Wednesday, August 25, 2010

I just bought a PO box with a few of my Peace Corps friends to make my postal experience a lot less stressful. If you already used the address I gave you, that's fine, the letters will get to me, but this will be a lot more efficient.

Alena Skeels
PO Box 578
Nqutu 3135
South Africa

Also, I posted some pictures on my Facebook page but due to the absurd amount of time it takes to load each one I'm just going to post them in one spot. So if you're not my Facebook friend, friend me!

Monday, August 23, 2010

I made the twelve hour journey back to Pretoria this past week to participate in the Volunteer Support Network (VSN) training. VSN matches a mentor from the previous training class with 7-8 mentees who just arrived in country. Peer mentorship has been proven to be an efffective, untintimidating way to bridge the gap between the Peace Corps main office and volunteers new to country. After spending a day training on Tuesday, the new mentors went to meet the new trainees who arrived here a few weeks ago. Because there are so many trainees (52), they are split into three groups, which meant we needed to do our presentation three times. This worked out just swimmingly because I was able to spend eons of time with a very small group of people. One of my critiques of VSN was how unlikely it would be that someone would confide in someone they barely know or met for five minutes. Last week, I was able to spend a solid hour and a half with two or three people each to start building that rapport. It was encouraging to hear about their drive to serve and exciting to hear about some of their fresh ideas. The following day, we had a VSN meeting for all members where we discussed a myriad of topics from alcohol abuse amongst volunteers to the effectiveness of our medical staff to success stories with mentees. All in all, it was a very productive meeting. It, of course, was also wonderful to slip back (so easily) into Western life for another week. I'm happy to report that my transition back to my beautiful village was not only free of wallowing but highly anticipated.

Naturally, I cannot have a week free of a little drama so here ya go. I travelled back to site on Friday after a handful of hours of sleep due to an extensive stay on the dance floor of a bar called Drop Zone in honor of a fellow PCV's birthday. I then spent thirteen hours in a combination of taxis and buses with the common denominator being sheer miscalculation of the breadth of the average Zulu. After catching the last taxi to my village as it was pulling out of the rank I started to prematurely consider my last travel day for awhile a victory. Well, in my exhaustion, I leave my wallet on the taxi (again). And just like before, I start crying, dropping f bombs right and left, flailing my arms, really just creating a scene worthy of any reputable American reality show (of which there are many). It's 7:30pm when I get home so everyone I know is already deep in REM sleep and unable to be contacted. Early the next morning I share my lapse in judgment with my go go and Tshengie. I, of course, had to have my American credit card, a considerable amount of cash and a copy of my passport inside so they immediately sprung into action. I marched right on over to my village's taxi rank in the hopes they would know who drove the last taxi back the night before so I could at least attempt to get some of the contents of my wallet back. They were all huddled over a notebook that seemed to have some documentation on it, none of which apparently was about clocking in or out or time in general really. Then Tshengie called to tell me that one of her friends somehow knew the license plate of the last taxi. This made things much easier for the men huddled around the notebook. After I passed my phone to the chief/taxi manager, he promptly told me that not only does Thulani have my wallet but he has my ID, cards and money as well. Not only that, in fact, he will call me when he's passing my house so I can run out to get it. (This last part was especially wonderful seeing as though I had absolutely no cash to get to my shopping town and my go go also had none to spare). Needless to say I did a victory dance complete with fist pumps, hip swivels and cheers. And yes, this was quite the spectacle for these male twenty somethings. So when Thulani called, I ran out to see what I thought was too good to be true. He said he'd wait while I check to make sure everything was there. On the phone he asked me how much money I had in my wallet. I said I wasn't sure but probably around R300 ($40), he said I had R350. Then when I counted it I had R380. So if I counted my money and I had R300 I would have thought that everything was there. I then give him R50 ($7) as a thank you and he looked at me like I was crazy. I insisted that he take it and he did but he clearly wasn't expecting anything from his altruism. I realize that I wasn't here during apartheid and that there was a lot of crime on both sides and still is but it's appalling how many people, both black and white have warned me about my lack of safety in my village, specifically referring to petty theft. I wonder how many of those people have spent any amount of time in a rural village. I've never felt more a part of a communtiy.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

7/24: I asked my go go to take a picture of me doing my laundry in an attempt to document my daily life and she declined so I hesitantly gave the camera to the preschooler. Little did I know she was a little photo prodigy and was entertained all day by taking pictures up close of chickens and fire wood. To be more specific, she would sneak up behind them so that she would get half the beak and an eyeball, then she'd move at all sorts of angles and lengths to get even more interesting photos. She learned that turning the camera around allowed her to take photos of herself and since the household mirror is a small shard of glass the camera doubled as a very sophisticated looking glass. It filled my heart to see her little wheels turning and hopefully I'll be able to upload some of her masterpieces when I make my way to Pretoria next week.

