Sunday, July 7, 2013

I DID IT! I left the village for the last time, goodbyes and sweet words were said. I feel an immeasurable amount of contentment. I want to hug everyone and everything and hold on to this feeling of accomplishment for a long time. I made it to the top of a massive metaphorical mountain and now I’m just sitting up here enjoying the view, soaking it in.

The past two months have given me the ending I was hoping for. Watching the orphanage building progress has been so cool, the structure is nearly finished. It was awesome to see something tangible created as a result of a lot of different people’s efforts. Here is the last newsletter the KEE sent out to raise money, it has profiles of me and my host mom in it: KEE Newsletter. The goal is to have it open and running by January for the new school year with 16 boys and 16 girls in their new home. We had our last soccer game against Melissa’s school. I closed the GLOW grant. I took and gave out the pictures for the last picture day. I also gave out the adorable handmade teddy bears I received from the Mother Bear Project ( ) to 150 excited children. I had to upload them onto a photo site so the NGO could distribute the pictures to the individual bear makers. If you’re interested here are the pictures: Mother Bear Photo Album. I gave away all of the clothes and random items to the kids in my class that I didn’t want to bring back with me, a cleansing and fun experience. There are going to be village kids walking around in Florida Gator gear for years to come ; ) The staff at school threw me a small farewell party with food and tea and speeches and hugs, a great note to end my last day of school on. I spent time with my extended host family that weekend since four of the twelve of my host parents’ kids came over for Father’s Day with their families. I gave them the Shutterfly Photo Album that my mom made and mailed to me filled with pictures of their home and garden and family which they absolutely loved.

It was bittersweet saying goodbye to my host parents the morning I left. The relationship we have together is one of the things I am most proud of. About a year ago I was really sick- I couldn’t make it outside and threw up all over the floor in their house. Mama didn’t even blink. She got a blanket, wrapped me in it and led me to the couch, and then proceeded to clean up my vomit with her bare hands like it was no big thing. The next day when I tried to tell her what that meant to me and how sorry I was, she gave me a hug and said, “you’re my daughter” like that explained everything, which it kind of did. They have always known when I needed my space and when I needed to be taken care of, a difficult balance to achieve. They show their love in little ways and I try to return the sentiment. Sometimes Mama brings me warm bread she just made to my door at night, or heats water over the fire to put in the washing buckets so my hands don’t freeze when I wash my clothes in the winter. Papa tells me the score of the soccer game that I couldn’t stay up to watch the next morning, and he asked me if my family and friends were okay the times he heard about Hurricane Sandy and the Boston bombings on his radio. Mama is fierce, no one messes with her. She’s an adventurer. I know if she had been born in a different country in a different time, she’d have seen the whole world by now. Papa has been sick with bladder and stomach problems for a couple months now, probably cancer. He’s looking older by the day which is hard to see because he’s usually so energetic and active. (One Sunday I saw his 75 year old self sprint down the road when he was late for church, no joke.) I hope he gets better but if he doesn’t, he’s lived a full life. A life they created together of hard work, educated and kind children, and a strong and equal marriage. It is obvious they are content and that’s what it’s all about. Of all the African mothers and fathers I could have had, I am grateful they are mine.

Other happenings: I went to the Bushfire music festival in Swaziland with a great group of PCVs. We danced our faces off for three days. The bands were awesome, the DJs were sick. The vibe was so so good. We met up with volunteers from Zambia, Mozambique and Swazi which was fun. Being around thousands of cool people, wearing normal clothes and rocking out made me feel like a person I'd forgotten I could be. It was refreshing. There were beautiful mountains in every direction and the reserve we stayed on had lots of animals. Peace Corps has given me my highest of highs and lowest of lows... that was hands down one of the highest highs.

Last week SA24 had our COS (Close of Service) conference. It was four days in a Grecian palace of a hotel, all of us together excited to be celebrating the end of our service. 47 of the 56 SA24s who began will COS, a high percentage compared to the global Peace Corps stats. I have a closer relationship with some people than others because our sites are in different parts of the country and there are some people I only see every couple of months, but the shared experience of being a PCV in SA connects us in a unique way. We understand how and why this country is crazzyyyyy with a capital C- there are overarching themes and struggles and successes that we can all relate to. The support system we created is out of control awesome and I know our positive group mindset is a huge factor in why so many of us made it to the end. At the conference we played assassins with water guns, had Smirnoff icing wars (shit got serious, no one was safe), played softball and reveled in our last days together in SA. We gave the PC staff feedback on what admin stuff worked and didn’t so they can improve it for the new class. (SA28 arrived last week! The Peace Corps circle of life continues..) My favorite session involved a panel of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) who talked about how they made the transition from PC to their jobs. It was interesting to hear them answer our questions and to hear about their lives working for USAID, for the State Department, in the private sector etc. Washington D.C. is one of the biggest hubs for RPCVs, another reason to be psyched for the future. On the last night we watched an amazing slide show that my friend Tara put together that started with JFK’s speech to congress in 1961 when he founded the Peace Corps… seeing pictures from the first couple months in SA drove home how much we’ve been through and how far we’ve come. The country director of PCSA also shared a video with us made by another African PC country director that I loved: A Tribute to Peace Corps Volunteers in Africa.

For my last two weeks I’ve been posting up at Khayaletu Guesthouse in Pretoria, my favorite spot in this country. 18 PCVs in one dorm room has been like summer camp, really smelly and really fun. It’s the perfect buffer between site and home because I’m done but I haven't left yet. It’s giving me time to process that I’ve actually finished and to prepare for how it’s going to feel to get back to the States. There’s also a lot of medical/admin stuff to take care of: I’ve been to the doctors for a physical, the dentist for a cleaning, taken de-worming and anti-schisto meds, given a urine sample and pooped in a cup, got a blood test, took a Tuberculosis test, closed my bank account, signed papers. Government bureaucracy is so enjoyable to deal with, said no one ever. But I am glad they’re being thorough. On Friday I’m GONE!

A couple people in SA24 put together the most bomb yearbook you’ve ever seen. It’s so cool that Obama could be reading it right now-- some of the Peace Corps staff won the US embassy lottery to attend a meet and greet with the president when he was here last week and they gave him a signed yearbook from all of us! One of the things in it is a survey we each filled out. The following questions are some from the survey and some I made up myself.

Best quote describing PC: “The best journeys in life answer questions that in the beginning you didn’t even think to ask” – 180 Degrees South

Favorite Tswana quote: Nko ya kgomo mogala tswara thata esere go utlwa sebodu wa kgaoga, take hold of what’s important and don’t let go

Thing I’ll miss the most: NorCape sunsets

Advice to my PST self: keep calm and carry on

My service in one word: Perspective

Theme Song: “Don’t Drink The Water” by Dave Matthews Band

Best vacation: climbing Kilimanjaro

African countries visited: 7

Best books read: Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, Sophie’s Choice by William Styron, Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert

Best TV shows watched: West Wing, Downton Abbey, The Newsroom, Mad Men, Homeland and House of Cards. It’s possible that I’ve watched more TV in SA than in my entire life put together.

This experience made me realize: that I was luckier the day I was born to my parents in my country than the majority of the children of the world

Best pick-up line: “I would pay your father 100 cows” – in SA the groom pays the bride’s family “Lobola,” like a dowry in reverse. The amount of cows translates into how much money one family pays the other. Lobola is a traditional ceremony that every engaged couple takes part in that seals the promise of marriage. The daughters of chiefs only get like 50 cows so 100 is quite the compliment. When my parents came to visit my host dad joked that when I get married he’s going to fly to America to help my real dad negotiate my Lobola so no man jips me out of all the cows I’m worth. (A sentence I never thought I’d write…)

Skills I’ve gained that probably shouldn’t go on my resume: outstanding capacity for daydreaming, superbly fast typer of blackberry emails, esteemed deflector of sexual harassment, competent in her ability to bond with old African women anytime anyplace, certifiably able to travel from point A to point B with no plans and no money, expert water carrier (fitting cause I’m an Aquarius), won’t melt (the Kalahari sun has tried), can sleep through roosters crowing and donkeys screeching and babies crying, will never complain about the quality/cleanliness of a toilet or bathroom in the entirety of the United States, killer of cockroaches and spiders and scorpions, retains the mental fortitude to wait for hours on end, survivor of the most awkward and uncomfortable situations imaginable, prestigious PCV pep talk giver, had an impressive career as a hand washer of clothes but will be retiring such skills forever

