First off, i made a video! ENJOY! http://youtu.be/lezaTwbLc2M
i’ve been thinking a lot about geography lately; in two parts really.
Part 1: as a foreigner I am always asked, “where are you from?” I answer, “I am from America.” This seems like the most simple, straight forward answer available- and doesn’t leave much for mis-understanding or confusion, however, it almost always is.
At the negotiation event I went to last weekend I was able to have an in depth conversation with a gentlemen that was every confusion rolled into one. He was a sweet, educated man in his 40’s, a husband, father, high school graduate. I told him I was from America, and he started talking about Hollywood- this is a pretty common response, everyone wants to go to Hollywood. I had to explain that I was from Chicago, and its very far away from California. Chicago is cold, and it snows- in CA its sunny, and warm like Swaziland. The expanse of USA is often hard to comprehend; being such a small country, you can literally drive across Swaziland in a few hours. I found some scrap paper and drew a rough sketch of the states, so he could see Chicago and Hollywood.
He then asked where brazil was. I was a little thrown off- being on the USA kick. I soon found myself drawing a map of South America too. There was even more confusion, as I talked about south AMERICA- asking if Obama ruled over this whole hemisphere. I added Canada and Mexico and had to explain that these were all separate countries- even though there is a North America and a South America, they are all governed separately- like swaziland as part of Africa. This was making sense, I thought, until he asked about the separate States in the USA- not separate countries. Explaining the states was difficult, same federal government, but each state having some of its own laws, and different climates. I was confusing myself at this point.
He was so excited about this map that was now spreading to a second page. Where is Jamaica? Haiti? Cuba? Alaska and Hawaii really threw him for a loop- and I found myself wishing I had paid better attention in middle school geography as I tried to remember where all these islands were, and how Hawaii and Alaska became states so far away from the rest of the united states. He then started asking about cities- in no particular order; Lima, Paris, London, Washington DC. Adding them all one by one to the map.
Then he asked me about Iraq. I took out a 3rd clean page and sketched the top of Africa, Europe, the middle east and Asia, highlighting Iraq. His eyebrows scrunched, and he fell silent for a moment. I looked at my scribbles- I’m pretty sure thats right… After a few moments, he says, “that is too far.” I’m bewildered. Then he asks, “where is New York?” Oh.
For the next 30 minutes I tried my best to neutrally answer questions about 9/11, the war in Iraq and how it has evolved. This was a very difficult task for me especially, with certain political views, however I challenge you to pretend your speaking to a non-american, starting from 9/11 try to explain the war we are still currently in. If you don’t find yourself stuttering through the explanation, I would like to know how- so I have something to recite for the next questioning person. I don’t think I satisfied his curiosity on this particular point, but it was one of the most interesting conversations I have yet had in all my travels. As we talked, I kept thinking how I could be having this conversation with any American as well- drawing maps of the world, explaining countries on different continents. We are not so different- it’s important for ALL people to ask questions, and to really explore global geography.
PART 2: Just to forewarn my family, you probably aren’t going to like this part—but it will most likely not surprise you either.
November marks my 6th month living in Swaziland. When I lived in Chicago, the longest I have ever stayed in the same apartment was 2 years (however in most cases I maxed out after a year)– in essence, upon finishing my 26 month service in the Peace Corps, this will officially be the longest I have lived in the same place since I was 16 years old. Knowing this, I should not be surprised that I am feeling the itch to travel already, even though I am currently living on the opposite side of the world… I too see the irony.
I have made a new friend in Swaziland recently, who has just returned from a 2 year road trip traveling from the tip of south Africa, across the continent, through the middle east, central asia and ending in Nepal. A small group of friends, a bus and 2 years of adventure. Listening to his stories leaves me starry eyed, and longing to get on the road. I can’t explain what part of me, this kind of gypsy life appeals to so strongly- but sometimes I’m sure the Peace Corps will be the last place I stay for such a long period of time.
