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A volunteer “lifer”

I remember when it happened. The temperature outside was cooling down after one of the hottest summers I had seen in Chicago. Preforming my morning ritual with 100 other people, dressed in black blazers, grey slacks and white, crisply starched button down shirts, standing in line at Starbucks. The corner café was bustling with people, but no one is speaking, except for one or two in their own blue tooth bubble. The sound of spoons clinking ceramic, combined with the hiss of the espresso machine echoes off the tall glass windows, and cool tile floors. I stand in line, practicing my drink order in my head; temperature, size, milk type, extra flavor, core flavor, extra notes — so I don’t waste the time of the line extending behind me. I see it out of the corner of my eye, a bright yellow shining through a sea of grey. I had never given Africa much thought before this moment. It was a place on the globe, where children were so use to fly’s, they didn’t bother swatting them away from their eyes. But this book, with the bright yellow dust jacket, changed everything.

 

Maybe it was the sea of grey, or the loudness of the quiet chaos all around me, but this book became a beacon, directing me down a path like a drop of water streaking down a pane of glass. It was unstoppable.

 

By the end of the first book, the craving was insatiable. I read more. Reading turned to movies, which quickly turned to uncontrollable Google searches. It didn’t take long before I was booking my flights for my first trip to Africa.

 

Some things on your journey in life cannot be explained. Why the obsession? Why at that moment did it consume me? The answer, over 10 years ago when it began, has never been clear. But the result is overwhelming.

 

During my first trip I volunteered for 5 weeks in Kenya. Those weeks, felt like a year, and I remember returning home confused. I had accomplished so much. I had experienced so much. I made amazing friends. It didn’t seem possible that all of this was accomplished in such a tiny space of time.

 

Through this experience, my perspective on life has been changed forever. Instead of standing in line waiting for the same cup of overpriced coffee, I am living in Africa. At 32 years old, I have discovered that “what you want to be when you grow up” is a combination of so many things that cannot be answered with one idea, experience, desire etc. It is a combination of all of the experiences in your life, and all you have to do is simply follow where your heart leads you.

 

Now I have the opportunity to help lead others down this path. A large part of my job now, is talking to other lost souls, stuck in a sea of grey and help them lead a vibrant life for themselves, even if it is for 2 weeks or a month. It is one of the most rewarding careers I have ever had.

 

Just like when I was a volunteer, exploring Kenya, I had an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment. Like I was contributing to a bigger, global picture. I still get that feeling now, that I have chosen to live abroad. This month I took charge of 22 interns from all over the world. Together, we were able to create an incident report to monitor malnourished children, begin a tooth brushing campaign at our preschools (with a volunteer initiated donation of over 600 toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste). We also develop, tested and began a microfinance project to help women living in poverty create an income for themselves and their families. A group of 15 interns split into groups of 3 to assist 8 Swazi entrepreneurs build up their businesses, and even created “how to manuals” to assist even more entrepreneurs in the future with the marketing and business planning. What’s more than the tangible results, is the feeling each of them left with. I know it well. It can only be described as “inspired”. A feeling that suddenly the world is so much bigger then you thought, but also somehow obtainable. It is an unquenchable thirst for more. A feeling of accomplishment that you are a part of humanity and you are actively contributing. It’s unreal.

 

When I think about what I wanted to be when I grew up, I never would have imagined this is where I would be. Sitting on the other side of the world, listening to monkey’s run across my office roof, surrounded by color… vibrant… bright color. Most of all I am grateful that I have the opportunity to feel all these emotions everyday. I am no longer a volunteer, however the connection with other volunteers allows me to contribute to so much, through them. It’s an amazing feeling.

The eye of the storm

The darkness is all consuming as we drive down winding, narrow roads towards the border of Swaziland. The rain is crashing against the windscreen in a rhythmic beat, lulling my tired body to sleep. The thick sheet of raindrops against the backdrop of the headlights is creating a light tunnel, and my eyes struggle to stare past its dramatic display to the road beyond. I am fighting the lost sleep of the last 48 hours, willing my body to find just a little more adrenaline to stretch the last few hours until I can finally be home, safe in my bed. The last two days are incomprehensible; I’m struggling to remember the details like waking up from a vivid dream, where your only memory is the rough outline of intense emotions, but everything else is blurry. I shake my head to myself- it is too dark for anyone else to see me. The 5 passengers in the back are jig sawed into their seats between suitcases and luggage we somehow managed to squeeze in every empty crack of this mini van. They are restless as they shift their stiff limbs from the 14-hour journey. We are all happy to be alive and confused about the events that have taken place.

 

One week ago, to the day we set out for Mozambique it was Wednesday, February 8th. George and I have had a spout of bad luck the last few months, and we were happy to be leaving our little apartment, and all of the chaos behind for a few days. As we drive along the narrow, sandy roads of this tropical, vibrant country we could feel the weight being lifted with every kilometer we drove. We high-fived along the drive when we nearly missed a few chance disasters; like the tailgate of a dump truck ahead of us crashing to the ground, missing our car by a few meters. Maybe our luck was changing we joked to ourselves. The sun was shining on us, and we were looking forward to the feel of warm sand between our toes and cool taste of the local brew 2M flowing over our palate.

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George, my boss Sarah and I arrive in the tiny coastal town of Tofo late that night. This place is a tourist’s paradise, set up on a perfectly round cove, protected from the large swells of the Indian Ocean. The bay provides the perfect beach for sunbathing, swimming, fishing and other water activities. It also creates an amazingly abundant habitat for rare sea life like whale sharks, manta rays, mantas, dolphins and large sea turtles. My company, All Out Africa, sends international volunteers here to work alongside our resident marine biologist to research these creatures and to assist us with collecting data we can use to make recommendations on conservation efforts on a global scale. It’s one of my favorite programs, and I’m always willing to visit the project when I can. This month we have an agent from Spain visiting the program so she can experience our little piece of paradise and sell the program to new volunteers.

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There are 3 volunteers already in Tofo, assisting with the program and working towards their scuba diving PADI certificate– two young boys from Germany and Norway and an adventurous older woman from Holland. Although this group has only known each other for a week, they are a tight-knit family unit, and work together wonderfully as a team. With the addition of our Spanish agent, we spend the next week enjoying the pleasures of the ocean, sun and white sand beaches.

 

Working in a coastal area, with many of the activities taking place on the water, we frequently check wind reports. If the wind is more than 18 miles per hour water activities need to be rescheduled for safety. Sunday we were planning the activities when we noticed a slight increase in wind for the week. Monday was elevated to 23 mph, Tuesday 34 mph and Wednesday a spike to 70 mph. Looking at our wheather apps with the color coded warning scale escalating from yellow, orange, red and then to purple, my boss casually remarks “ I have never seen the warnings reach purple before”. We break the bad news to the volunteers that all water activities will be canceled for the week and we make plans to do beach clean ups, or social project activities with the local kindergarten instead.