Things I couldn’t have lived without: Friends and family, packages, phone calls, texts, emails, messages, letters, SA24 (we did it guys!!!!), Blyde 5 + 1 (our bbm chat and the actual hilarious, wonderful and supportive human beings), baby wipes (I’ve kept them in business the past two years), my Nalgene and Steripen, journals (6 written in PC), books (54 read in PC), Kindle, running shoes, quick dry towels, bananas (I’ve eaten minimum 15 a week every week and that’s only cause that’s all I could carry with me from town), Starbucks Vias, Livingstone’s Happy Hour, Khaya Pizza Night, KHAYA in general, my host parents, my real parents, and lots of buckets


It’s hard to see and explain the ways I’ve changed little and big for better and for worse, but I definitely feel a different kind of gratitude that I didn’t before. Gratitude for my health, education, clean water, the supportive and wonderful people I know, safety, self-respect, my worldview and global perspective, for the opportunity to learn how to be quiet and to be completely content alone with myself, and for the chance to learn about what really matters to me. Peace Corps has brought me back to the basics and reminded me of the importance of simplicity. I’ve been wondering if the little and big things I appreciate now will fade over time. As of now taking a hot shower is like a month long Caribbean island vacation... I'm aware that won’t always be the case and that I’ll easily get used to these normal comforts I lived with for so long, but I want to try to actively live with this gratitude forever, mindful of all that I have. Having seen and experienced and learned about how some people live means that I can’t go back to not knowing it again…a shift has taken place. I’ve never felt completely comfortable in this strange 1800s time-warp donkey cart no running water African world, but I know from my visits home that I’ll never feel the same as I did in the States before I started Peace Corps. Not that I won’t be happy in the States cause I know I will be, just that my comfort zone has expanded and can’t go back to its original dimensions. It’s okay though, I think never feeling entirely comfortable in either world is a small price to pay for an earth sized comfort zone and lots of life experience. I tried to explain this to a very good friend of mine who was a PCV in Senegal in the 60s and is now retired and serving in South Africa again. She wrote back: “I have never felt the same in America either for 45 years. Once Africa touches your heart, it is there forever. But trust me, it’s a good thing.”

I knew that if I joined the Peace Corps I’d never regret it. Having made it to the end I feel that with even more intensity. The perspective it’s given me, the unique perception I have of my own country and of others, the friendships I made, the lessons I learned, the personal strength I discovered… it's all worth it so many times over. It was such a huge commitment but there’s no other way I would rather have spent the last two years than like this. When things were tough there was nothing to do but keep on keepin’ on because I knew that this too shall pass, the good and the bad. No other decision or experience could have better incorporated who I am and who I want to be. No matter how rough it got, that knowledge always gave me strength. This was exactly where I should have been, and now it’s time to come home.

: )Peace Africa, I'll catch you later.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

GLOW was great. Generous donations from my family and friends, hours of planning, stress, problem solving, and more than a few tears contributed to the success. I don’t think the four of us (Me, Melissa, Ellen and Marie) realized how big of an undertaking it was going to be. We encountered some problems but luckily they all happened during the planning stage and not at the actual camp. The biggest problem occurred a month before our set date when I randomly decided to call the venue we’d booked back in November to ask a few questions about kitchen supplies we needed to bring. The white Afrikaner woman who owned the place instantly got all flustered and told me that “a big group wanted to book up the entire place for a month and I have to cancel your reservation because I have bills to pay and my business is dying and don’t you understand and I’m sorry and blah blah blah.” My head started to spin somewhere in there as I realized what she was trying to tell me. It was a good thing I called her when I did, she wasn’t even polite enough to call and tell me first. So unprofessional, so Africa, so annoying. This was one of the moments where I realized yet again for the hundred millionth time that the same rules don’t apply here as in the States, that people can do whatever they want and I just have to deal. We gave ourselves a couple days to find a new place that could accommodate seventy people on short notice and tried not to freak out too much. A week and lots of phone calls and emails and estimates later, we found a place near Vryburg available the weekend before the date we had planned. They were in our price range which had quickly become the only determining factor so we booked it and went into hyper planning mode.

We met up in town for a weekend to knock out as much as we could. One morning was spent negotiating the supermarket at month’s end, aka the worse time to shop. I wish I had a video of the experience- it was packed to the max because the government pension money had just been distributed. We were jumping over aisle displays and broken bags of flour, squeezing between women with asses just a tiny bit bigger than mine (and by that I mean..), making hand signals to communicate with each other, throwing items from feet away into the shopping carts, double checking that we had everything as we waited in line for 3 hours to check out. Suzette, the woman who owns the guesthouse we stay at in our shopping town, was kind enough to let us store all the non-perishable food in her storage space so we didn’t have to haul it all back to our villages. Marie organized the school bus we rented and went to their headquarters in a nearby township with boatloads of cash so we didn’t have to transfer the deposit into a random account and run the risk of getting scammed. Other things went wrong with our budgets, with buying t-shirts, with transport, but we solved each problem as it came. We split up the lessons we wanted to have, made lesson plans and posters and powerpoints (my google history was super incriminating the day I made the Sexually Transmitted Infections powerpoint haha), discussed teaching methods and logistics. By the time the actual camp came around I was honestly ready for it to be over. I knew in the back of my mind that it was going to be worth the effort but somewhere along the way I lost sight of the reasons I was doing it in the first place.

Those reasons are: South Africa has the highest number of individuals living with HIV/AIDS in the world, over 5 million people. One in five adults is HIV positive. SA has the largest number of children under fifteen living with HIV/AIDS, about 300,000 children. Women’s groups and the SA police estimate that a woman is raped every 26 seconds in this country.  According to the UN Office on Crimes and Drugs, South Africa is ranked first for rapes per capita. Educating women is the most efficient way to affect change within a community, which I’m calling a fact from personal experience.

Luckily it took ten minutes to remember these reasons once the actual camp started. It turned out great! I can confidently say, now that I’m safely on the other side, that it was absolutely 400% totally completely worth it. Me, Melissa, Ellen and Marie worked together really well. Our friends Andrew and Asha came to help too, they cooked ten delicious meals for seventy people! Melissa and Ellen are experienced and talented teachers who took charge of the most important lessons dealing with HIV, contraception, puberty, sex and sexuality and positive decision making. Marie covered self-esteem, hygiene, and gender roles. I covered topics like nutrition and healthy diets, STIs and sexual violence. I did a self-defense activity where I demonstrated some key moves for getting away from someone trying to attack them, which they embraced with lots of energy. It was an awesome girl power moment to see sixty girls yelling fiercely as they kicked an invisible attacker in the crotch as hard as they could. We made tie dye t-shirts, taught them how to swim, painted nails, held a talent show and a movie night and gave out certificates.

It was nice to watch the girls come out of their shells and make new friends. They taught each other songs and dances (The eighteen girls that went from my class have gone on to teach the whole school these songs and I hear them everyday around the village) and to really enjoy themselves. We had the girls answer surveys on the last day and one of the questions was, “What did you learn at Camp GLOW?” The answers were great to read: “I learned I can say no to sex if a man wants it,” “I learned I am beautiful,” “I learned how to protect myself” etc etc. Really cool stuff that showed some of what we were trying to get across stuck with them. They can’t stop talking about it and ask me if they can go back to camp like five times a day. I’ve seen small changes in my girls since we came back, especially in the four girls who I think have the best chance of getting out of the village someday. It was honestly one of the greatest things I’ve ever been a part of and I want to say thank you again to everyone who made it possible.

I’ve written a lot previously about the water issue my school has. The issue is a relatively big one because it has no water access at all. I’ve tried to find a solution to this since the beginning of my service because I still have trouble believing that the 300 plus kids at my school don’t have a tap to drink out of or wash their hands with on the school grounds. I wrote about the possibility of a South African NGO called PlayPump fixing the situation last year, but when they came to test the water in the ground at school it missed their minimum cleanliness standards by a mile and I had to accept that it wasn’t going to happen with them. Wellll something awesome happened a little while ago: A mining company from Johannesburg called Scorpion Mining has agreed to pay for and install a water pump and filter, providing clean water access to the school and the soon to be built orphanage. WoOHOO! Only took two years. A sterling example of African time but I’m just happy it’s happeninggg : ) The NGO that has done a lot of work at my school and in the area, the Kalahari Education Experience (KEE), locked down Scorpion Mining last year to help fund the orphanage they are building in my village. SA companies get tax breaks for providing monetary support to projects in rural villages so it was in the company’s interest to get on board. You need water to construct a building like the orphanage (quite amazing all the things you need water for..) so a couple months ago the KEE representatives started actively helping search for companies that could pay for a pump and filter. They were feeling the pressure to find a solution to the water problem so they could stay on track with their building schedule, which had already been delayed for other reasons. Long story short, they got the mining company to agree to pay for it! I did mental back flips when I found out. I exchanged emails with the company to discuss the situation and give them the test results from PlayPump with the flow rate and sanitation results so they could figure out how to design a filtration system for this spot.

