Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Ode to the cleaning lady

I've been working at a private school for the last two weeks. I was filling in for another teacher who was unable to teach for that time due to other commitments that he had. So, I was asked if I would be interested in giving teaching a try.

While the teaching job itself was certainly an eye-opener, one of the things that most left an impression on me was a particular member of the cleaning staff, not only because I saw her daily and that we got along rather well, but more that she was just incredibly weird.

My introduction to this cleaning lady was at the end of my first day. I had met and taught my grade 9 and 10 classes, which had left me terrified, frazzled and outright miserable at the prospect of having to teach them for the next two weeks. The grade 10's are actually delightful kids who really engage with what goes on in the classroom, or at least, fake engaging very, very well. The grade 9's on the other hand left one wondering whether we've been wrong about hell being hot and that it was, in fact, really full of teenagers and that somehow, you had ended up in it. I decided that the best thing for it was to just collect all the things I'd need to take home to prepare for the lessons the next day.

The door of my classroom was ajar and it was just then that a dark, round face appeared about half way up the door. As I looked up, the face split in two with a large, white grin and the owner of the face spoke in a strange accent.

"Spring cleaning?"

It was a hard statement to interpret because, while it appeared to be just that, a statement, there was a hint of uncertainty in the voice, making it sound as if the person, while fully aware that they were supposed to be cleaning, wasn't entirely sure that it was a safe thing to be doing after all. It also left me a little flabbergasted as to the appropriate response. It was more because of the strange way it had been said but was also partly because I always think of 'spring cleaning' as being one of those things that is restricted to spring, not really something to be conducted willey-nilley whenever the fancy takes hold of one.

So I looked at the lady in the door, smiled and said, 'Okay, thanks.'

This seemed to be the correct response because the cleaning lady seemed thrilled that I had said that and, with the efficiency of someone who has been at the same job for the last 30 years of their life, came bustling in to start cleaning.

The first thing she did was walk around the room collecting small scraps of paper that the students had thrown onto the floor. Once those seemed to have been completely eliminated, she turned and scanned the room for a plug point. Once she had located a suitable point, she looked at me questioningly and said, 'Hoova?'

As a south African, I am not really used to vacuum cleaning being referred to as hoovering, so when she asked me, I was really lost. I stared at her in utter confusion for a split second but luckily, avoiding any notably embarrassing situations, my brain kicked into gear and I understood what it was that she had asked. I said that that would be fine and continued to pack up my belongings. In a matter of minutes, she unravelled a chord from the backpack-sized machine on her back, plugged it in, rushed around the room, sucking up all manner of dirt, and unplugged just as fast. Then, with a 'Thank-oo teesha', which soon became our way of saying goodbye, she was gone.

Each day, she would return in this manner to clean my classroom. At one point, I had a 2L carton of milk that I wasn't going to use, so I gave it to her, which appeared to have cemented her friendship to me. I was very happy to have her on my side, as one could imagine that cleaning staff who are not your friends could make life very difficult.

At some stage, I ran into her in one of the corridors. She began to rattle off at me in Zulu (or at least, what I assume to be Zulu), and given that I don't really understand it, not much was getting into my head. She seemed to notice this and began to gesture frantically while continuing to drown me in very rapid Zulu. From a combination of the tone of voice, the gestures and a good dollop of sheer luck I figured out that she was enquiring as to the whereabouts of the previous teacher who had been in the position that I was currently filling. I explained that she had left to work elsewhere and that I was now teaching instead of her. This, as with the milk, appeared to please her a great deal and after another, 'Okay! Thank-oo teesha!', she collected her vacuum-pack and waddled off down the corridor looking very pleased with herself. Later I would realise that this encounter would lead her to believe that I was, in fact, fluent in Zulu and understood a great deal more than I let on, which was, for me anyway, entirely untrue!

One of my favourite moments with her, which I think summed up the complete lack of communication between us very well was my last conversation with her before I left. I wanted to thank her for all her cleaning and to say goodbye. But before I got to say anything, she said, 'See-oo Monday?' I responded in the negative and explained that my time at the school was over and that I wouldn't be returning the next week. She appeared to think about this for a moment and then, slowly, smiled. I then thanked her again and said goodbye. Grinning, she said, 'Okay! See-oo monday, teesha?'

Feeling a little lost as to what to do, I simply confirmed that I'd see her on Monday and walked off to my classroom to pack up.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Just because I can :) Cont...

As another random aside before I start the actual post, my mother found a CD of bagpipe music today and bought it for my dad. As I type, the CD's horrendous noise is stampeding down our passage, permiating everything!


One of the caches that we went in search of was a type of cache where the coordinates published are not those of the cache itself, but of a clue that then leads you to the cache. Given that this was the second cache that we had gone in search of, it is understandable that we were rather excited and enthusiastic about finding it.