 

Tuesday brings Valentines Day, George and I head out for a romantic evening walk on the beach in search of a bottle of wine and a fresh seafood dinner. The beach in Tofo is wide, stretching at least 300 M from the surf to the line of hotels and guesthouses along its coast. We are walking straight down the middle when out of nowhere we find ourselves knee deep in water. Tide has risen in a matter of seconds and we are wadding against the powerful under toe towards land. There is a nearby bar we head towards, laughing at our wet shoes and jeans as we tip toe out of the water and up the stairs to the thatch roofed veranda. We buy a drink at the bar and find a place to stand overlooking the water- I’ve never seen the water this high on the beach before. There is a group of tourist nearby who came to Tofo on a scuba holiday, talking about storm “Dineo”. “They’ve named it?” I think to myself.

 

Wednesday morning brings gusts of wind at 70 + mph. The sand whips at my calves as we head to the open-air office. The storm has been upgraded to a cyclone, with the eye headed straight for us. We gather the volunteers, write emergency numbers on the white board and Katie, our staffer in Tofo prepares us for the impending tropical storm and what to expect. We set about the office, flipping tables upside down, and piling everything that isn’t nailed down in the back of the office. George and I go to town to collect extra water and candles, whilst Katie collects all of the valuables from the office and puts them in a plastic tub to keep safe in our thatch roofed chalet.

 

By lunch the wind had picked up, taking the power with it. We try to distract ourselves by watching a few episodes on my laptop until my battery runs dry. I can’t sit in our room, the thatch is blowing in the wind and every few minutes the roof lifts and settles like a parachute. I’m listening hard, trying to hear cracks in the beams. I sit outside on our little veranda, and watch the palm trees go perfectly horizontal against the sand. Branches are zipping by and the ocean below this dune looks angry. The rain starts, seemingly falling from the bottom up, from each side and straight down all at the same time. “We need to gather the volunteers and stay together”, I tell Sarah trying to sound matter of fact.

 

All of us gathered together, we spend the last few hours of daylight on the veranda. I can’t be inside whilst the roof is displaying a terrifying trampoline act, I want to know what’s coming. I’m not the only one, as we are all perched along the walls of the veranda, reading, listening to iPods or chatting to friends on Facebook. My nerves are starting to get to me, and I’m secretly terrified of what is to come. I glance around at our little mixed group, and everyone seems to be preoccupied by a distraction of their own- no one seems worried. Maybe I’m overreacting, I think to myself.

 

As night falls we move into our chalet lounge, light a few candles and try to entertain ourselves with crazy travel stories. Maybe our story telling was an effort to make this current experience not seem crazy, or maybe it was the one thing 7 adventurous people who all ended up in Tofo during a cyclone had in common. I’m not sure, but it helped. The roof continued to bounce, but we couldn’t see it now. The candles were in a constant battle against the relentless gusts of wind blowing between the grass on the roof, making it hard to shine light at the same time. The grass began to come lose along the celling, making it difficult to look up as the debris rained down on us. We pass around a few strips of fabric I was meant to be sewing into new cushions for the office, to protect our eyes. I look at Sarah, and whisper loudly against the howling wind, “I’m hoping you have some kind of checklist in mind to let us know when we should institute plan b?” She laughs through her fear, and says, “ I was kind of hoping you did.” We nervously laugh to ourselves, with our heads draped with our new headscarfs. It’s hard to sit still. I remember I have a bottle of water in our bedroom and make a b-line for the door. My hand is barely touching the handle when it bursts open. The ceiling in our room has completely ripped open. The wind is so strong I’m still holding onto the door trying to regain my balance when I notice the support beams have fallen, and our bed has completely shifted off it’s frame. “It’s time to go.” I say to out loud to myself.

 

Earlier in the day we had requested that the owner of the lodge leave us a key for the kitchen restaurant just in case the wind continued to pick up. It didn’t really cross our minds that we would need it, and we were surely hoping not to use it, but time was now against us. George and I volunteered to go across first to make sure the roof was still intact and it was indeed still our plan b option. It had been a few hours since we were last outside and now it was completely pitch black. The door to our chalet bursts open as we step out. I am clinging to George’s hand and yet I can’t see him at all. The headlamps we are wearing highlight nothing but the sheets of rain whipping horizontally in front of us. We walk along the front of our chalet, and the neighboring veranda to the crossroad. I make out the electricity pole and see a black wire whipping violently in the wind. I scream to George at the top of my lungs, but my voice gets lost in the air- I can barely hear myself. He sees it just in time and we both jump out of the way- the wind carrying us further than anticipated. The road we are crossing has become a wind tunnel, the gusts now over 100 mph making it hard to place one foot in front of the other. We make it to the side of the building, and huge downed palm branches are thrashing themselves against the walls. George finds the door behind a few down branches, and attempts to open the door. We stand there willing ourselves to open it, and avoid being hit by a number of flying objects as we stand out in the open, being pelted by sand that now feels like a thousand shards of glass pounding against our legs, arms and necks. The door finally flies open, and I do a quick inspection of the roof, which thankfully is still intact. The walk back is harder as it’s completely against the wind. We can’t look where we are going; the sand-filled wind is too strong. It feels like we have been walking an hour to make it a few meters back to our chalet, which we nearly pass. I open the door to see 5 scared faces staring back at me in the flickering candlelight that now seems to be lighting up the room like spotlights. Adrenaline has kicked in, and from some deep crevice inside of me I take charge. “OK!” I scream over the wind, “it’s go time! Grab your passports and laptops, leave EVERYTHING ELSE, we are going to walk across. The wind is very strong so we are going to walk in a chain, linking arms with the person in front and behind you. DO NOT LET GO, and stay together!” We grab a few 5L’s of water, the extra candles and begin forming our chain. We walk slowly against the wind. There are more flashlights now and I can see fragments of corrugated iron roofs littering the ground around us. We make it to the door and it’s jammed. We all grab a wet, slippery edge and try to force it open. A tree cracks behind us and crashes at our feet, somehow missing everyone. The door finally opens and we all rush inside. We take a breath, unload our supplies and take a look around. The volunteers light a few candles, saving enough to make it through the night. A few of the windows have broken and we work stacking tables and signboards against them to avoid the rain and miscellaneous flying objects from making their way in. I begin surveying the walls and corners of the room, looking for the safest area of the restaurant in the event we loose the safety of the roof during the night. The far side behind the bar is our best bet away from the glass of the beer refrigerators and away from the gas lines of the kitchen I’m nearly positive are not turned off. I begin barking orders, “let’s round up all the glass from the bar and move it to the kitchen!” we spend the next few minutes packing cups, liquor bottles, and anything on a shelf into the next room. I drag a plastic table nearby the bar, and pray we don’t have to use it as a shield over our heads at some point during the night. I begin looking for a first aid kit, move the fire extinguishers closer to our emergency area and find an empty bucket to use for a toilet. We are prepared as we are going to get. George finds some extra table clothes and lays them down on the floor as a make shift bed, and a few of the volunteers follow suit. Sarah and I are exhausted as we sit in the restaurant chairs, staring silently at the ceiling- I will not be sleeping tonight.