Reps from Scorpion came out to my school two weeks ago to take measurements and finalize plans. This is what they’ve come up with: A pump will be placed down in the borehole to move water from the ground into a 5,000 liter holding tank. From the tank the water will go through a treatment container at the rate of 600 liters per hour. Once the water has been treated it goes into a 10,000 liter holding tank that will be connected to taps at the orphanage and the school. The water will come out of the ground at a rate of 580 liters per hour which means it takes about two days to fill the 10,000 liter tank with treated and clean water ready to be used. The construction of the orphanage starts next week and the pump and filter will be installed mid-May. These two things are what I’ve wanted to see happen the most before the end of my service and I’m really glad I get to. My time is winding down and finding a source was starting to seem impossible, without the KEE it wouldn’t be happening. Lucky for me, our priorities aligned. Lucky for the school, it’s getting some water !!!

In February and March graduate school admissions decisions came rolling in and I’m happy to say I got into six of the seven programs I applied to. I may have a grownup future after all. Tufts, Denver, Johns Hopkins, George Washington, American, and Georgetown said yes. I applied to a second program at Georgetown for an MS in Foreign Service that said no, which is probably for the best since I have no business getting a degree with the words “Master of Science” in it. I got the rejection last and it made the acceptances more meaningful because I know the others could all have easily gone the other way. I got the acceptance email about the other program I applied to at Georgetown, MA in Conflict Resolution, at 6AM one morning before school in February. Most effective alarm clock ever. I jumped out of bed so excited, re-read the email over and over to make sure it was saying what I thought it was saying. I texted my parents who called immediately and we got to flip out together for a minute, it was really nice. Reminded me of getting into UF in Germany and sharing another happy phone call with them six years ago. I’ve been into this MA program for a long time, it was my first choice. I even met with the director and a current student from it when I was in DC for a Model European Union competition my senior year of college.

The fact that everything worked out how I wanted it to is something I’m still trying to wrap my brain around. Some schools gave me more money than Georgetown did but I know this program is the best one for me. I’m so interested by every aspect of the curriculum, I literally want to take every class they offer. I think I’ll end up taking the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) sometime in the future and see where that takes me, so this feels like a good next step for the professional direction I want to move in. I’m coming to terms with the ginormous amount of debt I’m about to take on… YOLO ya know? (haha seee I haven’t missed every pop culture reference). All my previous leaps of faith have worked out so I can’t justify not giving this a shot. I’m starting to freak out a little, it’s all going to come at me real fast and I wish I had more time to readjust before classes start, but as problems go that’s a pretty good one to have.

So there was this mountain right. I climbed it. The end.

Justtt kidding, lemme tell you a story. I’ve gotten to do some pretty cool stuff on this continent like go to world cup games, ride an elephant, surf the Indian Ocean, snorkel with whale sharks, bungee jump (I’m not trying to brag I swear… ok yes I am) but Kilimanjaro was the coolest. Seven of us, five PCVs and two American friends did a 6 day hike. Day 1 we hiked a leisurely 8km through the rainforest. It was beautiful and green, we were psyched and ready to start after so much build-up. The tour guides and porters who went with us were amazing, it took a crew of 17 people to make sure we had a smooth time. If I ever felt like a badass, all I had to do was watch a porter carrying food and water and supplies and our big backpacks, everything on their backs and heads going twice our pace with about sixty extra pounds on them… and I was sufficiently put in my place. We had one head guide and two assistant guides. All three were very competent, I felt safe and secure in their care. They were attentive to our conditions, checking if our finger nails were blue or if under our eyes was bulging or for other signs of altitude sickness. I had a great time talking with them as we hiked. We talked about their lives and mine, Tanzanian politics (I can never miss a chance to ask taxi drivers and guides and random strangers about the political situation in their country.. it’s a problem), specifics of the mountain and other routes, just everything. All of us talked and joked and played 20 questions and gave each other riddles to solve that usually had to do with midgets (?? haha). We had a great group. No one complained or held us back, we were a good team in it together. At base camp 1 the first afternoon I started to feel nauseous. That began two days of diarrhea and sickness probably caused by food or the water. I wasn’t able to eat or drink much and at night I was drained, my legs could barely hold me steady over the holes in the ground meant to be toilets. I didn’t have an appetite but managed to keep it together, luckily the next two days weren’t too taxing. Day 2 was 11km from base camp 1 to base camp 2. Day 3 was an acclimatizing day, 5km up and back to base camp 2. That’s the PG version of events, I left out some gross and embarrassing details that I’m more than willing to tell you in person. (Also I apologize if you don’t like the word diarrhea… PCVs say it about once a day.) Even though I felt bad I still had a pretty positive attitude, looking at the most incredible views can have that effect. The guides said something to me like “don’t think about tomorrow or the summit, focus on this step right now” which helped me to take it easy and not stress about not being strong enough when the intense stuff came.

Every night we met interesting hikers from all over, played a bunch of cards, heard stories about hiking the Himalayas and the Andes and learned some Swahili words. (My new favorite phrase in response to the question how are you: Poa kichizi kama ndizi which means “I’m crazy cool like a banana” ; ))  Day 4 I woke up after 10 hours of sleep feeling like a million bucks. I woofed down five eggs, tons of toast and peanut butter, everything finally looked delicious and I knew I needed the energy for what was coming. We passed an Australian couple on their way down and asked them if they enjoyed the summit hike. The man paused for a long moment and said, “In Retrospect” and then turned on his way. All of us were like … uhhh.. hope we know what we got ourselves into. I felt better just in time, the morning of Day 4 started the most insane 36 hours of my life. We hiked 11 km from the 2nd to the 3rd base camp, called Kibu. That hike was through a vast expanse of tundra, the space between Mawenzi and Kili mountains. The whole time I felt like Frodo on my way to Mordor, it was even more beautiful than Lord of the Rings. The end of the trek was steep, rainy and cold. We arrived around 3PM. Kibu is a stone building with a bunch of bunk beds, basically the most uncomfortable and cold place you can imagine. There’s no water access there, only what the porters had carried. It felt like we had arrived at the end of the world. We were starting the summit hike at 11PM that same night so we tried to get a couple hours sleep in between.

At 11PM it was pitch black and snowing. We went in a single file line, heads down focusing on the person’s feet in front of us. We hiked up for eight hours, slowly moving up and up following the switchback trail in the snow left by the group before us. It was extremely tough, I can’t convey.. every step took so much more energy at that altitude. The summit is 19,340 feet and that night alone we climbed 5,000 feet. I was straining for air feeling light headed and drugged. I had it about as good as you can have it though, got my serious sickness out of the way early in the trip. Andrew woke up with intestinal issues that night but managed to make it to the top despite it. Kevin and Rachel got hit hard by altitude sickness. Kevin said the only way to describe it was to imagine climbing a mountain with the worst hangover you’ve ever had in your life. He was behind me and I was totally prepared to get hit with his projectile vomit. The snow was stained in places where other people had done just that. It was brutal. The snow, the climb, the rocks at the top before the first peak, the lack of air. I felt so heavy. The sunrise began around 6AM, I watched it progress from a hint of color in the sky to the most beautiful full blown sunrise. It was like a kingdom of light and clouds, I’m not going to forget that view for a long time.

It took another hour and a half to get to the highest peak once we’d gotten over the side of the mountain. That part was gorgeous, a glacier on the left, blue sky by that time, views as far as I could see. It felt damn good to make it to Uhuru Peak, sweet success. You can’t stay long at the top cause of the air and the cold so it’d barely sunk in that we’d made it before we had to turn around. On the way down Jill and I were flying ahead, skiing in our hiking shoes down the snow and dirt. We’d run out of water and just wanted to get down. The guides joked that me and Jill were the real guides. They said to us, “In the beginning we thought you were too small, but now we know you are strong.” Heck yeah! That made us laugh. We made it to Kibu at 11:30 AM, almost 12 hours after we started. We rested for an hour and then headed out again to make the 11km back to base camp 2 before dark. Hence the ridiculous 36 hours. My body has never done anything like that before. The last day we hiked the 19k down from base camp 2 to the gate, the whole time in rain and mud. By the end we were singing Disney songs and when we saw the gate we burst out yelling and laughing.

