I double-checked myself in the mirror ensuring I had removed the tag from my new navy blazer and glanced down to make sure my newly-christened chocolate-brown boots were still smudge-less. Satisfied, I walked out onto the quiet street with a sense of readiness which only a new pair of boots and blazer could give you.
Five minutes before my first class the harsh voice of my co-teacher banged at my office door sending the papers in my hand flying to the floor.
“SAM!” (My co-teacher always screamed my name unnecessarily).
“…so as you know…” (She also started any sentence with ‘so as you know’).
“…so as you know, today is Tuesday.”
“I know…” I mumbled hesitantly.
“Your classes are cancelled!”
“We will go hiking up the mountain instead!”
And then I realised what she said.
“Wait..we’re going hiking now?!”
It was not even 10am on a normal school day and classes were cancelled so the entire school could hike up a mountain.
Unlike me, my co-teacher obviously knew in advance that we were hiking. Her worn, pink *takkies contrasted starkly with my unworn, brown boots. It was my first time wearing heels to work.
“Do you think I’ll be able to hike in my heels?” I asked, genuinely concerned.
“Er..yeah..you’ll be fine, I’m sure,” she said as she slipped on a luminous pink cap and matching gloves which she magicked out of her desk drawer.
“It’s not high; it’s just the small mountain behind our school. We climb it every single year.”
I looked around at the other teachers in the office: North Face was stamped across every chest. Brightly-coloured takkies were securely fastened by perfect double knots. The men were already waving about their slender, wooden walking sticks. The women were plastering SPF 50 on their faces, hands, necks, the spaces in between their fingers and any other bit of flesh which was in danger of being exposed to the sun. Some had their backpacks on, complete with water bottles and sitting mats, while some even already had their sunglasses on.
I was clearly the only one who was told about the hiking trip five minutes ago.
The P.E teacher walked over to the intercom and blasted an announcement to the rest of the school. The announcement triggered a mixed roar of cheering, chairs scraping, doors slamming and excitable chattering as the students rushed out the classrooms.
“SAM, so as you know it’s time to go down to the gymnasium to prepare for the hike!” my co-teacher said, taking my hand (my co-teacher had a habit of holding my hand like I was five instead of twenty-five). We walked hand-in-hand to the gym in silence, leaving me to wonder what preparation for the hike entailed.
The entire school was waiting in neat lines, army-like, when we walked through the gym doors. They were all facing the front of the hall where the tiny principal was standing hidden behind the lectern, her perfect curls barely visible over the top.
She cleared her throat sending a blanket of silence over the school. The only sound came from the PE teacher who was oddly banging a spade aimlessly against the wooden floor. But I was the only one paying attention to him; all eyes were on the principal who was rattling off a pre-hike speech. Somewhere in between the Korean came ‘Osh-car Pee…Pee…Peestolius’ and a few furtive glances in my direction. They were the only two words I could understand, though I couldn’t understand why Oscar Pistorius was mentioned in the pre-hike speech.
Suddenly the principal screamed something to which the whole school responded by turning to the left. In unison they spread their arms at 180 degrees and started swinging them in small circles. At the call of the principal, the school turned to the right and repeated the process. Then they did ten star jumps. Then they ran on the spot. Then they walked on the spot. Then they moved their heads from side to side. Then they stretched their legs. And then they bent over and touched their toes. The principal barked again and all movement suddenly came to a halt. The students were apparently ready for the hike. One of the teachers walked around balancing a large cardboard box on one hand while handing out one bottle of water and one chocolate to each student. The students greedily accepted their road food; most of them unwrapped their chocolates immediately and gobbled them up. We hadn’t even left the gym yet.
Class after class the school headed outside in single file to the back of the school where the mountain waited. From above, it would have looked like giant, blue centipedes creeping slowly along the gently-winding concrete path. The students soon broke off into groups and chatted and laughed as they dug into their chocolates. Those who had finished their chocolates in the gym were now hassling their friends for theirs.
