July marked the 13th month in country and the true midpoint of service with 13 months to go. Winter break covered the entire month and is typically a time for Peace Corps Volunteers to travel out of Lesotho to escape the bitter winter. In Thaba Tseka, the temperatures were reaching the single digits at night. With windchills as low as -30F (-34C) at night, waking up to and seeing my breath in the house was a daily occurrence. The much anticipated visit of my family and subsequent vacation provided a much needed break from the meat freezer of a house.
Back in September of last year I pitched the idea to my mother and sister to plan a trip to visit Southern Africa. After some careful planning they were booked and ready to visit for a 2 week excursion around the region I serve in. To make things easier, the trip was planned alongside my neighbor PCV’s mother. After some hiccups involving passports and Expedia, they finally arrived on June 24th. We spent our first night in Bloemfontein, South Africa and headed to Lesotho the following day. We spent the first night in our training villages of Berea. With no running water or electricity, we figured this would be a perfect way for our families to get a glimpse of the traditional rural life. The following day we left and headed up to our permanent sites in Thaba Tseka. From here I was able to take my family to see the school I teach at, as well as introduce them to the many friends and colleagues I see on a daily basis in the community. On the final day my Mom and I hiked up to the highest point in town at 8,000ft. Unfortunately my sister couldn’t make the ascent due to a sports related leg injury sustained a month prior. Overall it was a very rewarding visit for them in the town I’ve called home for over a year.
On July 2nd we headed back to Bloemfontein to spend the night and set out for the city of Durban the following day. Durban is a historic city on east coast of South Africa. 25% of the city is inhabited by Indians/Asians so the mix of culture is very unique. Using airbnb.com, we found a beautiful apartment overlooking the beach for $50/night. Quite a steal. Moreover, the Afrikaner family that was renting to us offered to lend their car for the weekend. This was after we informed them of our intention to attend the annual Durban July event. Their generosity knew no bounds and we were extremely grateful.
Durban July is a famous event in the Southern African region and is touted as “Africa’s Largest Horse Race”. The annual race was first held in 1897 at the Greyville Racecourse which has remained the home track ever since. This historic event is very traditional as it has roots during the British Colonial days. It was reminiscent of the Kentucky Derby; complete with a fashion show, vendors, and ceremonial events throughout the day. High society had a big presence, but there was a good mix of average locals among the crowd. An Indian fellow named Armaan sat in front of us and was extremely friendly- offering us Jamenson and deli meats during race intermissions. Having just received my tax return funded DSLR that my mom brought along, I was eager to get some pictures of the day. The fashion show had the theme of “old Hollywood”, and seeing the various costumes being modeled by the different cultures was very entertaining.
The main event, called the “Handicap”, was the 7th race of the day. It carried a R2,500,000 ($360,000) purse and getting in on the action was a must. Obviously I had no idea about which horses were the hot ticket aside from printed odds, so I used a bit of homerism and bet on Captain America to win. He was a 10 to 1 middle-of-the-pack pony and the jockey was draped in an American flag suit, so the choice was easy. Unfortunately he ended up placing 7th, but the main event was a thrilling display with a horse named “Legislate” taking the crown. There had to be at least 7,000 people in attendance. We secured a spot on the railing and had a front row view to the finish. Check out the video of the final stretch:
We left Durban a few days later after to finish up the trip with a couple safaris. Since this vacation coincided with summer break for the schools in the region, Kruger was completely booked when we attempted to secure reservations. Instead we made our way to Hluhluwe, also famous for game parks and other wildlife tours. After making another booking via airbnb, we resided in a Dutch couple’s guest house on their compound. They were also very friendly and hospitable; inviting us to watch the world cup final between Germany and Brazil. The first tour we took was on the St. Lucia Estuary to see the native Hippopotamuses. Seeing these beautiful (and powerful!) creatures in their natural habitat was extraordinary. The guide informed us of the massive protection efforts in place as the ivory trade still leads to massive poaching of the species. The following morning we went on another tour in the Hluhluwe Game Reserve and got some up close views of the African Rhino and Giraffes.
On July 5th we dropped of the families in Johannesburg. The vacation provided memories that are sure to last a lifetime. Being able to see this unique part of the word with my immediate family, a close friend, and his mother was a wonderful experience.
Here’s a photo album of the trip:
My next post for August will be a 1 year reflection of being a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Lesotho. I plan to post my favorite pictures and video as well. Thanks as always for reading!