A few months back I discovered an old copy of Time magazine at the clinic. I forgot I had it, until a couple of days ago. As I flipped through its tattered pages I stumbled across familiar scenes. Photos from the IDP camps I worked at in Kenya, and stories of refugees I spoke with. Kenya still calls to me, and my memories of working at those IDP camps keep tingling. Often I think about going back to Kenya for a while after the Peace Corps, as the ultimate pay off.
This magazine also has photos of lots of places I haven’t yet explored. The pages have been ripped out, and are now hanging on my walls along side family photos- my wall of inspiration. Many of my fellow PCV’s are literally counting down the days until they return “home”, and start their lives in the states. The more I travel the more I realize “home” travels with me- and my life started the day I boarded my first international flight.
Don’t worry family, I’ll come and visit, I do miss you all lots. 🙂 I just have a very long, exciting geographical bucket list.
It took 6 months, but my luck has finally run out. Nearly all of the volunteers have been sick at some point while in swaziland, and I had managed to hold out. Not any longer. I’m been stuck inside my hut for 3 straight days, nursing a horrible cold. I blame the wheather, it has been raining for a week, non stop. The wheather here is unpredictable. Before the rains started we had two extremly hot days- I mean HOT. Then the rains came in with a fierce storm (it was a crazy storm actually, that got me wondering if Swaziland has tornandos, and if so, where in my thatch roofed hut, I would tucker away for cover…) I awoke the next morning without the use of my nose. Poor timing too, since my hard drive with all my movies seems to be ka-put.
With all that time in my hut, no movies, and no new books, i’ve been reading a lot of my blogs i’ve posted. I’ve realized that i’ve left a lot of things out, about the general splendor of Swaziland, and why this place is so amazing. I made you all a list of my favorite things- in no particular order.
1. khombi karoke- Swaziland, when it comes to music, seems to be stuck somewhere in the 90’s, and thanks to my mothers favorite radio station back home, “light rock, easy listening”, I know all the words to every song. Nothing makes me more happy then getting on a packed to the brim, khombi and Celion Dion’s “heart will go on” is blarring from the speakers. Sherlie, my closest PCV, shares my love for Khombi music, and with every song we lip sync along to the stero, tapping into all the passion and sincertity we can muster. If we happen to be taking a journey alone, and an especially epic song comes on, a text is sent to the other party so our duet can be shared across the miles of seperation.
2. Visitors- I have an amazing site placement, and community. Even on days when I just want to stay inside all day and not speak to a sole, they refuse to leave me to my solitude. This is a good thing, because even on my worst day, a knock on the door can make my whole day brighter. At 4 o’clock everyday, without fail two little girls come straight over after school and knock on my door. At 5 o’clock my sisi comes home from school and knocks on my door to say hello. At 6 o’clock make knocks on my window, and we chat through the window. This is every day. Most days Honey will stop by from the saloon while she’s waiting for customers. Or Shorty will drop by and we’ll hang out with his friends on the lawn. Its amazing really, how many people stop by my house. I could go days without talking to a single person in Chicago- even when I worked in an office, I could pop in my ipod and keep to myself. Swaziland is full of people that will go out of their way just to greet you- I like it.
3. Storms- thunderstorms here are strange, they only come at night. I don’t understand how this works, but I have yet to witness daytime thunder. Being on the plateau, with a view of the valley, I have the most amazing view. The lighting is so close, and BRIGHT. I’ve never seen storms like this before. Often when a storm comes through, i’ll crawl out of bed and sit in front of my open door, just to watch the lighting over the valley. Its beautiful.
4. Stars- living in the city for so long, I would tend to forget about stars. When I would go to MI, I would always be amazed at how dark it got in the country. On clear nights in swaziland there are so many stars, and they are so bright, they actually glow. illuminating everything in a soft blue light. There are so many stars in the sky, it doesn’t seem possible sometimes.