We arrived at the site. We were a little confused at first because the clue on the internet had said something about a bird sanctuary sign and, while we could find a whole range of signs about ecosystems and the importance of conservation, we had, at that stage, not been able to find the bird sanctuary sign. To compound the problem, the area was crawling with muggles, the geocaching term for non-geocachers. Part of the fun of the game is trying to find and access the caches without being spotted. So, unable to spot our sign immediately, we decided to follow the GPS coordinates to the sign. They seemed to suggest that we follow a path that went off into the bush. So, trusting in the all-knowing GPS, we headed off into the bush.

About 5 min into our walk along the path, we realised that the site we were looking for was now behind us, in the direction from which we had come. We decided that we should head back, and did so. Once back at the start of the trail, we looked around again for the sign, with the not-quite-so-trusted-as-before GPS in mind. After about 2 min, Duncan exclaimed that he had successfully located the sign. It had turned out that it was obscured by some brush and that we had to walk along a small, easy to miss path to get to it.

At this point I must note that Duncan is eerily good at this sport. He seemed to have some sort of ESP about where the caches or clues would be located and 9 times out of 10 would be the one to find things. And he never used the GPS…

We found the clue and with it, the coordinates to the location of the cache. The coordinates pointed to the opposite side of the lagoon, on the banks of which, we were then standing. That side of the lagoon is a nature reserve that is accessible only from one side as the lagoon flows out into the sea and there are not bridges across into the reserve. After I volunteered to swim across, examined the water and its contents and retracted the offer, it was decided that we would drive around to the other side and walk to the location along the shore of the lagoon.

After driving around, parking, and walking through the somewhat dodgy camping ground at the reserve, we embarked along the banks of the lagoon in search of our prize. At the time, the tide was in, which meant that the water level in the lagoon was high, leaving little of the sand beaches exposed. Eventually we reached a point where there were trees growing along the edge that extended out over the water. The vegetation in the area is very thick and bushy, making traversing it a bit of a mission. So, the only option available was to walk through the water.

While this may seem harmless enough, it wasn’t. The ground of the lagoon-side dropped off sharply after the edge and given the recent rains in the area, the water was a dark brown, like black tea, from all the dissolved tannins of the trees upstream. This made it impossible to see through the water any time that there was more than 15cm of water below you. To make matters worse, the lagoon tends to receive all manner of charming little things that usually come down with the floodwaters. These little estuarine delicacies included all manner of trash, faecal material, and more unmentionables.

It was for this reason that Duncan, very wisely, decided not to join the remainder of the expedition in search of the cache. This left Helen and I to find the hidden treasure.

We began to walk our way through the water, along the edge of the lagoon. We experienced the usual sensations associated with travelling through alluvium: squishing between the toes, the occasional creature scuttling across your foot, the odd poke in the sole from some unidentified pointy thing hidden in the mud. But we soon managed to get around the trees and reach the beach on the other side. However, once we got there we realised that shortly along the beach was another tree that had grown over the edge of the water. As we looked further along, we realised that there were quite a number of such trees. It appeared that we would have to walk through the silt for almost all of the rest of the way there. I was not looking forward to that in the least! But, with the determination of stupid first-timers, we trudged on.

The next tree pass was different to the first. And not in a good way.

This time, the tree extended quite a bit further out than the last one. As before, the colour of the water made it near impossible to be able to judge depth, nor was it possible to be able to see what it was that you were standing on. We continued none the less and, about halfway to the edge of the tree, to our horror, the ground gave way to a very steep slope down into the depths. Helen had gone ahead of me and seeing how she suddenly plummeted down into the water, I decided to leave my T-shirt behind on the shore. Once I removed it and draped it over a bush, I too began my rounding.

I went in and around the same place as Helen, dropped into the depths. The water was about chest height now, and as water in large bodies usually is, the top part was not unpleasantly cool, while the lower reaches felt bitterly cold. To make things worse, the lagoon is home to all manner of creatures (including the rare Knysna seahorse!), many of which live within the grass-like seaweed that grows on the bottom. This seaweed has a slimy, but at the same time, raspy texture and is not at all fun to swim in.

I for one don’t enjoy the slimy, raspy, creepy-crawlies of the lagoon and, for lack of a less colloquial term, it freaks me out! So when I was walking around the edge of the tree and I put my foot into a large patch of seaweed, I instinctively released a squeal and dropped into the water, having decided to swim the rest of the way. This naturally had Helen in hysterics because, as most would tell you, this is not a particularly manly response to an aquatic plant…

This process of walking and periodically squealing and dropping into the water to doggy-paddle to the next beach continued until, eventually, we reached our destination. The GPS is water-resistant for a depth of up to 1m so it was fine with all the swimming. But, just to play it safe, we had kept it switched off for most of the swim. Now that we were at the beach, we switched it back on and waited expectantly for the all-knowing GPS to guide us.

Now, as anyone who has ever used a hand-held GPS would tell you, they are not 100% accurate. They can get you to within a few meters of your destination, but usually can only handle a resolution of about 5-10m. 3m on a VERY good day. Naturally, the resolution all depends on the type of GPS being used, but in this case, these were the stats we had to work from.