I just came back from two weeks away from site. This left me little opportunity to scribe my daily anecdotes. Because of this, I will need to back track by memory and/or summarize. Not to worry, I am currently back from my hiatus and ready and willing to continue to allow you to live vicariously through me. : )

7/25: Today Tshengie and I travelled all day to get to the capitol for our Peace Corps training. She was very weary of travelling to the big city. I guess the fear of the unknown is universal. She didn't want to get off the bus (yes the Greyhound monopoly has made its way to Africa) so I got her a snack at a rest stop and when I came back she said, 'friends like you are smaller' (in number). Later, okay maybe ten hours later, we were driving through Jo burg and she asked, 'these buildings are shiny, why?' I then realized how scary this whole experience must be for her.

7/26: My guess at her unease was confirmed today when she called me at dawn, no hello, and said, 'Lindelwa, I'm hungry as a liiiooon.' (The supervisors stayed at a separate (and nicer) guest house. Even though I reminded Tshengie of our short separation several times she had a near panic attack at the bus station). I told her that the guest house probably had a small breakfast for free and to ask someone on staff where it was. She called me back two minutes later to say she couldn't find it and that I needed to come over. I then told her that not only is it not safe for me to travel while it's still dark but in fact she didn't need my help at all. I suggested she ask someone concerning a good place to eat breakfast and for directions to said place. She was very flustered and when I called to check on her progress a few hours later she said she waited for some of the other supervisors to wake up, one of whom found the free breakfast downstairs. Crisis averted.

7/27: Today all the Peace Corps Volunteers presented their potential projects with their supervisors. We did an incredibly witty and entertaining role play though Tshengie backed out of my costume idea minutes before show time...whatever. Even though it sort of dragged on, it was really exciting to hear about other people's projects; it gave me so many different ideas to implement at Zamimpilo.

7/28: Tshengie and I had our first blow out fight today. Similar to when you're in a relationship, this first fight marked the official end to our honeymoon period, though I think we'll be stronger for it later...hopefully. Peace Corps won't reimburse work before it's been completed so she needed to front the money for transport to our training. Since she's the sole bread winner for all 37 or so family members, okay maybe a bit less but definitely multiple moms and quite a few illegitimate children need to be counted along with her six living brothers, she couldn't come up with all the money. I knew that Peace Corps would reimburse me as soon as we reached the training site so I wasn't too concerned about paying up front. I asked her for the money the morning after the supervisors meeting where the money exchange was suppose to take place. This meeting was rescheduled multiple times so I wasn't fazed when she said that they didn't, in fact, receive their money the night before. I asked her if she could ask the coordinator of the training when the new meeting will be and she replied, "sure, I'll do it now now," (yes two nows) which of course means in a few hours if you're lucky. So since I was already standing I mosied on over to her myself to inquire about the change in schedule. Well apparently there wasn't a change in schedule. Kori stormed over to Tshengie, pointed her finger in her face and with steam coming out of her ears she breathed, "give her the money now Tshengie." I swear I saw a little fire ball come out of her mouth as she said that. Quite the ice queen, very impressive. Then Tshengie opened her wallet and gave me the money but she was fuming. She also frequently talks about herself in the third person, as she did on this occassion saying, "Why did you do that?! Don't ever speak for Tshengie! Now Kori's going to think I lied." Now just to clarify, she did lie. And it was no small lie. That money was a third of my monthly stipend so I wasn't being petty. But still I tried to be diplomatic, explaining that perhaps it was just a misunderstanding. Backpedalling, she tried to explain that what she meant to say was that one of her fellow supervisors received more money than her and they should have received the same amount. She was waiting to receive the additional money she was owed. Her being shorted by Peace Corps could have been a quick fix. I welcomed this deflection from the issue at hand. With my phone in hand, I quickly asked for specifics in the hopes of smoothing this over as soon as possible (we are stuck with each other for two years) but Tshengie was not interested in the brush-under-the-rug technique. I usually like to talk a conflict to death but I already created such a cultural snafu by breaking multiple rules concerning hierarchy and indirect speaking I thought I'd cut my losses. Unfortunately, she refused to let me help her, saying, "No don't speak for Tshengie ever again!" "Okay, so I could get you your money but you are choosing not to." "Yes." "Okay so you are making the choice to not get your money?" "Yes." "You do not want my help?" "No." This incident of corruption tainted our dynamic for the rest of the week.

7/29: Today one of our own started to get the help she deserves.

7/30: Today was full of wonderful speakers, my personal favorite being the Director of the Global AIDS Initiative at the CDC. He's an MD who finished his Peace Corps service in Ukraine with his wife a few years ago. I shamelessly grilled him with questions about the effectiveness of PEPFAR funding in the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS. In response he sadly showed a slide that depicted no change in prevention rates from the inception of PEPFAR's annual $600 million HIV budget seven years ago. But as a PEPFAR funded PCV I plan on changing that statistic!