 

The night lasted for what seemed to be an eternity. Every crash, sound of breaking glass, or gust of wind disturbed our secure roof, which with every passing hour grew more fragile. The corrugated iron sheets on the porch were beginning to go, lifting and crashing down in a terrifying bang every few minutes. Most of the volunteers had made themselves a bed out of table clothes and curtains and were silently pretending to sleep. I am relieved to have such an amazing group with us, and praying thanks to god that we do not have an 18-year-old girl among us. Everyone has been calm. No one has panicked. I cannot tell if we are all masking our true feelings or if I am the only one truly scared for my life? Every now and then someone gets up from their restless slumber to use our makeshift toilet in the other room. I follow each one and stand by the door. Our agent says to me, “ it’s ok, I’ll be fine. I have a flashlight.” I continue my guard and say to her, “ no, I don’t want anyone to be alone in case something happens. I don’t want anyone to be separated from the group.” She looks at me sideways as the porch roof delivers a crashing thuds right on schedule. “ What do you mean if something happens?” she asks. It occurs to me at that moment that maybe our trio- of staffers is THAT good at acting natural that the group does not yet realize the severity of our situation? I want to ask her if she is serious. Or explain that at any minute the roof may cave in, but instead I decide ignorance is indeed bliss and say, “don’t worry about it”, with a calm and collected smile.

 

My eyelids are heavy with sleep, but I am forcing them to stay open- staring at the ceiling. I don’t want to be caught in a sleepy haze if our luck were to go south. George is snoring behind the bar, and everyone else seems to be getting some sort of sleep amongst this insanity. I do my rounds with my flashlight. Checking the porch roof from out the east window, moving to the window by the road we had boarded up earlier, running the light along the corner of the ceiling and wall checking if the leaks have gotten worse. It all looks the same as 10 minutes ago. I lay my head down on the table, just for a minute, and close my eyes.

 

When I wake up the sun is shining behind the signboards stacked against the window. Its faint, but its morning and I have never in my life been so happy to see dawn. I jump up, heavy from the sleepless night, but with a renewed since of joy as I make my way over sleeping bodies to the window. The wind is still howling, but it has died down a little. As I gaze out the window, the smile dawn had brought slowly fades back to reality as the destruction glares back at me. Everything is in pieces.

 

George is finally awake, and we decide to go outside to survey our little area of Tofo. The door we entered last night is jammed shut from the outside, so we go out the back door. Climbing over debris as the rain drenches us- but we don’t feel it. As we round the corner of the restaurant porch, the noises of last night become clear. The porch is covered in other houses roof sheets, chairs, tables, and pot plants broken and snapped in half. The roof of the small reception area is completely off, windows all broken. We continue walking to the wind tunnel road and glance in the direction of our chalet. The neighboring chalets porch is completely crumbled, contrite pillars and all. There are windows hanging by hinges, every tree over 1M high has fallen, with roots exposed from the earth. The large hotel on the edge of the dune, which was my plan C, has completely lost its massive and infamous blue roof- the evidence scattered across Tofo for several kilometers. Our chalet has the least amount of damage on the outside, although the roof is sporting new skylights in every room, and there is a thick layer of grass and debris on every surface. Our bedroom being the worst hit, with a deep puddle of rain spreading across the floor and seeping on top of the soggy mattress. I walk to the lookout point between the front most chalets to see the coastline. The ocean has risen, and there is no beach left. People are beginning to wander outside of their shelters, slowly emerging like zombies, holding their heads, speechless as they take in the sight. Yesterday this was paradise, and today there is nothing left.

 

We spend the first hour of morning investigating the damage, talking to people, finding out if anyone is hurt. By some grace of god, the reports are merely structural- everyone seems to be unscathed. The beachfront looks like a snowstorm of sand hit. Walls are completely covered in a thick layer of sand, with tall drifts in front of every house. What tree branches remain is heavy with the weight of the beach hanging from its limbs. The market, which is the center of Tofo, usually bustling with people from dawn until dusk is completely empty; disrupted save for a few large fallen trees in the middle that are now the focal point. Our quest is cut short by down power lines in nearly every direction, it’s not safe to be out and the volunteers have followed us. I want to keep exploring, but I am still responsible for this group and I must get them back to our shelter safely.

 

We are walking in circles, pent up like tigers at the zoo. Pacing back and forth. We are restless and need to be doing something. The owner of the lodge appears, looking white as a ghost despite her dark completion. She had lost her house at nightfall and had spent the night at a nearby neighbor’s house. She is speechless as she surveys the damage to her lodge. We are speechless without any words of comfort to offer, except for a meager, “at least you and your family are ok.” Her staff surprisingly begins to appear. Dressed in full uniform, despite the fact most of them had lost their house in the storm, they begin picking up brooms and fallen chairs, like this is any other morning. I am grateful for the distraction of moving bodies and we are all jealous of purposeful movements. We join in, turning the restaurant back into working order, dusting the sand from the chairs, and turning the tables upright. The volunteers are struck quickly into action, assisting in the dance. George and I walk to our chalet to pack our bags, speaking to a few people along the way, looking for a route out of Tofo.

 

There is no running water, no electricity, no cell service and no shelter left to stay in. The market will be out of commission for days if not week to buy supplies. This trip to the coast has turned into an emergency evacuation, and George and I waste no time making plans to get everyone across the border into safety. We were a bit shocked to learn that there were a few disagreements to this plan. Of course the volunteers wanted to stay and help clean up- they had spent the last 2 weeks making Tofo home. Even Sarah had told herself that we were leaving tomorrow, and after the trauma of the previous evening she could not shake the thought. After a healthy debate, everyone agreed that George and I would go on a scouting mission to check on the roads to see if it was even possible to leave, if we were successful the smart thing to do would be to leave immediately. The residents of Tofo needed time to get their lives back in order, and as much as our hearts begged us to stay, I knew that our presence would be more of a burden than it would be aid. Not to mention there was no way for us to keep in touch with the volunteers if we left them, or for them to contact emergency services if they needed it. We had to go.

 

We found a way out, and begin packing our things into the 7-seater mini van. With just enough space for bodies, the luggage was squeezed into every crack and crevices of the car. Everyone had a bag on their lap, between their feet and around them where possible. It would not be a comfortable journey back to Swaziland, but we would be safe in 14 hours. It took about 10 minutes for all of us to squeeze in, like a game of jenga, careful not to disturb the towers of luggage so bodies could be packed inside too. Everyone was quiet as we drove through the outlining villages of Tofo. There was a quiet bustle of activity as people walked down the roads with wheelbarrows collecting fallen roof sheets, and fragments of clothes that were carried away in the winds. Most of the houses here are made from dried palm leaves weaved together, with thatch roofs—all of it had been flatted like a house of cards. It was a sad drive home, but hope still loomed nearby. Knowing that we could do more from home to raise donations, funds and supplies than our bodies could contribute in the chaos.