Long description of an incredible experience. There was a great motto etched into the walls of the huts-- “Climb til you puke !!! and then climb a little more” which about sums it up haha. The week after we finished my lips were swollen, my face was peeling from sunburn, my eyes were bloodshot red like a legit vampire and I’m probably gonna lose a toenail from coming down. But I wouldn’t change a thing, intestinal issues and all. Not getting bad altitude sickness was lucky. The mountain decides who finishes and doesn’t, it was out of our control. I’m so glad I did it, I learned a lot about Tanzania and hiking and myself.

Last week was wild. Between the marathon bombings, the MIT officer shooting, the manhunt, the Texas explosion, the suspicious letters sent to the capital and the voting down of the new gun law measures, I almost felt safer here than in the States. Almost. It was strange to watch everything unfold on my phone so far from all the incidents. It’s an interesting perspective, disconnected and yet connected, which made me think a lot about how the news cycle has changed in the past couple of years and where it’s heading. It’s not Peter Jennings at his desk telling you what happened at 6 o’clock anymore, it’s Twitter and Facebook and a constant stream of articles that allows anyone to participate in the distribution and creation of information. I never expected to be this involved with the world’s happenings (that was actually one of my biggest worries about joining Peace Corps) but I’m so grateful that it’s the case, even when really sad things happen. Reading the news in real time helps me to feel connected to home and the world in general. I deal with the helplessness I feel about big news stories by reading way too many articles about them, as if knowing every detail will make whatever happened somehow more understandable. There’s always more to read, always one more article that looks interesting, one more news site to refresh and check.. I have to tell myself to put down my phone and step away slowly when my mind starts to turn to mush. PC life affects a person in different ways. I have plenty of time to psychoanalyze the crap out of myself and I know my news addiction is one of the manifestations of my isolated life. I guess it’s better than becoming an alcoholic though right ??
The stuff I wrote about GLOW and the water and Kili and grad school is all overwhelmingly positive and it was awesome to experience each one of those things, but it took until the end of March and vacation to actually see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’d been at site for two and a half months after Christmas of GLOW stress and unbearable heat, which made it impossible to take a step back and get some perspective. Not sleeping well was the toughest part. I couldn’t see past the camp which meant I didn’t mentally prepare much for Kili either. I’d lived here for so long, I felt like the hard stuff should have been behind me. Getting into grad school was great but I couldn’t even picture what my life will be like in September because I was so consumed by my immediate environment. It was hard to imagine fall at Georgetown when I wanted to lay down and die over summer in Africa. Only over break away from site could I realize how lucky I am that things worked out the way they did. As I write this I’m wearing a sweatshirt feeling cozy and comfy, fall has finally come. I feel such relief to have made it through the summer, through my fifth and final season change. I take great comfort in knowing I’ll never have to be that hot for that long again.

Since I got back from vacation things at site have been surprisingly good. Usually the transition back is tough but this time was smooth. I keep treading lightly waiting for shit to hit the fan, but then I remember shit hit the fan from January to March and maybeee I should just relax and enjoy this final leg of my service. School has been as good as it has ever been this term. I’m starting to worry about leaving my kids and what their futures will bring them. I know I have no control over it but they deserve a lot more than they’re going to get. I have some final projects to wrap up before I leave for good at the end of June: last soccer game, last picture day, filling out forms with receipts and logs to finally close the GLOW grant (I have left over money from the grant so I’m taking every student’s picture and giving them a copy, best use of the money I could think of.) I’m also waiting to receive 150 teddy bears in the mail made by the “Mother Bear Project,” an American NGO that makes teddy bears for underprivileged children and sends them abroad for free. All I had to do was send an email and now every kid in Kindergarden,1st and 2nd grade is going to get their own teddy bear. It’s a wonderful NGO. Other than that, no new projects or activities to begin. I want to focus on wrapping up the things already in place. I want to end my service on my own terms and leave having finished the things I started. I’m aware that this is a huge wish, but with two months left I feel like it’s starting to come together.

If you read this whole post you basically just accomplished the equivalent of running the Boston Marathon. Thanks for caring : ) stay safe! and I’ll do the same. Lotz of Love.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Go reng mo bathong??? Gangsta Setswana speak for “what’s shakin’ people”  : )

I had a wonderful time at home over Christmas. It was everything I was hoping it’d be, all the buildup in my head didn’t disappoint. I love Gainesville, I love my family, I love my friends. I love my house and driving and grocery stores and indoor plumbing and cold water that comes out of the fridge door and understanding subtle cultural cues and lots of other little and big things. I felt myself immediately sink right back into the flow of things. Visiting in April prepared me for this longer visit. I had a better idea of what to expect and much less culture shock, which meant I didn’t burst into tears when I walked into our house for the first time like in April. Instead, on the first night back I marched right into the shower with a smile on my face and washed Africa and the 36 hours of travel off me, put on my most comfortable PJs, sat down on the couch with a cup of tea and talked with my parents until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. Stuff like that is all I need to be completely content. It was a whole month of comfort—straight chilling, using the fireplace at all possible moments, delicious dinners, lots of cups of tea and coffee, Laura and I posting up covered in blankets watching Downton Abbey, trying to get Ryan to drink more alcohol (kidding…), bonfires, bike rides, dancing, so many great nights with good friends. In November my parents told the four of us not to make plans December 20-24th and not to ask questions. My covert Nancy Drew skills failed me, a cruise to Mexico was a surprise up til the end. We went scuba diving right off the coast and it was SWEET. Hanging with all the awesome people I know was so good. Time and distance haven’t and won’t change a thing, an extremely comforting thought. I know that isn’t always the case which makes me appreciate my friends all the more. On the flight back I had a twelve hour layover at Heathrow so I left the airport and spent the day anonymously roaming around the National Gallery art museum in the center of London. It was interesting to experience basically the height of western civilization, surrounded by Van Goghs and Monets, knowing that in a few hours I’d be at the opposite end of that spectrum. I stopped by Buckingham Palace and put in my resume to be the royal baby’s nanny. Still waiting to hear back. Word on the street is Prince Harry is coming to SA and Lesotho at the end of February so my new goal in life is to meet him. I’m calling it “mission: seduce the prince.” Ill keep you posted on my progress.

I’m going to try to describe my current state of being without sounding like a lunatic, no promises. It is so F***ING hot. The heat is overpowering otherworldly consuming dominating me. I got back to site in the middle of January after five solid days of travel, nursing a 102 degree fever. My fever coincided with the two hottest days I’ve ever had the privilege to live through, temperatures were clocked in a nearby town in the Northern Cape at 120 degrees. I couldn’t cool down, my internal temperature was off already and my body couldn’t regulate itself. In the middle of the night I was having panicked thoughts about my organs overheating. Delirious much? I felt trapped knowing there was no escape from the heat for miles in all directions, not even in the middle of the night. My room doubles as an oven with its total lack of insulation and tin roof, so even when it starts to cool down late at night, it’s still a good five or ten degrees hotter inside. I’ve had trouble sleeping many nights of the past month (which is a technique they should consider implementing at Guantanamo) sweating through my sheets and clothes, and having even weirder dreams than usual. Once I got over being sick I was in a better mental state to man up and deal with it. I’m hoping that the worst is over now that the height of summer is behind me. I knew coming back to the village after a month of perfect comfort would be difficult, but the transition completely knocked me on my ass anyway. The only thing to do is put one foot in front of the other until the fall weather starts to set in. Until then I’ll be daydreaming about my ideal scenario: getting out of a hot shower in a cool room and climbing into crisp clean sheets for a good night’s sleep. How GOOD does that sound?!?

