INTO THE WOODS
The morning sun crept into my window, warming my bare skin after a cold night. The yellow rays were a welcome greeting after a weekend of rain, and cold wind, reminding us winter is on its way. As we sat on the sunny veranda, sipping our freshly ground, Starbucks, coffee we knew today mustn’t be wasted. We had a car for the weekend, and nowhere we had to be; a sunday drive would be perfect.
We headed north out of Mbabane, towards Mhlambanyatsi. The scenery quickly changed outside my window as we followed the highway around sharp bends and up steep hills. Houses disappeared into the distance, and rolling hills with huge grey boulders dotted the expanse of green landscape for miles in front of us. We were only a few minutes from the city when trees began to rise up on the horizon. Tall, skinny, pine trees reaching high above the hills, and creeping closer and closer to the road until eventually we were surrounded. A tiny path of road splitting a deep forest, and hiding the sunlight with the dense branches overhead. The smell of pine saturated the inside of the car, mixed with the dried leaves, pine needles and black dirt of the forest floor it reminded me of fall in the states. The crisp cool air added to the feeling, and I found myself wishing for hot coco and apple pie.
George has been wanting to take me here for months, and as we entered the small secluded community I immediately understood why. Mhlambanyatsi is like no place I have seen in Swaziland. Trees lined the streets creating tunnels with little pockets of light shinning through the leaves. The paved roads, and landscaped lawns of the houses gave the feeling of a suburb. There was an area in the center of town for a store, post office, police station, hair salon and all the essential necessities of a small city. I felt like this charming little place had been picked up from some country community in the states and hidden away in the forests of Swaziland for safe keeping. It was magical. George was like a little kid as we continued to drive through town, and deeper into the woods. Smiling as he pointed out landmarks and retold memories from the time he spent here with his family and friends- talking a mile a minute.
The pavement eventually gave way to unmarked dirt roads as we slowly navigated our way through the dense woods. George tells me this area was started in the 1950’s by King Sobhuza. The forest supported a large timber export initiative, but with the dawn of the computer age, many of the jobs here have been replaced by machines. The forest still stretches on for miles, and as we drove through, we saw pockets of the forest that have been cut down and small sprouts of new trees could be seen peaking out through the ash and barren ground. I remembered from my Peace Corps training that, deforestation has become a problem in parts of Swaziland and I was happy to see new trees replacing the harvested.
We traveled over an hour down the bumpy dirt roads through the forest, listening to a mixed CD of 90’s music, singing at the top of our lungs, enjoying the sunshine warming the inside of the car, and the cool breeze flowing through the open windows. When the road came to an end, I wondered briefly where it was that we had arrived to. We had not passed a living soul in over an hour, and the unmarked roads didn’t seem to have anymore of a destination then we did. But George carried on, down a trail, covered by grass and brush as tall as the car. I was a little nervous as we blindly drove on, but then we stopped in an open field at the bottom of the most beautiful waterfall I have ever seen. High above the field, streaming off a slippery black rock, the double waterfall spilled into the river below, and disappeared behind the trees lining the field. We climbed up the huge rock at the base of the falls, to get a better look. The view was breathtaking. Our car below was just a spec in the vast landscape. The tall, yellow grass waved to us in the breeze. A few of the trees were beginning to change color for fall, and the rest were so many shades of green I could not begin to imagine how to paint them all. I wanted to stay on this rock all day listening to the sound of the waterfall and gazing out onto this landscape, trying to convince myself that this view is real. That something so beautiful exists in the world. But the sun was already sinking lower in the sky, and we had to start our journey back to the hidden town before dark settled in.
On the way home we stopped to greet Georges brother and I spent a little while playing with his niece Jade. She is 3 years old and adorable. I am happy around small children, they remind me of all my nieces and nephews at home who I miss so much. Being an aunt is one of the greatest things I have experienced in my life, and I am grateful I can still have opportunities to feel like a part of a family even when I am half a world away from home.