 

George an I have had a bout of bad luck recently, and our friends in Swaziland joked upon our arrival that of course WE would be stuck in the eye of a cyclone. It may be true. However at the same time, I feel unbelievably lucky to have survived. I am so proud of the volunteers and staff that went through this truly terrifying experience with me. We were calm, collected and worked together as a team. Despite the need for a long cry when I woke up for the first time in my bed, I am grateful for my life and truly feel like our luck is turning around.

If you would like to help support our fundraising efforts to rebuild Tofo, please check out this link: https://www.gofundme.com/rebuild-tofo-schools-dineo

 

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above is a before and after picture of one of our volunteer lodges, where we were staying.

The Curse…

They call it “hellfire”. The bomb plummets down to earth leaving the sound of a faint whistle trailing behind, echoing in the atmosphere. The sweaty palmed, pilot watches on his screen from a remote dessert bunker, as the package is received. Estimated damage has been calculated and the destruction is verified. The paperwork is filed. The solider returns home safely- his job is done. On the ground the chaos ensues. Picking up the pieces, clearing the rubble, counting the causalities

Our tiny apartment is just a spec on the face of the earth. Sitting in a valley of mountains, covered by a thick layer of dust as boundless trucks and tractors stir up the ground. The deaf dog next door never stops screaming. Encouraging the goat to cry and the surrounding dogs to howl. A black cat crosses my path, and then another.  I empty the saltshaker over my left shoulder. Turn around three times. The garlic around my neck is pungent, and the rope feels like a noose. How do you clean yourself of bad luck? The air around me is thick with it, and it’s getting hard to breath.

It started on Christmas Eve. We were un-expecting as we drove back from a relaxing day spent at the Dam. As we swam and soaked up the sun we didn’t know this would be the last good day for months. If we had, we would’ve lingered a little longer. Basked in the last few warm rays of the day. 

Its always stupid how things like this happen- what starts a chain reaction of chaos. Our car was broken into, which led to2 days spent at the police station. Missing Christmas dinner. We knew whom the criminal was and when the police failed to reprimand him words were slung in his direction. Christmas morning began with a police car in my driveway- charges were pressed against me for shouting at the thief. The police also found the humor in this and it was soon forgotten. 

Christmas also brought a string of power outages. Some weeks we had no power for days. When the power is out, the water pump in the well stops pumping causing a water shortage. Christmas eve we arrived home after several hours making statements to the police, starving and sweaty from the beating sun. No power. No dinner. We drove to the pizza restaurant at the casino down the road; it’s late and the fatigue is setting in. We order, collect and go back to the car, reverse and hear the sound of shattering glass behind us. I’m tempted to get out, and walk home. Leaving the car exactly as it is. The car behind us is parked illegally, in front of a delivery gate. The parking lot is pitch black. The bolt for the spare tire on our car is less than a millimeter extended over the rear bumper of our car, and a tap of this tiny piece of metal on the window of the illegally parked car is enough to send it to shambles. We call the police, a report is made, and we are fined R700 and have to replace the windscreen of this Toyota Spacio. Have you ever heard of this car in your life? 

Its new years and we escape to the dam for the weekend. We need to hide out for a while, and the idea of bringing in the New Year in the community we will soon be building gives us an overwhelming feeling of hope. We are so close to getting our land, and we have had ever assurance that the finalizing of the deal will be any day now. We take a drive to our chosen piece, smiling, and encouraging each other with visions of building our little farm by the dam’s edge. As we approach, something isn’t right. The land has been grated, the trees chopped down. Someone else is beginning to build on our land. We call a meeting to confirm and just like that our dreams are crushed. We are offered another piece of land, it is a better piece, but now all trust has been shaken. Will we ever get to build our house?

December brought a ray of hope. We go to the pharmacy and buy a pregnancy test. It feels like this isn’t the right time, with the chaos endlessly swirling around us, but maybe this will be the end of our bad luck. We sit around the bathroom sink staring at this stick, willing two pink lines to appear, with one suborn thick line staring back at us. A week later another one stating, “invalid”. Rinse repeat. Rinse repeat. I make an appointment with the doctor, something isn’t right. A month has gone by and the results are staying the same. We spend our rent at the clinic, blood is drawn tests are done; the doctors are confused. No one can give me an answer to this query. I will need more appointments, more money. More lost hope.

I receive a monthly payment from one of my clients. Every month. The same amount. It has been 4 months with the same result. We receive a text message from the bank with money is deposited. As the phone chimes, our Pajero chokes, sputters and breaks down. The mechanic comes, parts are bought, I walk to work, the bank balance reads zero. Every month. I may start to work for free.

In Swaziland, the locals believe that the ocean holds healing powers. Whenever we go to the ocean, we always have a request to bring back a 2L of seawater for someone. Something about the salt, the boundless miles of ocean water, somehow cleanses your soul. We leave on Wednesday for the coast. I am not a superstitious person, but I’m not sure how much longer I can stand this string of bad luck. I like to believe everything happens for a reason. And I’m sure all of this will have a reason… a purpose… a chain reaction of events to set us up for something better. They say you have to sometimes fall to the bottom to appreciate the view from the top. I am envisioning clear blue skies, the sound of hammers to nails, the roar of a working engine, the feel of tiny new fingers wrapped around my own and the feeling of cheeks paining with laughter. 2017 is going to end better than it has begun- we just have to clear a little rubble.

Help Scott get back to school.

Woke up this morning to an email from a long lost friend. Actually, a friend of my host bhuti from my peace corps day. He attended my traditional wedding, and played a role as one of the representatives  of my Swazi family for the ceremony.

After the ceremony we invited him to stay with us for a weekend, along with my host brother. It was a great weekend. As many situations go in Swaziland, the weekend had more of an impact on him then we had thought, and although it’s been 2 years since the wedding, the weekend is still cherished. I had no idea of his circumstances at the time, but with this email he sent me today i’m astounded, and driven to help him.

His email is below. if anyone else would like to help him, you can pay pal me donations to ginger.bran@hotmail.com and i will make sure the funds go towards his furthered education.

 