Thanks for letting me get that out of my system. I always try to put my experience into context whenever I’m going through a hard time. I’ve become an expert at thinking myself out of whatever is weighing me down, which isn’t too difficult when everyone else’s problems are so apparent. I spend a lot of my time in my room, it’s a tiny oasis of American real estate in the Kalahari desert. Mere feet away from me someone is hungry or sick, someone is getting hit or abused, children are pregnant with children, and a whole bunch of other things I try not to imagine. Because of my close proximity to these things I’ve learned to compartmentalize, and when I’m in my room I block out everything outside of those four walls a lot of the time. It’s a defense mechanism, if I let myself internalize all of it all the time I’d go insane. But living here inevitably offers some perspective. My biggest problem is the heat?? Shoo, my host parents have lived through seventy-five summers. The kids I teach will most likely spend their entire lives in this village, all their days dictated by the rain, wind and sun. I’m not trying to assert that being hungry or poor are the only legitimate problems out there, definitely not. I get caught up in my own head everyday all the time (see previous paragraph), just that it helps to put things into perspective when I’m having a rough time. These two years can feel like a lifetime, but they’ll be a distant memory for much much longer. I will probably live on this continent again but Africa isn’t my fate. I get to leave in a couple months, to go back to the States, to my high standards of hygiene and living, to go to graduate school, to get a job, to travel, to have a family, to live in peace and comfort. Why I am lucky enough to expect these things, because of where and to whom I was born, makes no sense to me.

Transport is a big part of my experience in PC but I don’t think I’ve really touched on it that much. There used to be a bus (like a school bus type vehicle) that left my village at 6:30 AM everyday. It was consistent for the most part and the bus driver was a nice and reliable man. When the strike started in June last year, it stopped running because other buses had been burned in the area. There were also lots of threats by bakkie drivers. Bakkies are smaller pick-up truck like vehicles with a flat bed in the back and usually a cover. They’re ancient and a few short miles away from breaking down. The one I usually catch a ride with needs to touch wires together by the steering wheel to get the engine to start. I thought when the strike was over the bus would come back, but the bakkie drivers demanded 4,000 rand from the bus company to compensate for the money they’d lose. So the bus said nope, not dealing with you guys. Since last June I’ve had to either hitch at the edge of the village or call one of the bakkie drivers I know. It’s against PC rules to hitch or ride in bakkies, but I talked about my situation with the admin staff, reiterating how much I didn’t want to have to change sites, and they were cool with it. Every other week I do this to buy my food with upwards of eighteen people squeezed in with me, sardines have nothing on that. To give you an idea: the driver is driving so fast on a terrible “road”, men are drinking beer and spilling it everywhere, old women are snorting tobacco (this is a particularly unique visual), babies are crying and wetting themselves, tiny toddlers are drinking copious amounts of coca cola, everyone smells bad, food packages are breaking and spilling all over my stuff, everyone is yelling over one another, and refusing to open a window because they think fresh air will give them tuberculosis, I am contorted in a cramped weird position, just waiting for a tire to blow, for the driver to lose control, for us to break down. There are moments when I wish I could take a picture because it’s too ridiculous to believe. The whole thing from start to finish takes about 10 hours, waiting around is a huge part of it. The uncertainty of who will pick me up, how long it will take, and the general unsafety stresses me out every time I’m gearing myself up for a ride. Butttt TIA, it is what it is. I know that if (when) I live to tell the tale, I’ll have some crazy stories and an insane appreciation for efficient public transportation and driving myself whenever and wherever I want to go.

The new school year began January 16th. I got to go up a grade with my students which I was reallllyyy happy about, so I’m teaching the same kids I was last year. It’s a good deal because they’re used to my teaching style and we’re all used to each other, so the beginning of the term started off fine. I set up a school-wide picture day last week which turned out great! Like I mentioned before, no one has pictures of themselves and everyone wants them, so this seemed like a solid and simple project to tackle. The cost of printing a photo in town is five rand (about 75 cents) which is what I charged for each picture. Eighty students brought five rand, I was shocked it was so many. The day I took the photos every kid was soo excited and rowdy. Their emotional reactions were the equivalent of taking a trip to Disney World. I’m planning to do it again before I leave because the response was so good. Camp GLOW planning is taking up lots of time too. Thank you to all the wonderful and generous people who donated on the Fundrazr site!!! I am immensely grateful. Our grants were approved which was a great feeling, but it’s going to cost more than we were given to pull it off. If you’re interested in donating here’s the site: Camp GLOW I will be sure to take a ton of pictures and explain how things go in depth so everyone will know what their money was used for. We are still finalizing the specific sessions and layout of each day and in a couple weeks we’ll go to town and buy a boatload of supplies and food. I’ve never planned anything like this before, it’s awesome but also overwhelming to think that this many girls will depend on us to be fed, taught, taken care of, and entertained.

I had an awesome time with friends in town on my birthday weekend. At the end I felt much more rejuvenated and ready to take on the week. I brought back solo cups from the States so we had an extensive beer pong tournament which made us feel collegiate and American and happy. The owner of the guesthouse I always stay at in town (who I loveeee) took us to this amazing sinkhole/canyon place not so far from Kuruman. I had no idea it existed. It was on a game reserve so we saw lots of animals, the Northern Cape was exceptionally beautiful that day. We had a BBQ and the water to ourselves. The medical staff has told us one million times not to swim in any water of any kind so we dont get schisto and other friendly parasites, but we’re at the point in our service where that stuff doesn’t scare us as much as it used to. Sometimes, like the parent of a child, you gotta just let your immune system go out into the world and try new and potentially dangerous things. We were joking how worse comes to worst we get a paid for extended trip to Pretoria out of it to see the doctor. Haha, so far everything seems all good. It was so worth it, the water was cold and refreshing and it’s a memory I’ve been reverting back to a lot. Speaking of birthdays, I asked the kids in my class the date of theirs a while back so I could record them in my calendar and make them feel a little special on their day. Maybe a quarter of my kids didn’t know the date, which made me sad. I told them to pick a random date and we’d celebrate then. One of my girls’ actual birthday was February 7th so I brought her some chocolate and wished her happy birthday. When I handed it to her, her face changed and I realized she hadn’t remembered it was her birthday until that moment late in the day. I know Tswana culture doesn’t place much emphasis on the individual, but come onnnn, a kid can have a birthday.

I heard back from two grad school programs in December--accepted to Tufts and the University of Denver! I wasn’t expecting early answers but it’s nice to know I have a plan no matter what. I’m most interested in hearing back from other schools so by April I’ll know the real deal. Tufts and Denver have been sending me emails from deans and alums trying to get me to commit, my favorite of which was an email inviting me to an alumni dinner in Cape Town in a couple days… OH YEAH let me get in my car and drive to Cape Town for the night. Syke. I find it prettyyy funny that they think I’m a person worthy of their attention, if they could only see me in my sorry state of sweat and grime they might reconsider. Another pcv friend had a phone interview with UNC recently and she was like “I’m nervous! I just took a bucket bath and put on nicer clothes, I feel like they can tell how dirty I am through the phone.” Haha. I’ve been applying to scholarships so hopefully that comes to something. I want to do my best to make a smart decision factoring in lots of things, but money has to be a priority.  It’s almost too easy to say I’ll be 90,000 dollars in debt and just figure it out, but that won’t be so easy when I’m paying it back every month for the rest of my existence. Money is dangerously abstract when you have none. Whatever happens, I’m pumped. It’ll be so nice to stay up late reading and hang out in libraries and meet new people and explore a new place.

Other little things: I booked my flight to Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro at the end of March!!! awwyeahh, an adventure awaits. I brought Starbucks instant coffee and Trader Joe’s chai tea latte mix back with me, best purchases ever. I’m rationing them but when I enjoy a cup I can practically feel the caffeine rush through my veins and it never fails to put me in a good mood. When the occasional coveted afternoon rain comes, I’m as happy as Tom Hanks in Castaway when he finally makes a fire. I’ve read some good books lately, the book count is getting higher. On the day of the inauguration my parents called me unexpectedly and put the phone up to the speakers so I could hear Obama take the oath and give his speech in real time. It was special to be part of that moment. South Africa just finished hosting the African Cup of Nations which has been going on the past month, like the African “EuroCup” equivalent. Nigeria pulled it out in the end but Burkina Faso’s cinderella-like rise to the final was fun to watch. Peace Corps announced recently that UF has the most undergrad and grad volunteers of any university in the country. GO Gators!!! My host parents are finally being given back their land 100 kilometers away that was forcibly taken from them in 1977 during Apartheid. They were forced to relocate as part of a government mandated land redistribution program which took land with better soil and lucrative resources from the blacks and gave it to white farmers without any warning or compensation. Only took the government 36 years to get its act together. The meeting where the community members got to choose between monetary compensation or having their actual land back took place in our yard last week. I watched it happen, talk about history.

