Tuesday, September 11, 2012

3 blogs in 1 - Durban Vacation

September 10, 2012
The second half of our vacation was pretty wet, but it didn’t spoil our time since we spent a lot of time in shops.  And it was good news because not only was it raining in Durban, but it was also raining in Swaziland!  For those of you keeping up with my blog know how a good rain can lift my spirits.  When I arrived back to my hut I was busy for at least an hour filling all my containers, so now I have more than 300 liters of water which will last me a long time and probably more than enough time since the rainy season is almost here.  When the rain stopped, and the sun came out on Sunday it was just the most gorgeous spring day.  The air was so fresh and light, the kind of weather that just breeds good moods.  Coming up this week I am in town for my Mid-Service medical check-up.

September 8, 2012

Vacation Highlights
Durban Vacation
Stephanie and I left from Mbabane, capitol of Swaziland at 6:30a for Manzini, the Swaziland travel hub.  We were off on our week long vacation to Durban, South Africa’s 3rd largest city and the largest port on Africa’s east coast.  Seven hours on a khumbi with my back pack on my lap and we had arrived in Durban, dropped in the middle of the city without any idea of where to go next.  After asking some locals where we could find a taxi, they put us on a khumbi.  After lots of confusion and super friendly staff at a shoe store, they put us on the right transport to the place we were staying.  After settling in, we proceeded to the beach a few blocks away for dinner as the moon rose over the Indian Ocean.  My first impression of Durban was that it had a great uniquely African atmosphere and genuinely friendly/helpful people and some crazy fast khumbi drivers.
We arrived on Thursday and spent all of Friday on the beach (and good thing we did since it was overcast and on and off showers for the rest of the week).  We had brunch at a restaurant along the boardwalk where we got overly excited about them having bagels on the menu.  We grilled the waiter to make sure it was a proper American-style bagel.  He apologized for never having been to America, but he assured us that it was bread with a whole in the middle which made me laugh at the things we miss about American culture.   Shortly after we both ordered our bagels he came back with the bad news that there was only one bagel left!  I let Steph have it.  I was sad but we had a good laugh about it.  Friday night we headed to Florida Road, the hip suburb of Durban for sushi and a bottle of wine!
Saturday we moved to a new hostel near Florida Road called Gibela, the top-notch hostel in Durban.  It is beautiful, clean, and quaint.  We spent the day touring Durban’s Indian district.  At lunch we were served by the owner of the restaurant who specially prepared his signature seafood curry and naan.
at the Botanical Gardens in Durban
Thankfully with good weather on Sunday we were able to relax at the beautiful Botanical Gardens with a picnic.  On the walk home we stopped at a cafĂ© for tea and awesome desserts.  On Monday we visited an art museum, the Natural History Museum, and the largest Mosque on the Southern Hemisphere.  We ate Durban’s famous dish called Bunny Chow.  They take a ¼ loaf of bread take out the middle, add curry, and replace the bread on top.  Very tasty!
Botanical Gardens in Durban
On Tuesday we moved to a final hostel that was closer to the beach and from there we went to the Casino located up on the beach.  I put 50 Rand into a slot machine.  I got it up to 115R, but just as quickly it went back down to 50R again.  We saw the movie Total Recall in the Casino’s movie theater which was pretty good and only about $4 USD!  It is about a future World where this man has his memory replaced and he goes on to figure out that he is the key to over-throwing the current political regime.  The casino was right on the beach, so after the movie, even though it was an overcast day we went to put our feet in the water and to chase some waves.  The ocean was faster than us though, so we ended up with the bottom of our jeans pretty soaked but with huge smiles on our faces.

I have wanted Subway for over a year!!

Our last day was Wednesday.  It was pretty epic!  We spent the day at the Aquarium.  We arrived early in the morning to get breakfast.  I finally got my bagel!!  They seemed confused as to why I would want cream cheese on the bagel, but they figured it out and it was so good!  We finished the morning with massages and shopping.  For lunch, I got another bagel at the same place.  Still confused about the whole bagel thing, this time they put lettuce and tomato on it along with the cream cheese.  Once I took the lettuce and tomato off it became the best bagel I have had in over a year!  We then spent the afternoon at the Aquarium and got to see the dolphin show, so cool!  And to top off and already awesome day, we ate dinner at a Tappas Bar that was on the end of a pier, so it felt like we were having our dinner in the middle of the Indian Ocean with a perfect view of Durban’s skyline lit up in the night.

Last night after dinner

Largest Mosque in the Southern Hemishpere

Beach, shopping, good food, bagels, massage, and dolphins!  I think I can call that a pretty successful vacation!