Its been a long time sister and I would like to take this opportunity and thank you for inviting us over that weekend, personally I enjoyed it was just one little thing that ddnt go down well in me “time” I wish we had a month or more the way u treated us and the atmosphere it was amazing, though if I had a month I would be wishing we had two or more my tendencies I would say because I never say “wow thanks guys for giving us that epic time we really enjoyed n we had adequate time”. . . . I am an orphan so to say dad deserted me when I was born so I dnt know him, Mom got married to another man so I grew up at mom’s homestead (KaGogo) with my uncles moms brothers. She took care of me even though she wasn’t around until I finished school then she lost her job, her husband sent her to their home. That’s how I lost her help and she is money less she couldn’t help me. I finished school back in 2012, well it didn’t go well but I got admited in some colleges n FETs but I couldn’t pay for my tuitions. 2014 June I got some cash and at home they promised to help me financially when I hv a need. Went to school gave it my best shot all was well until my final month, got a letter from the office took it home. Since they promised to help me out with cash I thought everything was going okay until that month when I asked some cash for rent and I didn’t get a response, I told myself no I shouldn’t put pressure on them they know if I don’t pay it I will be kicked out. I personally borrowed some cash n payed rent hoping they will send it then I will repay it. Two weeks later still no rent cash and I was called by a receptionist, she asked me “did you give your parents the letter?” sure I did what was it about? I asked. “Oh! Boy basically it was a letter informing them about final exam fees and due date is about in a weeks time” she answered. I left college premises at that instance, went straight home they saw my frustration and told me that they can’t do it anymore in fact they don’t have money for me to pursue my studies so they suggest I go back n pack my things n come back home I will try another time when they are financially stable. I am thin physically but within 3 days I had to tighten my belt when wearing my pants. Hardly ate food thinking about how it all happened and questions kept popping in my head HOW? And why only me among us? A lot of questions some made me cry, after all there was nothing I could change and when I accepted and packed my clothes went back home. When mom heard she got sick, she went to hospital for 3 weeks she had a high blood pressure and diabetes. Last year I had another shot but it didn’t last I took about three months, same story was told this year no one ever talked about it. I stay at home alone now when my peers are at school n tertiary I’m getting more and more jealous and sometimes I think about getting lost without them knowing where am I, I can’t sit back and watch others pursue their studies while mine is at halt it hurts big times sometimes I feel like why am I still alive at the first place if I have to watch this????????

.. .. . I know sister you guys have your own problems to take care of but I kindly beg you to help me out where you can, I don’t know where to go now. I know its hard but I believe you have friends who could give a hand too thanks for your time, all the best greatly missed and happy family.

PAUSE…

5.4.16

The dogs outside are barking, stirring me from my sleep. The shadows on the walls are foreign, the air smells different, and the mattress can’t remember the shape of my body beneath me. I’ve had the most unusual dream.

 

I’ve dreamt that I am getting off a plane and onto another one, and another one. I’m carrying too many bags to hold in both hands, and struggling to push a trolley stacked with more suitcases then I can see over. George is with me, and my exhaustion is mirror back at me in his eyes. I have a funny feeling that I have been here before, but the butterflies in my gut, this nervousness, tells me that something new is on the horizon.

 

It’s a funny thing how dreams work. The decoding that happens between the waking hours and deep sleep. The details are hazy, but the images come to you as a reminder, something like proof, of what has taken place. This is how I remember the last year. Sometimes I feel as if it never happened at all. I question how I got here, to this unfamiliar house, in tiny little country that I remember, but also seems changed. George and I have push pause on life, for 14 months. Taking time to figure things out, making new plans and having a break from doing just that, but against a ticking clock.

 

Cape Town is a distant memory. The parts I do remember seem like it happened in a different life, or are fragmented like a dream I once had, and can only remember snippets of detail. When the Cape Town journey was coming to an end, we saw it coming. We knew we weren’t ready to return to Swaziland, we were still craving something… something yet to be decided, but it was on the tip of our tongues. We made a plan B, not thinking that it would really happen, but a backup just in case. “What do you think about visiting the USA for a few months until we figure out what we want to do?” I ask George casually, on a perfectly normal afternoon. Within the week, we began packing up our tiny apartment on the cape. Plan B quickly became the only plan, and like a movie on fast forward we were packed, in a car, pit stop in Swaziland, saying our goodbyes, boarding a plane, and unpacking in my sisters basement in Detroit MI. My head still spins a little.

 

We arrived in Michigan at the end of April 2015. My sister had just had a baby, Ruby, the month before and I was excited for a chubby, thunder-thighed distraction. We spent the first few days visiting with family and making plans with old long lost friends. We had a lot to fit into a few months visit. My mom and brother bought us an old Osmobile Bravada as a means to get around, and we were beyond grateful for the gesture.

 

We watched tiny buds of leaves and flowers bloom on the trees, overwhelmed with delight in the spring air. By the time leaves were sprouting, George was keeping busy at a landscaping company, learning how to run with a lawn mower. I was keeping busy at home, checking emails in between baby giggles, and trips to Target.

 

The summer heat swept in, and George experienced his first taste of muggy, humid air. He made a few friends and fell hopelessly in love with craft beer. He fielded a host of embarrassing questions from my fellow patriots, like “ have you ever wrestled a lion?” “did you wear shoes growing up?” Do you have schools in Africa?” George took each question with more grace then I could’ve mustered, and we at least felt grateful that some people actually listened to the answers.

 

Summer brought a lot of “firsts” for George. We showed him the Great Lakes, went to the beach, watched firework displays from a boat for the fourth of July, went kayaking & tubing down the river. He even had his first birthday party, complete with an epic inflatable slip’n slide. We found a new hangout in Kalamazoo, at The Old Dog Tavern, which we frequented whenever possible with my mom. We loved sitting outside on the lawn listening to live music and dancing on the grass with bare feet.

 

At this point the Osmobile began to show it’s age, and was in the garage more then in our driveway. It ended in a losing battle, and was eventually towed back to the other side of the state. My mom instantly pulled through, and appeared one afternoon with a brand new Nissan, for us on lease. It is truly amazing to have family.

 

When the leaves began to fall, we knew our trip was coming to an end. But I couldn’t bear the thought of packing another suitcase, not yet. We had been bouncing from house to house; country-to-country for months now, and the thought of packing everything up again was too overwhelming a task. Besides, we still didn’t have a plan… not really. We decided last minute to extend our stay for 6 more months.

 

Autumn brought a chill to the air that George wasn’t expecting. He was working outside, raking massive piles of leaves for 12 hours at a time- unable to decide if he was freezing or hot. I was serving a multitude of small jobs, everything from babysitting, to data entry to keep busy and attempting to save some money to take home. We now had a reason to save… we had come up with a plan, and the plan began to take over our every thought. We were going to build a house.

 

By Thanksgiving the air had cooled to freezing and the first flurries came to Michigan. We had fun watching George bundle each morning, even on days he was staying inside. We were finally feeling at home. It was so nice to watch George interact with my family, and I was constantly astounded at how well he fit in. It was almost frightening that there was no hesitation on Thanksgiving when my mom started an arm wrestling competition—I loved that.

 

As worked dried up for us both, and the ground began to freeze over the new plan began to take shape. Hours spent online, pintresting ideas, watching building tutorials, and scrapbooking pictures of our future home. With our extended stay we had decided to ship some things home in a container, and we were stockpiling goodies like squirrels preparing for hibernation. With Christmas day, our wall of boxes doubled in size. We had acquired nearly everything needed to furnish our house… down to the kitchen sink.

 

We spent New Years Eve in North Carolina visiting a close friend. After 10 months in the states, this was our first excursion outside of Michigan. It was also the first place that George and I have ever traveled to together that was completely new to both of us. It was an amazing, and much needed trip away. We even made time to stop in Washington DC on the way home.

 

When our little vacation was over, it was time to begin packing and this time I was ready. We put as much as possible in boxes to go on the container, and left the essentials for the luggage we would travel with on the plane. It was a difficult task, and I was constantly amazed at how much we had acquired in one year.

