Tropical Holidays

Ok, this blog post is long overdue and a lot’s happened since I last wrote so I’ll do my best to hit all the highlights.  I spent the beginning of December in Pretoria for a continuation of Peace Corps training. The venue was definitely the nicest hotel I’ve stayed at in my life.  Of course that’s probably saying more about my previous accommodations than the hotel, but seriously it was really nice.  Our whole troop stayed there for 10 days, then went on to various holiday destinations.  I was with a large group (20 or so) who went to the coastal city of Durban, a popular getaway for tourists and nationals alike.  As you might surmise, the quality of my lodging and transportation went steadily downward as the trip progressed.  Of course I say this with a smile on my face; it’s my belief that an authentic experience includes shitty hostels, broke-down buses and poorly coordinated outings.  It’s fun in hindsight anyway.  I threw in with 3 other volunteers for a rental car to drive ~600 kilometers from Pretoria to Durban, which actually couldn’tve gone much better.  The guys who went to pick it up got horribly lost, but I had the good fortune of remaining behind while that happened.  I know I would’ve done the exact same thing if it were me trying to navigate around Pretoria for the first time.  When they did return, I decided to go for a little practice spin before departure.   So I immediately went to the right (incorrect) side of the road, punched the door several times with my right hand before getting used to the left side gearshift, and turned on the windshield wipers every time I tried to use a turn signal.  This is what practice runs are for, right?  Despite this sketchy start, we actually got to Durban without a hitch.  The highway system here is surprisingly intuitive and traffic was mercifully minimal.  The drop-off was a little stressful though: it was Christmas Eve and the attendant who was supposed to meet us left early (can’t really blame ’em) and we thought they’d charge us an extra day of rental.  It all worked out though, so all’s well that ends well.

The lodging we’d originally booked is what I would describe as a hostel, although in South Africa they’re called “backpackers”.  This word on the street (i.e. volunteer rumor mill) about this particular backpackers was that it sucked and should be avoided like the plague.  After staying there for 10 days, I can see some obvious reasons for this reputation.  Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Cockroaches.  Not surprisingly, these little bastards really grossed out a lot of the Americans.  Some of them were pretty huge.  Made me want to watch Men in Black.

2. Bedbugs.  Everybody hates tiny insects that feed on human flesh. I was lucky enough to not be gnawed on by these bloodsucking parasites.  I did get stung repeatedly by jellyfish, but that’s not the hostel’s fault.

3. Minimal security.  With 12 people to a room, it’s hard to keep track of everything.  Fortunately I didn’t suffer any major losses, but  if I find out who ate my chocolate bars they’re definitely getting their kneecaps busted.

4. Uncomfortable beds.  I couldn’t care much less, but there was definitely a lot of griping about this subject.

5. First floor of the building is a brothel.  This is a bad thing……?  Oh right, for the reputation.  Yes.  Very, um, unprofessional.

6. Sketchy neighborhood.  We’ve all been warned time and time again about how crime is a huge problem, especially in cities.  Durban is no exception, and some volunteers did have a pretty serious incident on new years, but that’s another story.  For now I’ll just say that luckily no one was hurt; all’s well that ends well.

7. Loud, destructive, unsupervised kids running around everywhere.  I almost forgot to include this one because it’s a constant everywhere I go in this country.

OK now that we’ve established why the hostel sucked, I have to play devil’s advocate here and make a list of the place’s redeeming qualities:

1. Proximity to the beach.  It was a 2 block walk.  For the equivalent of 15 bucks per night, that’s tough to beat.

2. Friendly staff!  Hooray for good people!

3. Other fun loving travelers also stayed there!  Hooray for interesting people!

4. Cheap beer.  What can I say, I’m easily satisfied.

5. Balcony.  Make that “extremely easily”

5. Shitty pool table.  The best thing about this was that the balls didn’t always eject properly so sometimes we had to take the table apart and fish them out of the rails, which was totally fine with the staff.

6. Price is right.

7. Showers.  Trust me folks, after months of hauling water home just to lamely splash it over oneself and call it a “bath”, a few meters of pipe plus a pump, furnace and faucet is a glorious luxury.

Me personally, I didn’t think the accommodation was too bad, I mean what do you want out of your Peace Corps budget lodging?  Plus I didn’t plan to spend my vacation kicking around a lounge, so upon arrival I immediately wandered off down the beach.  First time in an Ocean other than the Atlantic!  And let me tell you, the coast of Kwa Zulu Natal is much warmer than Cape Cod, by at least 30 degrees.  I also had a firsthand reiteration (learning the hard way) of those geography lessons which explain why equatorial regions are hot and polar regions are cold.  [Science lesson warning! Skip to the paragraph about surfing if you’re getting bored!]  Contrary to the usual guesses, it is not because the “fat middle” of the earth is closer to the sun; that distance is negligible.  The actual reason is that incident sun rays strike the earth at different angles according to it’s curvature.  As one approaches the equator, the angle of incidence approaches a right angle; a right angle provides the maximum solar energy per square meter, or mile or whatever unit of measurement you prefer.  Ergo the closer one gets to the equator, the more direct the sunlight, the more intense the heat.  In normal English: The sun in South Africa is a hell of a lot more powerful than in upstate New York.  By day three I was sufficiently lobster-ized; would have been comical if it weren’t so painful.

Despite being sunburned, sleep depraved and horribly out of shape I decided to try surfing.  It’s a bit harder than it looks, but it’s a great time if you get good conditions.  The experienced surfers among us thought it wasn’t ideal, but not too terrible either.  I had fun anyway.  The guy who rented us the boards was quite a character.  This guy went by the name of “Jay Jay”, he looked to be mid 50s but might have been only 30 something with a serious drug collection tearing through his system.  A high energy beach bum, he struck me as a California-style surfer dude with a South African accent and severe ADD.  He kept stressing the recent damage inflicted upon his boards by some British Army troops on holiday, and seemed reluctant to let a bunch of rookie foreigners take them out again for fear of a repeat.  So he waxed up some boards, took us down to the beach talking about proper surfing technique at several hundred words per minute and he wanted proof that we wouldn’t be breaking any boards or hurting anybody.  Seems like all the proof he required was our good word, because before we’d even gotten in the water he was ready to leave: “Awl righ’ then, ‘ave a great toyme, eh?” and with that he staggered on down the beach to do god knows what.  What a fella.  So trusting.

Ok, there’s more to tell but I’m just going to post this first part now and give people a chance to read it while giving myself a chance to assimilate my thoughts properly.  Stay tuned.  Now that I’m back in the village and have way too much free time again I’ll likely be posting more frequently.

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