Thursday, January 19, 2012

Nov. 30: I had 100% attendance at my first peer education meeting and everyone completed all of their surveys targeting out-of-school youth! Woo hoo!

Dec. 4-8: Today marks my last Peace Corps conference and is a time to reflect on our past two years and start to process everything we’ve seen and done. It was so validating to set aside four days to pat each other on the back for surviving and (sometimes) thriving. I honestly came away so invigorated I wanted to extend my service! Don’t worry it was short lived haha.

Dec. 11-18: My friend Ashley just finished her Peace Corps service in Madagascar and came to visit me for a little while in SA. We spent some time marveling at all the commercialism in the capitol then came back to my village where I had a World AIDS Day Girls Fun Day event a few days later. We did some of the most successful sessions from my peer education training not to mention tons of crafts and topped it off with a movie. It was a big hit.

Dec. 22-29: We then joined Leah and headed out to Mozambique. We started our journey at 4:30am when we woke up after only a handful of hours asleep the night before and quickly got ready to catch the bus. Well my host mom told me the bus leaves at 5:30 but we saw it zoom down the dirt road at 5:00 and I was ready to throw in the towel when my host sister screamed to run. I left my friends in the dust as I had packed light and screamed for the bus to stop. Running half a mile was half a mile longer than I’ve run in a long time so between gasps I pleaded with the bus driver to wait for my friends and pointed to where they were on the path. He refused but I insisted saying that first I needed to pay, right? He agreed and I made a big show out of not knowing the price, not finding money, batting my eyelashes, whatever I could so that he would wait for the slow pokes. The next bus came in three hours which would really mess up our travel plans so my charm had to work. Luckily, it did and we made it to Vryheid, the next white town over which in Afrikaans means freedom (from black people). We arrived at 6:00am in a bus packed with black people and set out to find some breakfast before the car rental place opened. Once satiated, we went to Europcar where we had to wait an hour as they lost our reservation. Once in the rental car, the air conditioning broke as soon as we hit the highway but fortunately I brought Christmas cds to lighten the mood. (Not that any of us were accustomed to air conditioning in the first place). When we got to Nelspruit, about five hours away, the Europcar we booked to return our car to was out of business. We then drove two hours out of our way to the airport location but eventually we made it onto a bush taxi to Maputo, the capitol of Mozambique.

Though slow moving it was smooth sailing until we reached the border where we drove through what looked like a refugee camp. This seemingly endless array of tents and women and children in dirty rags is where we sat for six hours while waiting to cross the border. It wasn’t the heat that got me as I soaked through my clothes 16 hours ago but the hoards of young boys that would open the door and windows and thrust things at you, beg you, grab you, plead with you to buy something. Empathy turned into irritation and worse as I grew more and more exhausted, flabbergasted that a passport stamp could take so long to administer. It was quickly apparent that in addition to the official stamp the bush taxis were shuffled into many other stopping points where the police made no attempt to hide the bribes they asked for and always received, their pockets bulging with money of many currencies. Once in Maputo we were determined to make it to our destination, Quissico, though it was already almost midnight. I had misunderstood the owner while en route to Maputo and we waited in vain for her arrival for several minutes before I thought to confirm our carpool. She snickered at my naïveté. Panicked, I called around to the local hostels and found one with three available beds and we headed out at dawn for our trip to Quissico.

I don’t quite know what we would have done if our private taxi driver we hired to take us from the hostel to the bus station didn’t walk us up to the appropriate bus. Not only do none of us speak Portuguese but it was a mob scene unlike anything I or my two friends had ever experienced. Kids were getting pulled under, people were getting more and more aggressive as the seats started filling up, the men taking full advantage of the onslaught of desperate women. I don’t know how many times I felt someone reach their hand into my purse whose zipper broke a few minutes before but luckily I learned long ago not to keep anything of value easily accessible. Somehow we made it on the bus without any blood and all with legitimate seats. This was all to the taxi driver’s credit who begged for twenty minutes on our behalf. The bus driver literally had to pull us onboard as people were trying to drag us back off. Once moving, the six hour long journey was uneventful.

When we arrived we waited another three hours for the owners to take us the 10 km to the lodge. Auspiciously, we all had two years of experience in painful and entertaining transport fiascos so though frustrating and comical, didn’t ruin our trip. An ongoing frustrating and comical aspect of the trip was the owners of the lodge we stayed at. Wow. The man’s about my age, very tan, perpetually dirty, never wearing a shirt or shoes, always high and oftentimes drunk. Because of the copious amounts of pot he smoked fairly openly he was always running, literally running, from task to task but never managing to get anything done. I’m sure the fact that he got any task completed at all was considered a victory in his book. His girlfriend, on the other hand, was at least ten years his senior, had an adopted three year old child and was so by the book it was a detriment to their business and sometimes beyond logic. It became evident early on in our stay at this small lodge that we were watching the demise of their relationship in real time.

The lodge itself was beautiful. It was in the middle of a rural village, on a lagoon that felt like swimming in a large bath tub in a setting fitting the epitome of the clichéd postcard. It was an eco-lodge which meant no electricity but there were lanterns everywhere which made it very picturesque. The open floor plan of minimalist earth tones and African art reminded me of how I want my own home to be decorated one day.

