– The day I was picked up from the airport in Nelspruit was a day of many new things.
– I met Hloniphani for the first time. Hloniphani (Slyo – ni – pa – ni) is Rico’s post doc for a separate project in Kruger. Our paths will crisscross throughout the summer, and will sometimes proceed in parallel. My general welfare and survival were put in Hloniphani’s hands for the first few days, until I learned the ropes and could take care of myself. Perhaps ‘take care of myself’ should be put in quotes… well now they are.
– Hloniphani is from Zimbabwe (I believe) and I have yet to get a very clear idea of his character because he is currently in the middle of defending his PhD thesis, and his default modes alternate between stressed and preoccupied. He was supposed to have defended before I arrived but because of ‘difficulties’ that seem to be bureaucratic in nature, the process has gotten drawn out like a surreal visit to Never Never Land, where instead of never growing old, he never graduates, and spends his time exchanging arrows and musket fire with his defense committee while keeping me from getting eaten by crocodiles. He’s about as good at this as Peter Pan was with Wendy though, and frankly I expect to be drowned by a mermaid while he’s off doing whatever it is one does when one doesn’t graduate.
– Unlike my study abroad days of living in the OTS bubble – being shuttled here and there and emerging at pre-ordained locations, carefree, clueless, and coddled, I was now in the real world of South Africa, and this was a very different world indeed. At first one wouldn’t think my situation was all that different. Hloniphani had arrived to pick me up from the airport and presumably was going to deliver me safe and sound at my home base in Wits Rural. But we had errands to run, and Hloniphani had little more idea of where we were going than I did. So for the first time, I used my (wonderful) unlocked iphone to use google maps to direct us through a South African city. We were trying to find something like a building supply store to buy heavy duty fencing for Hloniphani’s project, and this became quite the perilous endeavor. To make matters more interesting, the truck we were driving did not have a passenger side seatbelt. Luckily I don’t let such things bother me (specifically things outside of my control), and having never experienced the horrific sensation of going head first through a windshield it was easy enough not to dwell on it. Such is my temperament.
– Through much trial and error we found the building supply store far outside the city limits, which turned out to be a compound like affair with a check-in security guard and great piles of struts and metal and heavy machinery. When we entered the air-conditioned office I instantly drew every eye in the place, an experience I was quickly getting used to and knew would remain a constant during my entire trip, and the young Afrikaans guy behind the counter offered us soda (which I turned down, though I have no idea why, maybe because there was no ice). Another Afrikaans guy came out of the back office and showed us the fencing we were looking for, waving over some of the workers to move it around for us. We had to decide how much of the material Hloniphani would need and the deliberations didn’t seem to be going anywhere so I asked him a few questions about the project, ran through a few mental calculations, checked with the Afrikaans guy about cost and transportation, and offered my recommendation. I only mention this because, as another first, I have never had a group of men listen and take my advice on a subject I knew less than nothing about (that being material for building construction), certainly less than the other people present. It was a strange feeling. But for better or for worse they loaded up my recommended number of mental fencing (maneuvering my luggage around in a very professional manner) and we were off again.
– The drive from Nelspruit to Wits Rural is over two hours long, which provided plenty of opportunity for Hloniphani and I to get to know one another. I was surprisingly awake and free of jet-lag, but a good portion of the trip was still spent in silence as I re-familarized myself with the landscape and Hloniphani (presumably) worried about his thesis defense. However I was reassured that our personalities didn’t clash outright, and I could easily see myself working with him in the bush, which is really the most important thing.
– Other firsts included buying avocados through the window of the truck, shopping for groceries in the small village supermarket (drawing stares and second glances everywhere I went), and buying dinner at a South African KFC. The KFC is the only “restaurant” in what seems to be miles and miles around. Arriving at my house in Wits Rural wasn’t a first, as I was staying in the portion called Caraville, exactly where I stayed with OTS, but it was still an experience because they hadn’t been expecting me until the next day. This required an Indian Jones-like mad dash through the bush as we made our way from Caraville to the main registration area, looking for keys to unlock my house. I generally feel very comfortable in cars, for example I hadn’t worried about my lack of seatbelt the entire drive from Nelspruit to Wits Rural, but going balls out down the extremely bumpy and rutty dirt road, fording rivers and taking turns at ridiculous speeds in pitch blackness (night had fallen awhile ago), I think I rather feared for my life. Hloniphani doesn’t normally drive like this, it was just the end of a long, stressful day and it was obvious that he wanted to be in bed. He also really hates to drive, as I learned later.
– I eventually got access to my little two-room house (kitchen + bedroom, and bathroom), and ate my KFC, my first meal of the day. The stove/oven appliance didn’t work and there was no hot water (a situation that I desperately hoped was temporary), but I made do as one does. I started to make a home of the place; my KFC bag became my permanent trash bag, my food was put away in the refrigerator, and my clothes hung up. After these efforts I was suddenly exhausted, and so I gratefully settled into my bed (tiny, with bad springs, but strangely comfortable), and listened to the bats come and go out of the loft and the tiny geckos chirping from the walls as I fell asleep.