 

When the boxes were delivered to the Port, it was a strange feeling. We were ready to go home, but suddenly the days were flying by. Hours felt like minutes and I wasn’t sure if I was ready to leave my security blanket quite yet. We had spent a year with my sister and her family—for some reason it was a completely blissful year. We co-existed, went on joint date nights. We watched Ruby grow from a tiny baby, to an energetic toddler. We spent our evenings on the couch talking to Lucy and Claire, the older girls, who were full of stories, and I suspect Lucy had an innocent crush on George, who she affectionately called “Green”. George and Jeff, my sister’s husband, also had become close, and the thought of ending their man dates tugged at my heart strings more than expected. I was also going to miss my sister greatly. She had given us the most amazing year. We wanted for nothing. Having her so close for conversation and coffee is a delicacy I had long forgotten to miss.

 

February was a hard month. The days passed by, like the view from a speeding train. There was an excitement about releasing the pause button, but also a mix of other emotions. There wasn’t much time left over to dwell on it however, before we knew it we were alone, standing on the curb of the airport, surrounded by towers of suitcases. Time to resume life… press play…

 

We have been back in Swaziland for 2 months. We have a small studio apartment. There is a gang of monkeys that hang out nearby just in case I forget where I am; they quickly remind me. Things have been moving fast, and slow at the same time since we got back. I haven’t decided if it’s because we had been re-Americanized and then dropped in Swazi-time or if its that the pause has pushed into hyperspeed. We have found a piece of land by the Dam in the community where we want to build our house and are in the process of applying for it (the “process” involves a lot of gifted beer, a few sacks of rice, a cow at the end and a hell of a lot of patience). Our dear friend Jei Jei, an architect, has designed us the first of 2 small houses, and a large one we plan on building in a few years time.

 

George is beginning the process of starting his own landscaping business here, and I am back to work, catching up with all my old clients. Our shipment has proven to be a bit more of a hassle than anticipated- I think we have paid for it 3 times now, with another payment due. TIA- this is Africa- how quickly we forget the little details. Some days we feel like we never left Swaziland at all. Other days, like when we cook spaghetti and realize we have one fork (because all our silverware is in the shipment) we remember we are starting over again. It’s a process. But at the end of the day, we are eternally grateful for the family and friends that have given us the gift of an entire year. As hazy as the details may seem now, we will always remember 2015 as the year that changed our path.

 

 

 

The Great Cape Town Hunt

The sweat dripped from my brow, and my knees trembled with the pain of exhaustion as the last dusty box hit the tiled floor. Looking around at the towers of luggage, and piles of bags its hard to remember how all of this fit into the back of a VW Golf just a few months ago however, the feeling of having all of it back in one room is an overwhelming relief. It has been 2 months since we set off on our Cape Town bound adventure- yet we have lived in 3 houses. Our bodies are tired from packing, lifting, stairs, and narrow corridors, unpacking and loading. Our brains our running on fumes, from the nerve racking, and never ending house search.

When we arrived in Cape Town, it seemed fate that we were able to arrange a short-term apartment through a friend of a friend. A small studio apartment, converted from a garage, on the end of a cute little suburban house. The two other tenants were welcoming, friendly and extremely hospitable; we couldn’t believe our luck! As a Virgo, our plan was to use December as time to get to know the many areas of Cape Town. Much like Chicago, CT is comprised of a variety of little suburbs surrounding the down town area. Some areas are primarily students attending one of the many universities; others are beach-bound surfer communities, while others are entirely young families who all push their expensive strollers down the same leafy streets at the same time every day. We spent most of December narrowing down the areas we would potentially live in. The options were so vast, but we somehow still felt the need to fit ourselves into a tidy little box: Who did we want to be? Where was the best local pub? Who had restaurants we could afford to dine in. Was it close enough to friends? Work (oh wait we don’t have jobs yet…)? We spend countless nights discussing and debating where and how to pick our ideal spot to begin our new lives.

January rolled in, bringing in a few twists and turns into the plot. George was fortunate enough to receive a job offer after his 2nd interview, working as a real estate agent with Century 21. The office was stones throw from our current little studio retreat. The overall radius of our search became just a tad smaller as we focused our search on the overall area of the “southern suburbs” of CT.

It was just a few days into the New Year when our car was broken into (*to read more about this go to the footnotes J). One of the first pieces of advice we received from the locals was not to leave ANYTHING in your car; not a bag, not a hoodie, not chopstick- it will be gone by morning. We were not surprised when our car was broken into; in fact we considered it a kind of right of passage- a way to earn our Captonian badges. Coming from our tiny little Kingdom of Swaziland, where we slept with our gate wide open, and the keys in the ignition, it was only a matter of time before habit got the best of us, and something (like an empty backpack) was left laying on the backseat.

That same day we received a phone call from a friend informing us that the one other person we knew in CT had been in a terrible car accident over the weekend. His job keeps him extremely busy and always on the go, which was what he was doing while winding down one of the narrow, crowded, and always busy costal roads in the Beverly Hills area of CT known as Camps Bay, when he was knocked off his scouter by a sedan backing out of his drive way. He spent a week in IUC, in and out of surgeries to repair his crush aorta. It was a miracle that he survived and is expected to have a full recovery with a few months of rest.

Never the less, our house hunt continued. The second week in January, George began meeting landlords wishing to rent out their apartments through Century 21. One of which was charming, lofty little apartment, complete with subway tiled accents, on the 5th floor of a building just down the road from us. We wanted it! And she wanted us to have it! “Sweet”, we thought to our naive little selves… “The house hunt over”. The one loop hole in this arrangement, was the timing, as in she was not expecting to find tenants so quickly, so before she could move out, she would have to find a place to move to. So the hunt was back on, this time I rummaged through the internet for apartments fitting her requirements, setting up viewings, emailing agents – the search was going well, and her budget allowed for many suitable choices.

It was mid January when our current landlord asked us if we would be staying for the following month. I had already started decorating the new elevated apartment in my head, and once again started to pack boxes, so I said with 100% conviction “ nope, we found a place.” And viewings for our first apartment were advertised.

On the same day people were coming to check out our little studio, the landlord for the new house phoned informing us she was going to stay in her apartment a little longer, and wouldn’t be needing tenants.

It was like the climax of an action film, when the unlikely heroine leaps up, in slow motion to block the bullet from her love, screaming “nooooooooo” in that low, distorted voice. We rushed back to our studio, hoping to find our landlord standing in the driveway waving off the last of the potential new tenants. The words I wanted to hear were being whispered on the wind, “no, I just didn’t like anyone…” and then I would eagerly jump in, but not too eagerly as to look over zealous, “well… we could stay a little longer”. And then we would all drink wine, and laugh into the evening in the back garden. But, alas… this is not what happened.