September 8, 2012

I Slept With a Terrorist
We arrive to the third hostel of our vacation to Durban.  I like this one a lot.  Big open community spaces, multiple seating areas, fun decoration that is original that utilizes and is inspired by South African crafts and culture.  We stay in the dorms, rooms furnished with 3 sets of bunk beds.  Steph and I took the empty bunk, while one bunk was claimed by 2 American girls who were studying abroad in Cape Town and on the last bunk was a middle-aged Afghan man named Mohammed.  He introduced himself while sitting on the lower bunk he was occupying, unmoving from his comfort zone.  He had a bald head with a thick black beard and green eyes with a large scar over his left eye.  He seemed like a talkative guy, but I think a mixture of being tired from a day full of shopping and touring along with an unwarranted skepticism, fear, and/or prejudice led me to keep my conversation with him brief. 
The next day we woke up early.  Our plan was to spend the day at the Aquarium.   Mohammed woke up from our noise rolled over and wished us good morning and a good day.  Upon our return that night from the day’s adventures, Mohammed greeted us still in his bed where we left him in the morning.  I thought it was a bit strange.  I was appalled by my prejudiced thoughts from the day before (however brief they happened to be) since I have no right to judge a person based on the color of their skin or country and religion of their origin.  I decided that if he wanted to talk to me, it is my duty to hear what he has to say.
I asked about life in Afghanistan and he wanted to know about life in America and why we would want to come to Swaziland when we lived in the land of endless opportunity.  When I told him I am from New York his eyes grew wide as he said, “So you were there when they came down?”  As I tried to explain that there is more to New York than just the City, I was also shocked by how much more present the memory of 9/11 was to him than to me.  I didn’t automatically connect him to those terrorists from that day in the way that he connected me to the victims and somehow this made me feel like I am not a good enough American, that my emotions around this tragedy aren’t strong enough, and that my faded memory is a sign disrespect to the actual victims of the attacks.
Our experience of the war is so opposite.  While I was living a relatively sheltered life in America, not knowing any of the victims who died, Mohammed has been in the middle of the warzone in Kabul for the last 11 years since the attacks and at one point in the conversation claimed to know the terrorists aboard the planes.  He talked about how the Kabul was a mess with no water or electricity; he talked about getting shot at and about how he would go to live in the mountains.  I asked him that after all this, does he hate Americans because, let’s be honest, although America professes to be a peace loving country, guns speak louder than words (especially in Afghanistan).  One of the reasons I joined the Peace Corps was because of my objection to violence and warfare, so I wanted to learn how the war had affected his view of us.  I don’t know what I would have done had his answer been yes, but thankfully he said no, that he doesn’t believe in hate.  The Qur’an and other religious books teach about peace and loving one another and that hate is a sin.  Terrorism is against Islamic principles because God wants us to love one another.  He went on but I can’t do his words justice.
From there the conversation shifted to the problems in the Swazi government and the education system.  We talked about how the problem is not that children can’t afford school fees, but rather the teachers are not trained well enough to provide any of the students a quality education whether they can pay or not.  He was shocked that there is a 21-year-old in my 8th grade class and a 23-year-old in Steph’s 9th grade class and how having older students like this is not uncommon.  He was shocked because in Afghanistan, every boy is a soldier as soon as they can walk basically.  At 9-years-old they learn how to shoot an AK-47 and at twelve they can assemble a bomb by themselves.  He has been shot eight times including the one that created the scar over his left eye brow, and he is in constant pain which is why he is always lying in bed.  He can’t get stronger pain meds because he is not a citizen of South Africa which is a 5-year-long process, but he repeats over and over throughout the conversation that he doesn’t want to go back.
He was a member of a well off and well-connected family in Afghanistan.  He bragged that his mother owned a couple large textile plants in South Africa among other businesses; she had a fleet of cars rivaling Swazi King Mswati, and a couple houses including the penthouse of one of the large hotels on Durban’s strip.  He claimed to have been engaged to one of Osama bin Laden’s sisters and to have met bin Laden on more than one occasion.  He told me how he massacred a group of American soldiers after they made him watch as they raped his sister; 2 in the head, 2 in the stomach, and the one in the leg was able to get him in the leg as well.  He showed me the scar on his leg.  From his stories he seemed like he was always right in the middle of the fighting.  “Who were they after?” I asked.  “My family,” he said simply without any hesitation.  He told me that they tortured him for information because he didn’t want to talk to them, that after a while your body becomes numb to the torture.  Later I joked with Stephanie that they only needed to find him at a random hostel and he would probably spill anything they wanted to hear.  I didn’t want to ask too many questions though.  We were sleeping only about 10 feet from him.
The whole conversation was so bizarre.  At one point he showed me his bag of food that he had stored under his bed.  Inside it was filled with at least a dozen or more one liter cartons of juice.   He said juice like that is not available in Afghanistan so his well-connected mother paid some American soldier to have it smuggled in from South Africa.  When Mohammed received it he would bury it underground to preserve it since there was no electricity or refrigeration in Kabul.
Fact is stranger than fiction.  The whole time I kept thinking that he must be lying, but how could he keep all those lies straight and why would anyone want to fabricate this lie?  If anything, they would lie so as not to tell an American these things.  And honestly I hope it’s a lie because I don’t know what to do with all this information.  Basically, I think I just slept next to a man whose face may be on a playing card of those decks that are given to members of the Armed Services.  Eish!  Well, at least it’s a good story and I am still here to tell it!
So with 9/11 around the corner, it is so interesting to learn about other people’s perspective on America and foreign policy.  Nevertheless, I will never forget the people whose lives were lost that day and how that day has shaped the reality we live in today.