Here’s to an awesome 2013!  I have a feeling it’s gonna be a good one.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A new post for you the interested few

about some happenings here in the southern hemisphere

It’s so flipping hot, Colorado legalized pot??

I miss you all A LOT

ok gonna stop this rhyme before you lose your mind…


My school re-opened at the end of September. No road has been started or even planned as far as I know so everyone is in the same spot as before, big surprise. It’s complicated to explain how the strike was able to go on so long in the first place. There were threats of burning schools and intimidation by coercive men but parents and teachers were also complicit in a sense for not doing anything to change the situation. The principals and teachers were still getting their paychecks so there wasn’t much incentive for them to stand up in opposition to the strikers. I get it, they’re tired and someone handed them an unexpected vacation-- being a teacher is HARD work especially out here where the fruits of your labor are rarely ever seen or acknowledged. School in the village isn’t an avenue for a child to equip themselves with knowledge to succeed in the world like it should be. It’s a past time, a space for kids to be kids and if they happen to learn something throughout the day it was probably an accident anyway.

One of the biggest problems with the education system is the huge disconnect between what the national and provincial governments think the rural areas kids can handle and what they actually can. The same curriculum that challenges white children in the suburbs of Cape Town will never ever be even remotely appropriate for kids in the villages. I use a modified version of the fourth grade curriculum for sixth grade and even that is far too advanced. Fourth grade has them writing plays and debating social issues when some kids can’t even read and have no concept of what a story is, let alone a play. The gap only widens when something like the strike happens disrupting what little learning momentum they had. After three months without regular schooling, whatever progress they made in the year has been erased, it was like starting over from January. The provincial education department came up with a “recovery plan” to make up for the months lost by synthesizing the most important lessons and concepts from the time missed and the time left before the school year ends on December 7th. They mandated longer school hours during the week and tried to make Saturday school happen but the teachers’ unions nixed that. The recovery plan implemented in this area, even more so than the regular curriculum, is way too ambitious. I want the government officials in charge of making education policy to sit in a village classroom for an hour cause I’d bet you my first born child they never have.

I could say a lot more about this but thinking and writing about it makes me tired. Watching the strike unfold gave me some more perspective as to how unstable the entire country is. Around that time the 34 striking miners were killed by the police in Marikana and other strikes and protests were erupting. It was almost as if you could feel an energy pulsing through the country. The government’s ruling party is messing up big time, people are starting to notice and resentment is starting to build. The ANC has created a small elite that largely ignores the needs of the rest of the country, especially the rural areas, because they’re too busy filling their pockets and driving around in slick new cars. White South Africans have been upset about the ANC for a long time but black South Africans are starting to rise up as the gap between rich and poor gets wider. According to the World Bank and the Gini index, SA is one of the most unequal societies in the world. It’s difficult for a lot of people to challenge the ANC, in their minds and with their voices, because it is the party of Nelson Mandela and the long walk to freedom. But if they keep up their current practices something crazy is going to happen in the next couple years. A lot of western countries point to South Africa as a beacon of hope, of racial and economic success in Africa. People love the story of SA, rising from the ashes of Apartheid as a rainbow nation committed to democracy and human rights. Not to say that there isn’t truth in that narrative, but in my opinion it is no longer a foregone conclusion that South Africa will continue on an upward trajectory. I see it as teetering on an edge with the chance of going either way, imploding or prospering. I can’t explain this as well as I want to but there was an article in the Economist a couple weeks ago that hits the nail on the head if anyone is interested:   Don’t worry Peace Corps hasn’t managed to take away all my idealism, but after 16 months some cynicism is inevitable. This country is filled with millions of good people doing good things, but if they want a better future for their children the political situation will have to change.

Despite the problems related to the strike, since school re-opened I’m feeling the most confident I’ve felt as a teacher. My kids have been very well-behaved lately, it’s kinda freaking me out. I know their individual personalities really well after all this time and I’m happy with how my relationship with each of them has evolved. We’ve done some cool stuff lately like made drawings for December’s World Aids Day and exchanged letters with the people my aunt works with in a halfway home in Virginia. They were so excited to get their own personal letters one of them cried. Journals are still a hit, they love writing in them almost as much as I love writing in mine. Day to day it’s easy to block out the larger issues and negativity. I try to focus on each day, each lesson, each kid and go from there.

I applied for a grant from PEPFAR two weeks ago. It’s a $1000 grant from the US government to be used for HIV/AIDS education and prevention endeavors. Three other volunteers and I are planning a GLOW  (“Girls Leading Our World”) camp for the girls in our schools in March. It’s going to be a four day girls’ empowerment camp with crafts and games, interactive lessons about important topics like HIV transmission and protection, gender roles, sexual abuse, good decision-making skills etc. GLOW is done by volunteers in lots of Peace Corps countries, I’ve talked with a couple people who said it was the best part of their service. The four of us are excited about it. I know it will be so worth it despite all the work we’ve done and will have to do to pull it off. The need for information about health and safety is so crucial. The week I turned in the grant a sixth grade girl at my school was raped by a twenty year old guy. It was mentioned at a staff meeting, not in an off-handed way, but not with the sensitivity and significance I thought it deserved. The scary truth behind the teachers’ response is that it happens more often than I want to admit. My counterpart who will come to the camp with me is the life-skills teacher, I respect her a lot. She told me that the girl remembered from her life-skills class that she shouldn’t wash herself before she went to the police. That was huge to me, and I hope for the teacher as well. They caught the guy who did it, don’t know what’s going to happen to him but I hope it involves rotting in hell. Development and empowerment work when directed at girls and women can be immensely successful because of their integral roles in their families and the community. The camp will be a small response to a big big problem, so much more is needed to build up the new generation of women to protect their bodies and respect themselves, but I hope it will give the girls who come information and skills they will use and pass on.

Soccer is going great. The district games ended for the year so I wanted to find a way for them to keep playing. Melissa, a friend of mine who lives about forty minutes north of me, has a school team too so we were brainstorming how we could get them together. School funds paid for the cost of transport and food to the district games so I just assumed it’d be easy to get funding for a friendly match. Negative. My principal not only said it wasn’t possible to use school money for non district games but also that there aren’t supposed to be any extra-curricular activities until next year due to the strike recovery schedule. I was like whaaaaa?? Soccer is the one thing the boys get really excited about and the bogus rules really got to me. I personally talked to some important person from the district office about our specific situation and waiving the no extra-curricular rule for Saturday games-- he said yes! I kept my principal in the loop so she didn’t feel like I was going over her head. Melissa and I tried to fundraise, we asked the boys to bring money but the most they could scrape together was 10 rand a person (about $1.30). We advertised taking pictures of the kids with my camera and printing them for 20 rand, making a profit of 10 rand each photo. (Everyone LOVES pictures of themselves cause no one has any. My dad took a bunch when he was here and mailed them to me in a package, when I gave them out it was like Christmas morning.) We raised some money with the pictures but not enough. Both of us were about to throw in the towel when it hit me to email the NGO that does development work in this area. One email, two paragraphs, and they gave me 6000 rand (about 700 USD) to be used for soccer related expenses for the rest of my service. F YEAH. so exciting. They gave me a little less than the PEPFAR grant without the 17 page grant application. Our gameday was awesome. We organized transport and lunch and Melissa’s school performed a traditional dance for us. The dancing was incredible. The teams were evenly matched and the level of soccer played was impressive. Her team is coming to my village next weekend for another game, everyone is pumped. I can now plan more games and buy new balls and soccer nets, a little money can go such a long way.