We passed bush and trees and more bush and trees. We passed a path on our right which looked like it led to nowhere. A lonely grey chair, half eaten by time, leant tiredly against a tree at the start of the path. It looked like no one had sat on it in about a decade. Now and then I glimpsed a scarecrow made out of what looked like foil wrapping paper with small, pink teddy bear print on it. The scarecrow was cut out in the shape of a massive teddy bear. It was stuck to a long stick which stabbed the vegetable-impregnated ground. A black bird perched on the head of one scarecrow while three other birds flapped and frolicked in the vegetable patch.
I had forgotten my hand was still tucked in my co-teacher’s as we walked and talked together; we discussed at length the differences between South Africa’s and Korea’s weather for probably the seventeenth time. Every few minutes she would point out a special flower or shrub or bird unique to Korea and then ask me if we had that special flower, shrub or bird in South Africa, but I was paying less attention to her and more attention to my now alarmingly heavy breathing which I tried to stifle immediately – we weren’t even walking for fifteen minutes. Suddenly my co-teacher jerked me aside and my boots gave way to the sludge, forcing me to grab ahold of anything within my reach – which turned out to be my co-teacher’s hair. We both yelped for different reasons. I looked around to see what caused my slipping on mud and tugging of hair and saw two tiny, ancient Korean women marching effortlessly past us. They greeted us coolly. I attempted to return their annyeonghaseyos between my heavy breathing.
Within two minutes we caught up with the two ancient Korean women again who had now started working out at a gym. My eyes blinked rapidly for a few seconds as I took in the outdoor gym equipment peppered on the mountain in front of me. One granny was swinging from monkey bar to monkey bar, while the other was lying flat on what looked like a kind of vertical see-saw with her head towards the ground and feet pointing to the sky.
I noticed it was suddenly quiet around us; barring five students and one other teacher the rest of the school had disappeared into the mountain. The only sounds now were coming from the squeaking gym equipment and the squelching of my boots, which were now patterned with a muddy paste of leaves and grass.
Suddenly the one other teacher walking ahead bolted back towards us. She muttered something hysterically to my co-teacher who looked like she’d been told that one of the students had just fallen to their death.
“What’s happened?” I asked.
“SAM, so as you know…we are on a mountain,” she finished anti-climactically. “The other teachers and students have gone ahead without us and now we should not go further!”
“Why can’t we go further?” I asked, completely baffled. We were less than thirty minutes into the hike, and they climbed this “small mountain” and took the same path every year. If we put foot I was sure we would’ve been able to catch up with the others in no time.
“No! We are now lost! We must sit down right here and just wait”.
“Wait for what?”
“For the others to finish the hike and come back.”
I checked my phone’s signal. “Can’t we just phone one of the teachers who went ahead and see where they are?”
“It’s too dangerous, we must just sit here.”
Trying to figure out what was too dangerous about that, I looked behind me at the valley below. I could still see the school buildings.
Without taking another step forward we sat down in a circle and waited for the others to come back.
We waited. And we stared. And we talked. And we played with the grass. And we sighed. And we took selfies. Until finally about twenty minutes later the sound of familiar voices came bouncing through the trees ahead of us. The five students and two teachers cheered loudly at the sight of their peers and colleagues.
The tiny principal approached me coyly, her curls still perfect,
I laughed, failing to disguise my bewilderment.
“SAM, we are safe!” my co-teacher exclaimed while grabbing my hand again. “We can go back to school now.”
And with that we started our short descent back to the school buildings, which could already be seen not too far away. As we finally walked back inside my co-teacher looked at her watch and said,
“SAM, you have class in five minutes!”
I let out an inaudible sigh. Just then I felt a slight tap on my back. I looked around to see one of the students looking at me sweetly.
“Yes?” I smiled back, their sweet smiles always contagious.
“Sam-Sam shoes DISGUSTING!”