7/31: I visited my home stay family from training today. It was so wonderful to catch up with them and to tell them how happy I was...even if it's in a Zulu village and they're Ndebele haha.

Because of the expense of travelling back and forth to and from the capitol I decided, along with another PCV, to stay in Pretoria in anticipation of a committee meeting we would have a few days later. I was concerned when I checked my Frommer's South Africa book and found a page and a half dedicated to Pretoria. Because of this, I brought just about every hobby that I took with me into this country, on this trip. Little did I know how unnecessary all of my precautions would be. So the other PCV, Andrew, and I headed off in an effort to cross off all three tourist attractions available to us in the city before our meeting was underway.

The art museum's first red flag should have been that it was less than 1 USD to get it. We also could have clearly deduced from its sheer lack of size how underwhelming it might be. But since we're Americans who expect everything in Africa to be under a dollar; we were pretty unfazed by the admission price and I, for one, had forgotten that a structure's brevity could be larger than a three room shack so I was not prepared for what I saw. The museum was three large rooms, one of which was dedicated to international flags in honor of the World Cup and another to what looked to be third grade art projects.

Next up was the Transvaal Museum which is Afrikaans for Natural History Museum. This showed definite signs of promise and the architecture was beautiful. (I made sure to assess the situation this time around, I didn't like getting tricked into thinking I was doing something all cultural when I was really just going through something someone decided to throw together one day and call it a museum in the hopes nobody would notice). Inside this fascinating piece of work were quite a few animals stuffed by a taxodermist including that of a German Shepard which was behind plated glass. Also of note were several diaramas, one of which depicted a cougar gouging out the eyes of a monkey with fake blood to boot, a man milking a stuffed cow with a Yankees hat and fake poop down below and tote bags from San Fransico which were also behind plated glass. There was a room dedicated to geology with a note at the end explaining that all education material was taken from a textbook that both Andrew and I used in our third or fourth grade Science classes.

The Union Building was also tackled on the same day as the stuffed animals were. This place is where the South African Parliament meets. It was absolutely beautiful, with gardens that reminded me of France and old world English architecture. We couldn't go inside because, well, I guess some people are suppose to be working in there...or something. Another enjoyable site was Burger Park which is a relaxing park in the middle of the city with a green house and a fountain and all sorts of things to make you forget you're in Africa.

I wouldn't be doing this week justice if I left out how many times and how much I enjoyed the event of eating at a restaurant. This cannot be mentioned enough and is something that, a week later, I still have not quite recovered from. There was one day, for example, when Andrew ate lunch at no less than four separate restaurants, just because he could. Don't get me wrong, I would be shaming the lovely ladies from my org who cook us rice and boiled chicken every day, if I didn't say there is also a place in my heart for that meal but I think I was starting to forget what any other food tasted like. I don't think there's a restaurant left in Pretoria that I haven't eaten in. It was wonderful. Another wonderful aspect about this first world city is the presence of a movie theater. I watched Inception twice. Yep. Two days in a row. With a large popcorn and a large Coke both times.

Towards the end of the week our other committee members started to dribble in in preparation for our meeting, as did PCVs who were leaving after their two years of service. This made for almost too much Americana to bear. More food. More bars. More friends. I was in America.

I knew coming back to site after being away for two weeks was going to be hard. I tried to prepare myself during my twelve hour journey back to the middle of nowhere to no avail. Some PCVs go back and forth between the first and the third world all the time. Some work in one world and live in the other. I'm so thankful that that is not my life because it would just be too emotionally draining. For me, staying in Pretoria reminded me of everything I left. And staying so long reminded me of how easy my life once was.

I came back to my village and I didn't want to cook on a hot plate or fetch water or sore every muscle in my upper body doing all the laundry I dirtied during my weeks away. I didn't want to pick bugs out of my filtered water and I sure as heck didn't want to lose my posse that I hit the town with every night. But I found myself alone in my hut looking around and the silence was deafening.

I've heard married people say that they wake up and make a conscious decision to love their spouse every day. Sometimes they don't want to, they might have said all of the wrong things the day before, or the week before and unspoken doubts start to rattle your core. What you know to be true. But you made a choice, a commitment and a few bad days, or weeks or months even, can't shake your resolve. Because you know in your heart it's right. The same can be said about my Peace Corps experience. There are days when the idea of being surrounded by a language I can barely understand, with kids hanging from every limb, and very little motivation from my co workers for change can seem insurmountable. When even the thought of serving the men in my organization tea while they watch Kung Fu movies all day makes the skin on the back of my neck crawl. Or working days or weeks on a potential project that when presented only remarks are whether I've managed to find someone to pay my bride price yet. Those days I decide to stay. I stay because great days that bring simple joys far outweigh the draining ones. Because nothing has ever felt so right.