After an awfully stressful week leading up to this trip, I was more than happy to vegetate on the lagoon, reading profuse amounts of mindless magazines and gossiping about the owners with my girlfriends. Also, since the lodge was so small we became fast friends with the other patrons, all of whom made interesting company. Because we were hours away from any tourist attraction, restaurant or grocery store, Christmas was a low-key affair but wonderful nonetheless.

But after a week’s worth of beach R&R it was time to head back to my South African reality. After a fortuitous meeting with a good PCV friend, Farah, Ashley and I decided to head down to Durban, the third largest South African city, for
New Years. There we ate amazing food and danced the night away before I headed back to my village.

1/1-1/19: Towards the end of my vacation, I started to long for village life and was more than happy to get back to the slow pace of life. I missed my ungrounded hot plate, my pee bucket, the mangy dogs, not to mention my wonderful host family and projects. Everything except perhaps the flies which I’m sure have it in for me. I feel like Pig Pen in the Charlie Brown cartoon. And there is absolutely no evolutionary need for them to constantly be dive-bombing my face! They’re full of spite those flies!

Well other than the flies taking what’s left of my sanity, the past few weeks have been pretty uneventful. My org has only opened its doors a few times as nobody’s gotten paid in a long time and they’re fed up with going to work without any real hope of a paycheck. I don’t blame them. I’ve been working on paperwork tied to the grants I was awarded and job hunting. It’s been keeping me pretty busy.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Nov. 15-17: Today signaled the beginning of my much anticipated peer education training. I spent all day yesterday (and most of the night) in last minute preparations most of which were unnecessary as I’ve been preparing for weeks. But it was just as well as I wouldn’t be able to sleep at a reasonable hour anyway. Not only do I love facilitating trainings but I really believe in this program. The three day training went even better than expected. Everyone who committed to come did and all were early (a point I emphasized to show respect towards yours truly). I handed out two playing cards a day to each participant who in turn returned one each time they participated in a session. It was a great way to get everyone involved. One of the most memorable sessions for me was one where I asked them to get into pairs. I then gave each pair three index cards that said no risk, low risk and high risk respectively. I followed that by reading a statement or action and they had to decide the risk of HIV transmission. Because they would turn in their index cards face down I was able to get everyone’s genuine opinion rather than one dominant person confident in their HIV knowledge answering every question. There was not one statement I read that all the pairs answered correctly. It was really quite shocking and sparked many healthy debates. Whether or not you can transmit HIV by means of a toilet seat or kissing were some of the most highly contested. It was so empowering to see the wheels of change in progress and to know I was a part of starting those wheels to turn. I really tried to stress to the participants that they can be in the driver’s seat of their own lives. What so often happens here is a mindset of hopelessness and self-defeat that winds up being a self-fulfilling prophesy. But if you feel like you have the power to make choices about your own life and you take back some small sense of power and control over your future you are more likely to lead a healthy life. To put it even simpler, if you believe you have choices than you’re more likely to make healthy ones. With a culture of fear, silence and stigma surrounding AIDS I needed them to really hear me. I said over and over again, “I am empowering you with facts so that you can pass them along to your friends and family and save their lives. Your former president said many things that counter what I’ve told you and now I’m sure you don’t know who to believe. I’m begging you to choose me. If taking traditional medicine or bathing after sex prevented HIV everyone in the world would be doing it! Everyone.” I could see people start to nod their heads. They were getting it. I’m addicted to that feeling, the feeling of understanding, it’s a high better than any drug. Nov. 20-28: I spent a week in Cape Town of which I spent the majority trying to find a way to stay longer in Cape Town. I absolutely fell in love with that city. Leah and I rented a car and started in Hermanus which is a sleepy coastal town known for whale watching. Hermanus, like Stellenbosch our next stop, looks like you just walked off a movie set it’s so quaint and charming. We found this great local bar our first night with awesome live music and then met up with friends we made the night before to tour a facility whose goal is to curb poaching. Sadly, the Chinese and Japanese are willing to pay South Africans ten times what they would make as day laborers so there is no shortage of interested applicants. We then kayaked with whales and headed over to Stellenbosch where we went on an all day wine tour. We made friends with a wonderful British couple whose contact information I accidentally threw away as they wrote it on my take-away box. We were sad to leave picturesque Stellenbosch but I was determined to go to Seal Island which, you guessed it, is an island full of seals. It was really quite magical. We then took Chapman’s Peak Drive, a beautiful coastal highway, down to the Cape of Good Hope where we woke up early on Thanksgiving morning and hiked around. We somehow beat the crowds and had the trails to ourselves at the southern most point in Africa. Next, we drove to Simon’s Town to see the penguin colony and then it was off to Cape Town proper for a lavish meal and a sunset sailboat cruise. We worked off our un-traditional Thanksgiving feast the next day by hiking Table Mountain and picnicking at the top. We then treated ourselves to a day of gluttonous shopping and more amazing food and live music before our final day which we spent at Robben Island where they kept political prisoners from the apartheid era including Nelson Mandela. Both of our tour guides were former inmates who explained their life in this work camp/prison in a way that is impossible to forget.