We gazed expectantly at the GPS. It just looked yellow and thoughtful. Once started up we saw that we were within 10m of the cache but the GPS was pointing back over the lagoon towards the bird sanctuary. We soon realised that the GPS was also saying that what we knew to be north was in fact west. So we decided to ignore it completely and to go looking around on the beach and the banks of the lagoon.

After about 20min of searching, and revealing little more that an empty Fanta bottle and a human turd, I suggested to Helen that we admit defeat and head back. Helen had other plans in mind. She was determined to find the cache no matter what. We continued to argue for some time and eventually, she agreed that we should head back. So we turned to return to the camping ground.

We hadn’t realised this on our way to the beach but the current had been on our side then and was certainly not cutting us any slack for the return journey. So we swam upstream, trying to walk wherever the seaweed had been denied a place to root. Eventually we arrived at the beach where my shirt had been left. I collected it and we walked around the last tree, now smelling a bit like a very salty septic tank. After meeting up with Duncan, we decided to have a quick shower at the beach to wash off. Once we were both as clean as we were going to get, we decided to go after one last cache. It was one at Gerike’s point, a small island-like lump of rock that stuck out from the point of the bay. While the weather threatened us, we went ahead. Duncan once again decided to remain behind and sit this one out.

About half way to the point, the drizzle began. By the time we reached the point, we were getting very wet. So it was decided that we would turn back, ending our rather unsuccessful geocaching day.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Just because I can :)

As a random aside, I'm tempted to use the new blogger features and convert my blog to arabic or cantanese, just because I can :)


Dearest blog

I regret that I have once again neglected you. Alas, it is due to the rather fast-paced and hectic life that I live. Of course, the fact that I have not been near an easily accessible internet connection for at least the last two months hasn’t really helped much in that regard…

So what has been happening? Well, following Christmas (YAY!) and New years (Not so yay…but only because most things fall short when compared to Christmas!), I went down to the coast for a lovely week of holiday with Duncan and Helen. We went to stay in Duncan’s grandmother’s holiday house in a little town called Sedgefield, on the southern coast of South Africa, near Cape Town.

It’s an amazing place! It’s close enough to the cape to not be as hot and humid as areas like Durban, which can become unpleasantly humid during summer. But at the same time, it’s hot enough for you to have the full summer beach-side experience: swimming, sunbathing, sun burning, mosquitoes…

It was made especially awesome because this holiday we engaged in an amazing new sport! Well, it’s not exactly a new sport, as it’s been around for some time. But it was a new sport to us. It was…*Drumroll*, GEOCACHING! It’s awesome! I totally love it!

The idea is this. People create a cache (a small container that will have knick-knacks and things in it, usually not of any considerable value) and hide it somewhere. Then, they record the GPS coordinates of where the cache has been hidden, and publish these coordinates on the internet, on a website. Others can then go and download the coordinates and go seek out the cache. Once found, the person must then remove an item from the cache, and replace it with a new item. This way, items can get passed on all over the world (it’s an international thing…).

Some of these items, called travel bugs, are tagged. This means that they literally have a little dog tag attached to them that has been engraved with a number. This number can then be checked on the internet site and the item’s movements around the world can then be tracked. Each cache’s discovery is supposed to be logged on the site and that way, the site is constantly updated so that any caches that are moved or removed can still be accessed. Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work…

To be continued...

Wednesday, January 02, 2008


Welcome to 2008!

Well, as usual, it's been ages since I last blogged anything. It's been a bit of a hectic last few weeks though! Over the last few weeks, I have slept in 3 different houses, including my own. I've been house sitting for my family. It's been really hectic! There was the cat's with cancer, my terrible shower experience, the slaughter of the bird in the bathroom and the subsequent use of a washing machine (more on that later). And, there was the window ghost...

So the first house that I was looking after had two cats. Both cats had scabs on their noses which I assumed was from a fight. However, when the one started to sneeze up blood (it was horrible!) I got very concerned and took her to the vet. As it turned out, it was cancer from the sun and the cat would either need to go for radiation treatment (R1000 a session, 3 times a week, for 12 months ~ R20 000) or could be locked up at all times when the sun is out. So for the full duration of my sitting the house, I had to ensure that the cat's didn't see a drop of sunlight. Catching cats to lock away at 6am is not fun...

Then at the second house, which also has two cats (both lack the cancer though) one of the cats had murdered a bird on the bathroom floormat on the first day. It was amazing! It really looked like the bird had been placed down and the cat had somehow punched out the middle bit! The wings were perfectly aligned with each other on the floor and the tail was in place, just, the torso and head were gone and in their place was a bloody mess on the carpet. Lovely...

The big problem with this particular situation was that the mat required washing. Now, for most people, this isn't a hastle. But I, and I am ashamed to be in this state, have no clue how to use a washing machine! I just don't get them. They baffle me! But, somehow, I managed to figure out how to use this one and managed to wash the bathmat! Yay for me!

Hmm...this post is very dull. I'll stop writing this one and write more later.