I’ve been doing a lot of work for the NGO that gave me the money for soccer, the Kalahari Education Experience. They are making progress with the plans for the orphanage that’s going to be built on the school grounds. Things are taking way longer than they projected but I’m not at all surprised. The KEE found an SA mining company based in Johannesburg willing to fund all the building and construction (including, so they say, water access for the orphanage and the school.. this is me not getting too optimistic but I HOPE it works out) so the funds the Australians’ have raised can be used for non construction related expenses like furniture, appliances, school books, maintenance etc. I’m learning alllll about how much work goes into a project like this, how to make it sustainable, the limits of what can be achieved by development work in poor regions of the world. The construction is the easy part, keeping it running, making sure the community takes ownership of its progress, and manages the money required to run it properly, are going to be a few of the many challenges in the future. I’ve inadvertently become a building/construction/planning authority which is just as much of a joke as it sounds. The Australians want the village to be involved in the decision making process but that isn’t as straight forward as it sounds. Decisions need to be made about the type of construction material to use, the blueprint layout, the rules for the orphans, the criteria for who gets to stay and for how long, different budgets for all sorts of things etc. The emails keep coming and they’re all addressed to me because I’m the only one with internet. It’s been difficult to be the bridge between the two worlds: the high standards of a functioning first world NGO with expectations and goals and a need for answers, and the reality of what can be accomplished in the village. It’s tough getting straight answers out of Africans regarding what they are going to do tomorrow let alone what they think of the dimensions for the new floor plan someone far away just came up with. I end up making lots of decisions myself which isn’t sustainable or the way it should be, but I’m at a loss for how to balance the expectations of everyone involved. I’m still trying to figure my role out, to set boundaries about what I will do and what I can’t because what happens when I leave in July and there’s no one to answer those emails ? I want to help however I can because I believe in the project but I’m sensitive to the fact that I could be creating future problems by doing so much now. Life lessons left and right I tell ya.

The first week of October I went to Pretoria for Mid-Service Training (MST), a milestone that sounded light years away when I first got to site. SA24 back together, it was a great week. Half the week was spent in sessions, half in doctors’ appointments… half at happy hour haha. The sessions were basically just revisiting stuff we’ve gone over tons of times- stress coping mechanisms, mental health strategies, planning for the second year, safety and security. We were informed about the national plan in place for when Nelson Mandela dies because when it happens it’s going to be madness. It even has a name, WHAM: “What Happens After Mandela.” I keep waiting to see WHAM news headlines and to get a text message from PC that says something like “Brace yourselves, It’s happening.” The man is getting old and I feel like it could happen any day now. I’m not saying I want it to happen (seriously I’m not) but I wouldn’t mind being called to the capital to hang out with Barack and Michelle and all the other foreign dignitaries who would attend the funeral if he did. Just sayin. I went to the doctor’s for a physical and the dentist for teeth cleaning. The dentist we went to was very fancy. I was feeling super first world until the power went out in the waiting room and I remembered what continent I’m on. It’s the same dentist that Bono uses when he’s busy saving Africa, I was hoping we’d run into each other but no such luck. I’m a healthy girl, no cavities and proud of it. Only problem I’ve been having is with my IT band and my left knee, it bothers me every time I run and sometimes when I walk. I got xrays and went to a physical therapist but there isn’t much to do besides some exercises and icing every day. I’m hoping it’ll go away soon.

I applied to a bunch of Master’s programs the past couple months. It was super satisfying to click submit every time. It was quite a feat without regular internet on my computer, I feel like I’ve earned my diploma already. Most of the schools are in Washington DC cause that’s where I want to be, in the center of the things I care about the most. I feel good about my decision to go back to school, I’m just as sure about this as I was about the Peace Corps, and that’s really all you can ask for in big life decisions.

Researching programs and filling out applications has got me daydreaming about my future American life, the post PC apocalypse. I can’t wait til my problems are like .. “shit I don’t want to write this 30 page paper and I’m out of coffee” instead of  “F this storm, parts of my ceiling just fell on me” which happened last week. Thank you, rainy season. I know I’m idealizing, that problems exist in the States too… even if I can’t think of any right now haha. I’m not wishing the time away, I’m not ready to be finished yet. When this is over there are things that I already know I’ll miss so I’m trying to actively enjoy them. Stuff like the ritual of sitting in my doorway at sunset and the quiet nights punctuated by occasional drum beats. On Saturday morning I went to a funeral and listened to three hundred people sing beautifully in a graveyard, that kind of emotion and community isn’t as easily found other places. I truly cannot wait until washing machines re-enter my life but I do enjoy the small sense of accomplishment I feel when I’ve finally pinned the last piece of hand washed clothing on the line. Living at the mercy of the elements usually totally blows--when it rains I can’t run or do my wash or use electricity, when it’s hot I can’t sleep or stop sweating or breathe for that matter, when it’s windy the entire Kalahari blows through the cracks in my room. But all of that has given me more flexibility and patience to adapt to my physical environment as best as I can, and a different kind of respect for mother nature. She calls the shots and I know it. Also, later when I am just as poor as I am now I’ll have no legitimate excuse.

 Year 2 is already picking up speed. I was told over and over again that the second year would be much easier and faster than the first, that it takes a whole year to integrate before you hit your stride and start to see something come of your efforts. I didn’t think it would apply to me but around the time school opened things got easier. It will never actually be easy, but it feels like things are coming together in a way they hadn’t before. Every little success isn’t such a struggle like it used to be. I feel more capable of accomplishing the things I want to and more aware of what I want those accomplishments to be. I’ve known from the beginning that I’d find a way to make it through to the end, but for the first time I can actually envision what the other side will be like. There’s about 9 months left, so basically I just have to have a metaphorical PC baby and then I’m golden. The US will be waiting for me when I get home, I have faith it’ll still be standing. There was a mildly important election that took place last week and I know the man who won has got things under control ;)

lots and lots of Love   

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Time for an UPdate. Things with school have been unusual lately. Strikes have kept my school closed for all but two weeks since the beginning of June. The three week winter holiday was thrown in there, but all in all five weeks of regular schooling have been cancelled so far. On June 1st, I walked to school to find chains and a padlock around the gate and a sign warning people not to open it. I heard from my principal that men from my village and from the surrounding area were striking in order to get the government’s attention. Their list of demands was long but the main components included: paved roads, government housing and more access to water. She explained that they forced the schools in my district to close because it gave them greater leverage at the bargaining table as the government only really listens to protesters when the schools are involved. The strikers claim they are trying to improve their communities but they are causing more harm than good. Hijacking a bunch of kids’ education to achieve an end is such a noble strategy...

That first week they set up roadblocks on the only road to town demanding money to pass. Tires were burned and barricades were set up in the middle of the road so vehicles couldn’t get through. Me and the other volunteers affected laid low, sharing information with each other about what we knew and stories we’d heard. Peace Corps advised us not to go near school or engage in any discussions about the strike. The Peace Corps security officer was talking to the local police stations trying to get a handle on the situation and when it would be diffused. That weekend the provincial elections were taking place, and since there were going to be a lot of high profile government officials in the Northern Cape’s cities, the strikers amped up their tactics. They set up more roadblocks on the main highway that connects my shopping town with the city of Vryburg, rocks were thrown at cars, more fires and rioting.

 Peace Corps decided to evacuate me and a couple others, meaning they wanted us out of our villages before the elections began. Evacuation and consolidation are terms used in PC’s emergency action plan, put in place in case of natural disasters or political turmoil. The other volunteers and I used to joke about being consolidated alllll the time- if the littlest thing was reported in the news, we’d be like “Code Blue! better consolidate ASAP” to us it meant a party in town for a couple days while whatever “danger” we were in passed. So it was pretty unreal that it actually happened. I’d heard stories of vehicles being chased off the road by gangs of men at the roadblocks and other unsettling things so I tried to brace myself for anything on the morning I had to get to town. I made it fine, the only transport out of my village was with a taxi driver who was part of the strike effort, so they let us pass at the roadblocks without any issues. A group of PCVs and I were consolidated together that week and it was just as fun as we’d talked about. We posted up at our favorite guesthouse. It was like our own embassy, American ground, in the midst of the African strife. The newly elected officials promised the protesters they would begin construction work on paved roads on July 1st, so the chains came off the gate and the fires were put out. School re-opened with five days left in the term, just in time for the students to fail their biannual standardized tests. The nation-wide exams are extremely difficult and without the two weeks of prep time before, there was even less of a chance for them to do well.

I came back to school after the break hoping the new term would get off to a fresh and functional start. That illusion was gone the following Monday when I again found the gate locked and an empty school yard. The government hadn’t done anything by the deadline and since there wasn’t even the pretense that the demands would be met, everything started up again. From what I’ve heard, it seems like men in different villages are banding together, feeding off each other’s energy, which is what is keeping them strong and resolute. The strikers burned a PCV’s school to the ground about 200 km from me, so it feels more serious this time. (Needless to say, she doesn’t live there anymore.) My school was broken into and the only two computers were stolen, all the school records and grades gone with them. There have been other reports of burning schools and homes--people have figured out that if something burns, they get attention and news coverage so it’s happening more often. I’ve heard they won’t back down until they “see the bulldozers” for the new roads.