We had less than 7 days to find a new apartment; back to the Internet. Staring at the same pages I had memorized by heart in the last month. Searching the listings, each day checking fewer and fewer “amenities” boxes to limit the search. I sent thousands of emails the first day. The second day I started to include a short Bio about George and Me. The third day I included a picture. As the days past, I was no longer checking any boxes of preference, including the area. We applied to studio apartments over garages. We applied to Wendy Houses in people’s back yards. We applied to suburbs I’ve never heard of before. Suburbs we knew were a bit dodgy. We applied for apartments, where the only furniture in the pictures was a plastic garden chair in the living room.

On the fourth day I started to receive a few responses for viewings, and one house was absolutely dreamy. 2 bedrooms, with a yard, open plan kitchen, dog friendly, in our budget and desired area—be still my beating heart! I knew this would be the place; it had to be (we had no choice)! We arrived at the viewing 15 minutes early- but could barely find parking. On the walk to the front door, my nerves were on edge, and when I noticed the line of people filing outside the door, waiting to get in, my heart sunk. We proceeded to the back of the line, and following the mass of people inside, 2 by 2, through the first bedroom, around the lounge, into the second bedroom, a small circle around the backyard, arriving back at the kitchen counter 2 minutes later. The landlord met us there, were she was repeating “name…. email… next” over and over again, breaking off the front of the line like chomping off the top of a slim Jim. I tried to get a few more words out of her when it was my turn, trying my best to be one of the people remembered from the massive crowd of applicants, but didn’t have much luck.

On the way home, feeling a bit glum, my email notification sounded, with an application of the house we had just seen. I was so excited and went home straight away to fill it out. After only an hour, my email notification sounded again- the apartment had been taken.

Day 5 we were getting desperate, and decided this email business was as efficient as sending the landlords a postcard. We began phoning the adverts. Newest first, some adverts less than a minute old. “Hello, I’m calling about your apartment for rent?” “Sorry” was the response, “it was just rented”. Rinse repeat.

We were running out of time, the new tenant was moving in in 2 days, and we had NOTHING. Then a friend of a friend called and said he had an open apartment, but it was a little shady. We didn’t care, anything with 4 walls would be safer then the old refrigerator box I had been eyeing in the alley. He said, he wouldn’t be able to go with us to view it, but gave us the security guards cell phone number… strange we thought. We arrived in the up-and-coming area of Woodstock-, which still has some “up” to do. For the first time since arriving to Cape Town, I felt like I was in Africa. It smelled like the busy markets of Nairobi, fish, fried chips and BO all mixed together, impregnating what should have been the fresh sea breeze not far away. There were so many people sitting on the sidewalk, I couldn’t tell who was homeless, and who was selling something, or if the homeless people were selling something. As we got out of the car, I wished our windows were more tinted, thought we should’ve invested in one of those gorilla locks for the steering wheels.

We found the security guard, and with Congolese French accent, we were able to explain to him our situation, and he agreed to show us the apartment. The climb up the stairs was long, mostly because I was trying to decipher the graphti on the walls. Was it the hipster urban art that is common in up and coming areas? Or was it the territory markings of a drug lord? As we stepped off the top step, we were left on a large shared balcony on the second story, directly over the road. Not the yard we were hoping for, but maybe a few pot plants could help? The security guard knocked on the front door, and it slowly creaked open- that’s when we noticed there wasn’t a door handle. They spook for a few moments, and then he waved us inside. My first impression was of the old Chicago apartments I use to rent, creaky wooden floors, and small rooms divided oddly, but with a certain old world charm. As we entered the long hallway to the back of the apartment, we stopped at a door that was slightly ajar. One small push, and it opened enough to see 7 pairs of dirty feet laying on a mattress on the floor, all in a row. “Ah yes, the bedroom.” I thought to myself, “must have a nice closet for all those people.” I pondered trying to make myself feel better. The hallway was long, and every so often someone would come from the shadows and pass by, making me feel like I was in some crowded back alley bar. The end of the hall was the bathroom, which I assumed at some point had white tiles, floor to ceiling, but have not become a marbleized brown/grey. I leaned in to get a better look, but the security guard reached out his hand to stop me, and then pointed down, “mind the hole,” He mumbled. I failed to notice the gaping hole in the floor, which had been filled with rubbish- I couldn’t think of a positive spin on that amenity. The kitchen was the last room, but George made such a quick turn out of the room, and past me I barely saw anything past the corner of the door. Only a long enough glimpse to get an overwhelming sense of brown, in colour and smell, leaving us with a heavy sensation of cooking oil lingering on our skin and sinking into our pours. I hastily followed George and the security guard out of the apartment, squeezing past crowds of people as we went. I’m not sure if we said anything as we crossed the balcony, or went down the stairs, and dashed across the road to the car. As the doors slammed shut, I had an overwhelming desire to dip myself into a mixture of hand sanitizer and bleach, but I was still trying to find a positive—this was our only option.

We went home in silence, slept on it and woke up to our last day with an apartment to sleep in. I decided to reach out to the few remaining contacts we had met during our stay in Cape Town, most of which were our friend Matthews work mates. It is remarkable to me the kindness complete strangers can show others, within my first email we were offered to share a studio apartment with a friend of a friend we had only met once. By the next day, we were moving in.

Our stay with Tamara was amazing, even though we were sharing extremely close quarters. We continued our house hunt, and had a few plan b’s for the end of the month. But our sprits were lowered by the experiences our last few promising options had bestowed upon us.

Then out of nowhere I received an email. At some point during this mad hunt, I created an advertisement for a “young married couple, seeking apartment”. I had completely forgotten about it, but here, on this random day I received an email offering an apartment. I nearly fell out of my chair, jumped up and down and screamed at the same time. The pictures were amazing; the landlords sounded just like us! By the next day we were on our way to view the flat. After a short tour, the landlord turned to us and asked “where would you like us to fit these cupboards?” I about fell on my back! No other questions were asked, no applications, no lines of people, we were going to get this apartment! And 2 days later we were moving again, to our new little house.

It’s been a month in the new apartment, and for the first time in Cape Town we are completely unpacked. The new apartment is just big enough for the two of us, and the little personal effects we were able to pack into the Golf when we left Swaziland. We have even started a small garden in our tiny front courtyard. It has been an adventure of note, but through it all, we have made life long friends and with their help have found our way home.

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**Unemployment in CT is at an all time high, not to mention a bit of left over segregation from apartheid- which is a very relevant topic with the locals. There are thousands of unemployed communities of people here, mostly in the coloured community (“coloured” is a race category here, and not at all an offensive term as it is in the USA. It simply means mixed race). This community in particular was not a factor during the “clean up” after apartheid, and was for a large part forgotten about- leaving them to fend for themselves. They have set up squatter camps, or informal settlements, all over the cape- some of them housing 3 million residents (this is 3x the population of the entire country of Swaziland btw). There was nothing the police could do, and nothing we could do either, so the window was fixed and we cared on.

dips (never posted blog)

2.28.12

I was startled awake by Trixie licking my my face. The warm doggie breath was a shock to my senses, and pulled me from my sleep. I roll over, nearly falling off the couch, and gave Trixie a good scratch behind her ears- she immediately drops to her back, with all four legs wiggling in the air, offering me her belly- it makes me laugh. I hear movement in the kitchen; the boys are awake. I follow the smell of fresh coffee into the next room, and join the small crowd. Everyone is buzzing, preparing for work, making breakfast, fighting for the last few clean dishes. This place reminds me of home, of being with my friends in the states, I feel like myself here; I am not ready to go.