As we headed back towards Mbabane, down the highway, we could see the city lights up ahead. At night a few hundred homesteads scattered throughout the valley, make Mbabane look like a big city. The whole day has reminded me of my home in the states in some way, but Swaziland has also become my home now. Two totally different worlds; its seems strange sometimes that I am happy living in both.
THE CHILI INCEDENT
Tuesday started like any other day. Woke up, made my morning coffee and began working on my to-do list. Chasing Horizons will be going to a tourism expo in May, and I have to make a brochure, T-shirts and check on the progress of the website. This will be a huge step for the business and we have all been working overtime to be prepared. By my third cup of coffee, I realized I should probably eat something substantial. I decided I would bath, and then search for something to make for lunch.
After a slightly cold bath, my hut smelled amazing. Lush soaps linger in the air, and I was happy to feel clean. I slipped on a tank top and searched my empty pantry for something suitable to fit the bill. I have been spending so much time traveling around Swaziland lately, groceries for home haven’t crossed my mind- and my bare shelves staring back at me confirm my need. Hidden in the back corner I spotted a can of Trader Joes turkey chili my sister had sent in a care package last month. I had completely forgotten about it! The overcast skies outside, and the chill in the air inside my hut make this the perfect day for such a treat.
For the last couple of months I have noticed a change in my portable electric stove, that has progressively gotten worse. I haven’t thought much of it, just adjusted my cooking habits to avoid getting a shock when I have to use my stove. For example, I always cook with sleeves, so I am able to pull them over my hands and hold on to the pot when stirring, and likewise, pull them over my hands so I can hang on to the fork that is doing the stirring. It is sometimes annoying, but I have become accustomed to a small jolt of electricity when trying to cook.
So I thought nothing of it when I opened my last can of TJ turkey chili and then began pouring it into the small aluminum pot sitting on my stove. I was careful not to touch anything as I poured, and held the can a good distance from the pot. The possibility of the electric current traveling up my delicious chili, into the can, through the bare hand that was holding it, down my right arm and straight to my knees that immediately buckled, did not cross my mind. However, that is exactly what happened. The thing about being electrocuted is your limbs actually buckle and lock. My fingers were securely locked around the can and my legs gave out. As I staggered around my small hut, trying to will my legs to work and my fingers to release from the can, the contents were being flung to every corner of my house. When the charge of electricity had completed its circuit around my body, my hand violently released the nearly empty can, at the far wall, distributing the last few puddles of chili in a lumpy stream that was now dripping down my wall.
I landed in a heap on my cold cement floor, literally shocked at what had just occurred. I looked around at the scene laid before me. Quentin Tarantino could not have created a more bloody massacre. Curtains, walls, shelves, rugs, even my grass roof contained lumpy chunks of turkey chili, dripping clumsily towards the floor. It looked as if a small animal had entered my hut and exploded, but it smelled delicious. I didn’t know how to react at first, is this funny? Sad? Am I pissed? Then the tears set in without warning. Laying on my floor, looking at the last of my food scattered over every surface of my house and me, all I could do was cry. I wanted to tell someone, but whenever I tried to put it into words I would laugh. All I wanted was some chili. Now I’m dirty again, and my whole house is saturated with the smell of my favorite canned chili from home and my stomach is growling.
After a good 30 minutes of me sitting in the middle of my house, chain smoking through laughter and hysterical crying, watching chili seep from every surface around me, I started to clean up. I could hear my friend Honey outside and decided to ask if she knew anyone that could fix my stove. Within a few moments there was the local fix it guy at my house, unscrewing my stove. After 4 hours, we could not find a problem- although it did catch on fire twice. We gave up when the sun went down, and he put the stove back together. I don’t have anything else to use, so I have since returned to my “sleeve” method, and am now deathly afraid of canned food. I spent most of the morning re-cleaning and bleaching my hut, but I can still smell the remense of the chili murder clinging to the fibers of my walls.
When I thought about the “challenges of the Peace Corps”, and all the possible ways I could die here… deadly snakes and spiders, steep cliffs, insane public transport, any number of microscopic worms etc… I never thought about death by canned chili. Life is full of surprises- and they hurt like hell!