To be fair, the roads in this area can barely be classified as roads. They’re sandy and rocky, they’re dangerous to drive on and it makes getting anywhere a very long process. The Northern Cape is like the province that South Africa and time forgot. It has the least people and it’s the least developed. I sympathize with the strikers’ desire for a better infrastructure, for basic needs that would do a lot to enhance their quality of life. To a certain extent, I can even understand why they are holding the schools hostage, because it’s the only way they have a shot at getting what they want. I just hate that it has to be like this, that so many students are missing out on many weeks of learning, that none of them are getting their daily school meal from the National Food Program, and that no adults seem to care.

To keep myself from going crazy with cabin fever, I stayed at another volunteer’s site for a while helping out at his school, teaching a couple classes and pulling kids out individually to work on literacy and basic reading skills. I’ve also been trying to get my act together with grad school applications. It’s a weird situation to be in. One of the only things that was constant in my life was school. Uncertainty is all around, but the one thing that I knew for sure was that I’d be going to school everyday. It’s not an exaggeration when I say I don’t know what’s going on the majority of the time. I’m always resisting the urge to make sense of the vast number of things that aren’t making any sense at any given moment. I never know what’s coming next, I have no idea who the ten people are in my host parents’ house, or if I can get a hitch to town, or how long I will be waiting for who knows what, or what that person is trying to say to me. But focusing on the things that are more structured, like school, helps me to deal with the rest of the chaos. I thought the school system was stronger than this and I thought education mattered more than this. Throughout the whole thing I haven’t felt particularly unsafe, but I know if things continue PC will probably want me and a couple other PCVs to move sites. I love where I live though and I’ll do whatever I can to stay, so I’m hoping things don’t escalate in a dangerous way and that school opens sometime soon.

In the middle of all that madness I had about the three coolest weeks a person could have. My parents came to visit! Because I was distracted with the strike, I didn’t really realize how much awesomeness was about to hit me in the face, it was way more epic than I anticipated. I got to Cape Town a couple days before they got there. It was great to have time to myself in an actual city, to walk the streets with a cup of coffee in my hands and pretend like I lived there. It didn’t hurt that Cape Town is one of the most awesome cities ever. My parents got there safely and I wasted no time getting comfortable in our sweetass apartment. We did all sorts of stuff- went on a wine tour, climbed Table Mountain, went to Robben Island, walked around the waterfront, went to a Rugby game, watched the EuroCup final, met up with a bunch of other volunteers and their families/visitors. It was great that they got to meet some of the people I spend the most time with. I have to say my parents thoroughly blew me away with their coolness- staying out late, buying everyone drinks, telling stories, game for anything. It was nice to talk and talk and talk, to explain about everything related to this experience and hear about what was going on at home. It was surprisingly normal being with them given the unusual environments we were in. I also got to feel like a kid again. I wasn’t alone and completely responsible for myself for a change… My mom cooked dinner, my dad made fun of me nonstop when I wanted to watch Real Housewives and other trashy TV—just like old times on their couch in Gainesville.

From Cape Town we flew to Zimbabwe and crossed the border into Zambia for a week. There was some sketchiness at the border and it took a couple hours for our comfort zones to expand to the run down streets of Livingstone, but once we got settled it was great. The first night we walked to the bridge of no-man’s land between the Zambian and Zimbabwean borders to watch the full moon illuminate Victoria Falls. That was around the moment when I realized how sweet the next couple days were going to be. We went on a game drive in Botswana for a day, a river safari on the Chobe river, walked on trails around the falls, got to go right up to the edge, went on a booze cruise on the Zambezi river, rode Elephants through the bush, saw so many animals.. It was awesome for me to see other parts of Africa, I wanna travel through this whole continent. I’m looking for applications for travel buddies so if you’re interested holla at me ;)

Our next stop was my room, the center of the middle of nowhere. It took us three days of traveling to get there but I am so glad they came. I was kinda stressing about it beforehand, worried that it would be difficult to bridge the gap between the two very different cultures. But my parents and my host parents got along so well so easily, my worries were for nothing. Kindness knows no nationality, the goodness in everyone’s personalities broke through the language and cultural barriers. As corny as that is, I’ve watched it happen over and over again. I’ve lived with five host families in three countries on two continents in three languages, and every time I’ve gotten lucky. We made dinner together, walked around, visited school, played cards, shared pictures. We took things slow and simple which is the only way to be in the village. They handled it all really well. I feel more connected to both sets of parents now, but especially my real parents who understand my life about a million times better now that they’ve seen it for themselves.

I dropped them off at the airport in Johannesburg and for once it was me watching them go through the security line instead of the other way around. They started their trip with a couple days in London and ended with a couple days in Iceland visiting my brother and sister. (I missed the part when my parents became such jetsetters…)  When it was over, I was ready to get back to my less action packed life. I was grateful that everything worked out, it was so great they could come.

Something else that’s made me happy lately is that my hair is slowly getting back to normal. To my complete confusion, my hair started falling out in January. It took me a while to realize what was going on. To realize that my hair had lost a lot of its thickness, that its texture had changed and that more than a normal amount was falling out every day. My first thought was that there was something missing in my diet, some nutrient or vitamin that I wasn’t getting enough of.  PC’s medical staff shot that down. They said that would be the case only if I was severely malnourished, which I’m clearly not. I went through a bunch of ideas, something in the water, my birth control, heavy metal poisoning of some kind etc, but the medical staff kept saying it was due to stress. They assured me it would most likely all come back at some point, even if it took a long time. One of the medical officers told me she’s seen hair loss in all four Peace Corps countries she’s worked in and that many volunteers lose their hair to varying degrees due to the stress of their daily lives. This seemed like a lame answer to me, hair loss seemed so extreme. I felt like there had to be some specific cause or chemical in my body causing it, and I just wanted someone to tell me what I could physically do or eat to fix the problem.  

I got my blood tested in SA and again during my visit in Florida to check for serious health issues, but thankfully they all came back negative. Stress seemed like the only answer, and the only prescription I got was to stop stressing. Funny thing is, it’s pretty hard to stop stressing about your hair falling out when it won’t stop falling out. It sucked waking up every morning to clumps of hair on my pillow, I could feel it getting thinner and thinner. I stopped brushing it altogether, washed it less and less, whatever I could to stop the mass exodus of hair. It made me realize that I’ve taken my thick healthy hair for granted my entire life. At the worst point, I lost about 3/4 of my hair. Fortunately, I had A LOT of it to begin with so it wasn’t too noticeable. No one could really tell unless I told them because I lost it evenly all over.

 It also played into this fear that I’ve had since I started PC, that I’m exposing myself to random health risks that will manifest themselves later in life. Messed up I know, but africa’s got the strange disease category on lock and my mind makes up some crazy thoughts sometimes. All I wanted was for it to grow back sometime in the future, even if it took a year or two. I got over it after a couple months though and around that time it stopped falling out in big amounts. Last week, for the first time in seven months, I brushed it! It’s not as thick as it used to be, but it’s definitely getting there. When it’s back to normal, I will add it to the gigantic mega huge supersize list of things I won’t take for granted again.

A couple other things that stand out recently: The West Wing is the greatest show ever created in the history of this universe. (Maybe the Curiosity rover will find out about some awesome TV shows on Mars but til then it’s West Wing 4 lyfe.) I’m about to finish the last season after many nights of pretending like everyone I know is wonderfully well-spoken and intelligent and works in the White House. The Colorado shooting made me sad, and also made me think about what it must have been like to be a Peace Corps Volunteer on September 11th. It’s not comparable but similar feelings of American solidarity were evoked.  I’ve heard people say that living abroad constitutes a rejection of the US on some level. For me the truth is, living away from the States has given me a fierce and unique brand of patriotism that will never go away. Which probably has something to do with why I love the Olympics so much. I’ve been reading all the updates and watching how the medal count doubles as the “I’m the world’s superpower” race. Hoping the soccer girls can pull out a gold medal... Alex Morgan, marry me. I remember watching their World Cup match against Japan when I first arrived in SA last July. Some hints of controversy surrounding the amazingly talented Gabby Douglas remind me that it’s not only South Africa that has serious race issues. It’s all too easy for me to think that I come from this post-racial society and that the racial tensions I experience in SA don’t exist at home. But the truth is, the US still has plenty of work to do. Overall, I think international sports competitions help to ease racial and cultural tensions. It’s idealistic but it makes me happy to watch the world come together over incredible displays of human ability.

That’s all I got for now. I always start writing a blog with the intention of making it wayyy shorter than it becomes…