “hi mom.” he says. I want to hug her, and steal her away from this place. He doesn’t seemed phased, and I am traumatized.

 

We chat for a while, she should be going home tomorrow. Her diabetes has been uneasy as of late, and the weekend festivities of a retaliative Lobola ( the cultural tradition of deciding a new brides price with the grooms family, which is usually proceeded by a party something similar to an engagement party, meets a BBQ), sent her blood sugar sky rocketing. The Taiwanese doctor attending to the female ward, refuses to discharge her until her levels stabilize. Her spirits are high, as they always are, and she begs us to bring her something edible for lunch. Hospital food is a universal desperatity, so we don’t waste time making a plan to smuggle her a nice take-away from our favorite restaurant. We laugh as George coughs and I sneeze, and she asks for a phone number for a casket maker. I’ve never quite understood the dark swazi humor, but looking at the 3 of us in our separate ill states, we could take bets on who would need it first. I have grown very fond of George’s mom; she is strong willed, but kind natured. Evident by the immensity of friends she had made with all the staff and patients in Ward 18. She reminds me daily at the school that she runs, and where I work, of her kindness with her endless involvement in every child’s life and concern for their well being. This is a commonality that both of our mothers share.

 

As we leave, George says “don’t ever take me here…” I burst out a quick, “ummm… yeah… me either.” I realize at that moment, that George isn’t as comfortable as I thought about his mother being at the government hospital, and i’m relieved, but curious. Before I can ask, he explains, “ at least she is only paying 10 Emalageni a night, the private hospitals charge a couple grand a night.” it suddenly all makes sense, although I would still prefer to go to a private health care clinic , especially in Swaziland, I am reminded of several moments in my own life, living in the USA, where an option of government health care could have saved me thousands of dollars.

 

The more I thought about it, the more this somewhat traumatizing visit to the government hospital had me concerned, I was actually jealous. I thought about the sea of faces I passed, in the open-air corridor. People that had no doubt traveled great distances to come seek health care. People that probably used their last, worn out bills in their wallets to get to the hospital. Maybe they don’t have running water. Maybe they don’t have electricity. Maybe some of them live in a house built with mud-bricks and sticks. Then my thoughts turn to writing this blog, as I sit here typing now. I think about my friends and family and how they must have been worried by the end of paragraph one, what if something were to happen to me? Where would I go? Its ironic really, that in the states I rarely had health care. I made over $40,000 a year, plus benefits, and I still couldn’t afford a trip to the doctor, let alone the emergency room stateside. Not to get into a political rant about universal healthcare, but after living here, and seeing how a government hospital can help the mass majority, despite insurance benefits or community standing; it amazes me that a 3rd world country, such as Swaziland, can care for its people better, and with more options then a country as rich and powerful as the United States. Something worth pondering don’t you think?