5. Children- the kids here never fail to make me smile. Somedays when I walk down the road, a heard of small children will follow me. They are just learning english, and their favorite phrase is “Hello! How are you?” you must reply, “I am fine! How are you?” or they don’t know what your saying. But it doesn’t matter, the same result will surface as they giggle to eachother, and ask, “Hello! How are you?” all over again. This can go on for a long time, but it always makes me laugh.
6. Singing- I am going to go out on a limb and say that all Swazi’s are natural born singers– and thats good, because they are always singing. When a meeting is starting, when they are cleaning, when they are cooking, when they are plowing the fields, songs can always be heard echoing through the community. They are simple, rhythmic songs- and although no instruments are used, it sounds like a full band. One woman will start the song and take the lead, then the others will sing the background in harmony. It is the most beautiful sound.
7. Hacheema- my swazi little brother. I am so happy when he comes home for the weekend. I always know when he is home, the first sound I hear in the morning is his signing (which may make me retract the point above). He likes to circle my hut at 6am Saturday morning signing along to any number of popular songs- from celion dion or dolly parton, to lil wanye and busta rhymes. I am always laughing on saturday mornings. He spends the whole weekend following me around, playing with my ipod, or stealing my phone to use the Facebook account I helped him set up. He is always goofy and in a good mood and thats contageous.
INTO THE WILD
where to start with my amazing weekend?? Saturday I took a trip up to Piggs Peak, on the northwest border of Swaziland, with my new friends Michelle, Kieren and his parents. This is the most beautiful region of the country. Rolling hills, deep valleys, tiny huts clinging to the mountain sides- its breathtaking. We stopped for breakfast at a small resturant on top of one of these hills to talk with the swazi women that owns it. Virgina had come to inherant a piece of old mining land an hour drive from there. The area is completely abandoned, and hidden deep into the hills of mountains. The most spectacular story unfolded, of a woman from the late 1800’s who migrated from England with her husband in search of gold. They built a beautiful log cabin, with balconys, chandliers, and every amenity of the times, on top of a great lookout, nestled in between the hills. They also shipped in an old, red, english double decker bus, and used it for lodging for the miners. Her husband died suddenly while they were hidden away, and the woman, in romantic fashion spent the rest of her days in solitude from the rest of the world- roaming the mountain trails around her cabin and eventually dying of a broken heart. The land now sits abandoned, save for the remains of the london bus and a few rusted out miners cabins.
Michelle use to visit this area as a child on family camping trips. A few people in the past have tried to keep up with the wild mess of overgrowth and promote it as a campsite, but without success. Michelle is passionately trying again.
From the tar road, winding through a few secluded villages consisting of only a handful of homesteads, traveling down a dirt road that doesn’t often see traffic from vechiles- we were on our way to the London Bus Camp. It was a long, bumpy drive as we headed over one hill and down into valleys, only to go over or around another. After about an hour we arrived at a river, dividing the road- we stopped to access the depth and placement of the large slippery rocks laying under the clear pool. Kieren like a kid at Christmas, whipped his truck into 4-wheel drive, Michelle and I held on with white knuckles, as the truck entered, and crossed over the river to the opposite bank.
There, sitting ontop of the bank was the London bus. It sits decaying now, with broken windows, rust covering the exterior- the london red paint faded to a dull pink and flaking off onto the overgrown weeds surrounding the base. On the inside you could still picture how this bus looked during the days of the miners. As you ascended the narrow stairs at the back of the bus, to the upper level loft- picturing lines of beds with rows of muddy boots at their ends. An extension had been built off the front of the bus, and fitted with a small shower and toilet- no longer working.
Although when wandering onto this land, you have a sense of discovery, like you are the first person since the time of the heart broken miners wife to set foot on this ground- there is little pieces of evidence of other peoples exploration before you. Two small buildings sit nearby the bus- locked and abandoned. Ruins of a 3rd building sit in ruble and overgrowth by the river. An old water boiler with rusty pipes is rusted with holes, but stands towering behind the bus. A few meters from the site, a patch of bamboo has grown. Bamboo the size of oak trees- I have never seen bamboo so thick, especially in Swaziland where it is not a indegious plant.
