When I gathered up the tangible memories from my happiest travels in South Africa, they matched each other like puzzle pieces. They all fit in a glass jar that once housed homemade honey – if I started by loading up on the biggest things first, just like the old proverb teaches.
My new paper weight — a treasure trove of artifacts from Tembe Elephant Park, Kosi Bay, Northern Cape, Swaziland, and the Smangaliso wetlands — crowned my efforts at a Peace Corps home makeover. The bare concrete walls had been crying out for something to delight the eye, and for the first time I had a deadline to motivate me: September 13th, the day my first friend from home would touch down on South African soil.
I couldn’t have asked for a better suited travel companion. Sarah has spent the last year volunteering in Armenia, including marketing work for a bakery that employs youth with special needs. While studying abroad in Northern Ireland, she visited dozens of European countries – by couch surfing! If anyone could enjoy cramming all the adventures and challenges of Peace Corps living into a two week visit, I had no doubts that Sarah would.
Her finalized itinerary’s arrival in my inbox precipitated a mad dash to polish off term work and prep for holiday travels. I spun into action, making up itineraries, calling up lodges and parks for reservations, sharing the hype with all my local friends. The Heads of Department at school coached me on navigating the regulatory requirements for testing in time for me to hop a taxi for an extended trip to Pretoria: meeting with the Resource Committee, touring the University museum of ceramics, and shopping for gifts at the massive Menlyn Mall while counting down the hours until Sarah arrived.
Sarah was due to arrive at o’dark thirty, so the security from the backpackers escorted me to the Gautrain – the first of many stops on our route to my home in northern KwaZulu-Natal. The trouble began in the backpackers’ kitchen, where the honey had chilled in the fridge overnight – costing my precious seconds in my mission to pack banana-peanut butter sandwiches for our journey.
A few lost seconds snowballed into a terrifying avalanche of delays. In the end, we made our connection to KZN only by the grace of God – no exaggeration. “Lord,” I prayed fervently once we had time to catch our breath and bow our heads, “thank you, that was awe-inspiring…but next time, you don’t have to be quite so impressive.”
Valiantly fighting off jetlag, Sarah rose early Sunday morning to worship with me at Zonke Ziswe, my multinational church home. She sang her first hymns in Zulu, shook hands, kissed babies, and generally endeared herself to all my local friends – even the snake that Dr. Christoff caught in an outhouse!
After the service, the local Christian school’s principal Sylvia and her husband Hennie entertained us at their storybook home built on the border with Swaziland. We lunched on cold meats and tea while swapping stories of God’s goodness and the journeys that had led us to this remote village in the mountains.
To give Sarah a broad-ranging experience with the local schools, we split for the first two days of the week: First Sydney, my fellow Volunteer, hosted Sarah for an exercise in making the best of the end-of-term slump, with endless spelling games adapted from Bananagrams. Then the local Christian school rolled out the red carpet with a Heritage Day celebration! Sarah encountered the same sights that amazed me my first day at school: the children decked out in traditional attire, plus plates of Zulu food and Afrikaans desserts. The timing of her visit proved to be one of many happy coincidences that showed us the Lord’s blessing during her stay, over and over again.
After three nights of roughing it Peace Corps-style, I was glad to treat Sarah to one of the most spectacular experiences in the local area: Tembe Elephant Park! My dear friend Petra introduced me to this jungle resort almost exactly a year ago. I knew it was the one experience that any guest of mine couldn’t afford to miss.
After brunch at Tembe, we continued chasing the road east to Manguzi: the beach town of northern KZN. At Thobeka Lodge, the Van Aswegens embraced us like family, with a guided tour of Mozambique and a sumptuous braai dinner in honor of our birthday girl.
For the final days before Sarah’s return flight, we beat a welcome retreat back to my village quarters. After three separate serenades and two birthday cakes, a quiet night in for the actual evening of Sarah’s 25th suited us best. She treated me to gourmet fry-up of the odds and ends stashed in my minuscule kitchen – a work of art! We lit candles and admired Audrey Hepburn’s solo traveler style in Roman Holiday.
As befitted our zigzagging itinerary through the rough and the radiant, the comforts and the hardships of South African living, we launched from my site to the lap of luxury: a waterside hotel. Although I had wandered the grounds and cruised the reservoir before, this was my first overnight stay. Sarah and I bedded down in a room that could have happily slept twenty: featuring a huge king bed, plus a loft upstairs with two twins!
All too soon, it was time to embark on the final leg of our journey: the long road back to Johannesburg for Sarah’s flight home.
Our departure happened to coincide with “National Braai Day”: the affectionate nickname for Heritage Day in South Africa. Loaded down with ‘breakfast packs’ from the hotel (enough food for two-and-a-half meals!), we whiled away the miles by swapping Kindles.
The taxi dropped us in Pretoria with hours to spare. At the mammoth Menlyn Mall, we snagged Sarah’s favorite dessert (dark chocolate at long last! after many vanilla disappointments) then ducked into the Food Lovers’ Market for a peek at South African grocery shopping…only to discover a wealth of R10 deals!! That meant loads of products priced at less than 1 USD. We packed our bags to overflowing with gifts for our hosts and groceries for me to cart home.
That night my friend Logan and her housemates treated us to a feast for kings. We finished off the evening by swapping dances: soekie from the Afrikaans tradition; salsa and swing from the Americas; and Armenian line dance from Sarah’s year abroad! The next morning found me ensconced in yet another taxi, while our Pretoria friends demonstrated the inimitable South African hospitality by hosting Sarah for a game park hike en route to the airport.
She couldn’t have chosen a better time to visit: right on the cusp of my mid-service mark, a bundle of love and adventure delivered straight from home to brighten this typically dark season of service. We parted with promises to meet again in her second home: Armenia!
Read Sarah’s beautiful take on the trip: “Siyabonga, South Africa“