Wandering around, the ground vibrates with stories of adventure. Its hard to not be caught up in the romantice of this spectaular place. Michelle was briming with excitement, and our 3 heads were silently buzzing with ideas and plans for the future of the London Bus Camp. We returned to the 4×4’s and headed up to the upper camp, where the old cabin was aledged to be. The roads were a steep climb, with a plumeting drop to one side and a wall of eroding mountain on the other. As we reached the top of the climb, a few tin shacks emerged around the trees, presumably more lodging for miners. We rounded the bend, expecting to see the extrodinay cabin, but left wanting. Instead of the historic old home of the lovestuck miners wife, a new modern swazi house had been built in its place. Michelles auditable gasp, was the only words need be spoken.
The upper camp, although missing the historic cabin, was in good shape. An old swazi man, working as a ground keeper had been living in the upper camp, and watching over the new house, and lodging area for the sporatic visitor. The upper camp had a completely different vibe, then the camp where the mysterious bus was sitting. It felt more modern, less ironic. A place you could easily see groups of travelers spending the night around a bonfire, staring off at the picturesque mountains that surround the camp. It was an amazing view. We spent some time wandering around in silence, and then found a trail half way between the upper and lower camps, leading to the river. This river is rummored to have a large, swimable pool and waterfalls, although we have yet to find them.
Heading home, (down a new path that took us through 2 river crossings), I was invited to see Kieren’s dads swazi cermaic company studio. I really wanted to see this studio in action, and Micheal (Kieren’s dad) had promised to let me throw some clay on the wheel myself. The pottery this company creates is beautiful. Bright, vibrant colors and scenes of Swazi wild life. It is simply georgeous. I’m still hoping to help with increasing sales and exposure for this company in the future. Maybe they can thank me with pottery 🙂
That evening we had a bri (BBQ) on their farm. This farm is amazing (I know I say that a lot lately, but it’s always true). They have horses, donkey’s, 6 healthy happy dogs (which I was in love with). It was a fabulous evening. We spent the night talking and talking and talking. It was so nice to talk with a swazi where I was’nt worried about misunderstandings, language barriers, etc. We talked about challenges in swaziland, politics, challenges in the USA, and some of the projects I am planning in my community. He told me that Peace Corps volunteers are known as “the great unwashed” in the urban areas. I think this is pretty funny. We do tend to come to the city in our trek sandles, cargo capris, long greasy hair and unshaven…everything. A band of unbathed hippie kids. I got the impression that PCVs have left a bit of a bad impression on them in the past. As we talked about projects, and challenges I was seeing in the rual areas- I think I changed his mind. Swaziland rely’s on a lot of aid from NGO’s and some swazi’s see PC as one more organization throwing money at the problem. However, as a PCV, we don’t have any money to throw at anything. We are here to assess and teach. Project managers- but not even- we are a project muse. We encourage the local people to assess needs of the community, and gentely direct them to a solution. But the people have to see the the process- start to finish- so they too own it. Its tricky sometimes, but if done correctly it leaves PC the only organization working WITH the people, instead of FOR them.
Heading home on sunday, I felt so happy. 48 hours with good people, good conversation, and a tish of adventure was exactly what I needed. Now i’m home and back to the grind. We have IST (meetings) in a couple of weeks and I have been asked to do some design work. Between helping Kieren with the tour company, Michelle with the London Bus Camp, Micheal with the Ceramic co, I am also working on logo’s and materials for camp GLOW (girls leading our world), helping illustrate children’s books in siswati, and designing HIV info sheets for the clinic. When did I get busy?? I am constantly amazed when I travel that as a graphic designer, I could be so useful to a 3rd world country- or as a volunteer in general. I think this just proves that EVERYONE can make a difference, and no one has a good excuse not to…