I’m heading back to my homestead after 3 days with my friends in the city- I’m not prepared to go back to the silence yet; to the empty hours of my weekdays. I have a line graph hanging on the wall of my hut that shows the average PCV morale throughout their service- a sharp line with deep dips and high peaks. Months 10-12 are a dip- and I’m in it.

Ever since I came home from my vacation in Mozambique I have been fighting to return to my optimistic, productive state but the bundu is making it difficult for me. My work partners at the clinic are gone, teachers at the schools have left to find better schools, the kagogo centers have locked their gates, my homestead is empty without Bulanda who is now in Zambia and Hacheema who stays in Siteki during the week. I am often alone, and can’t find motivation beyond watching entire seasons of ‘Dexter’ in my hut.

The Peace Corps is hard. Its hard in ways you don’t really think about when your in the states. Bucket baths, spotty electricity, ridiculous transportation- those are insignificant bumps in the road I don’t even consider anymore. The Peace Corps is like being unemployed, but you can’t find a job, and you don’t speak the language anyway, your painted purple, have 3 eyes, and wear a clown suit (because apparently you are very funny- all the time), your unemployment check never came, and you can survive on only plastic cheese and moldy bread, everyone around you has the mentality of a 3-year old “what’s that? What’s that?”, you live in a glass box- or at the zoo where you are the main attraction, and your starting to think you have narcolepsy because everyone else thinks you sleep all the time (even when you are clearly awake in your house). You have good days that are amazing. The kind of days where you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, and you want to shout “THIS is why I’m here!” You have days when you think to yourself, “how did I get here??”. And you have lots of days when you just ponder, “well this is more interesting than a cubicle…”

I know this is just a temporary state of mind… the graph supports my theory and I know myself well enough to know that I can stay in a lull for long. I am grateful for my skills as a graphic designer- who knew it would be so handy in a 3rd world country? I spend a lot of time making logos, business cards, flyers, brochures and websites for friends who own businesses. I may not be saving the world, but it makes me feel productive. It makes me feel good that I am helping people build their businesses and I have been able to bring in local people from my community to help with the web codding too.

Honestly I think the hardest part of the Peace Corps is getting over the idea that you are going to save the world. The process from application to invitation is long, and then when you arrive in country you spend 3 months learning skills so you can go out and conquer anything. The reality is you will do lots of little things that will ripple into change; and it will probably be a little change. You will talk to someone at the bus rank, or teach someone something new about HIV, tell someone something about life in the states, talk to someone in the states about living in rural Swaziland (or write to 300+ random people subscribed to your blog), encourage someone to get tested for HIV, help someone start a business, teach someone how to create a business plan or just teach a young group of guys the lyrics to your favorite lil Wayne song. The change part is subjective, and small– it takes some time to convince yourself that these ripples are what your here for.

My blog helps. Knowing that so many people are interested in my life (sorry this one is a little ranty and depressing), helps me get through some days. People I have never met, read this and email me that they are proud of what I’m doing. Its crazy, and awesome. I received a random email the other day from a guy in New Zealand that is writing a book about a NZ settler that lived in Siteki. He stumbled across my blog about the history of Siteki and wondered if I could help him collect information for his new book. It’s things like this that keep me going. Thank you all for your support, warm wishes and encouragement. It’s true what they say, the Peace Corps is the hardest job you will ever love- and knowing I have friends here and at home helps me through the dips. 🙂

11.7.13

 

A line of baby chicks cross my path, scurrying behind their mother. The parking lot is littered with cars, parked anywhere a vehicle can park; on the sidewalk, in the grass, half-way up hills. We wind our way between them like a maze, toward the underpass of the building. Every patch of shade is cluttered with people sitting on the muddy, dirty ground. Some people look like they have been here for days, propping themselves up with tired hands, or giving up completely, stretched out on the pavement napping in any hope of shelter from the blaring sun. we enter the first block of the building and the stinging aroma of old urine hits me like a backhand to my senses. The signs are confusing. We turn down one hallway and end up outside, along an open air corridor filled with people sitting along each side. They watch us like walk in our quick-step like entertainment they have waited all afternoon to arrive. Its strangely quiet, and our footsteps echo on the cool, cracked tiles beneath our feet.

 

We are wandering, and i’m concentrating hard to not touch railings, walls or anything my fingers may unintentionally linger on. George asks someone who may have worked there, where ward 18 was located, and she kindly directs us with little words, just a hand motion that suggests straight until a bend to the left and then possibly in the area directly over our heads. She tries to shake Georges hand, but George politely pulls away and gives her two phantom pats on her back. We speed off in the direction to which she indicated.

 

Ascending a long steep ramp to the second level. Whats left of the ceiling is stained with brown water marks. The brightly painted walls is peeling to such a degree to looks like the whole wall is covered in a colorful fringe; one gust of wind through this hallway could send the entire wall to dust. Someone has tried to paint a uplifting, childlike mural along the wall, no doubt to indicate the direction of the pediatric ward, but the paint dulls in the dim light, and the state of the rest of the wall, creating the feeling like we are walking down a dark alleyway in a bad part of town. I can’t stop staring at the ceiling as we continuing ascending up this never ending ramp. I wondering how old this hospital is, and can’t help thinking this collapsing ceiling is made completely of abestise, a once common mineral mined in Swaziland; although no longer used for construction, can still often be found in standing buildings throughout the country.

 

We pass a sign for operating theaters, and I glance down the narrow hallway. The ceiling is hanging low, and covered with the same brown spots. The wing is reeking from the bleach, in a poor attempt to disguise the gaping potholes in the tiles on the floor. We reach another outdoor corridor, connecting two wings of the building, again lined with people camping in the shade with expressionless faces. A sign directly in front of us reads “WARD 18 -WOMANS WARD”. For the first time I realize this is going to be one big room. The thought hits me, and I immediately am bewildered why George’s mother has come here and not to the nice clinic down the road.

 

Approaching the two parlor doors to the ward, I can see metal bars, and pink sheets hanging around each bed, of which, there are at least two dozen. There is no one at the door, and we linger for a moment before we open, breathing against the tiny glass windows searching for something familiar. I’m half hoping this isn’t the room. It can’t be. We enter and take a few unsure steps, George is scooping the room looking for any sign of someone coming to stop us, as I try not to make direct eye contact with anyone. I feel like I am invading at least 40 people’s privacy, especially the woman in the second bed, closest to the window who is sleeping upright, with not a stitch of clothing on her body, aside from the scarf wrapped loosely around her head.

 

Luckily Georges mother is in the second row, first bed by the main aisle. I am happy to see her face resting peacefully, and estactic that we do not have to venture further into this sea of strangers, searching their weak and tired faces. George gives her a gentle shake on her shoulder, and stands over her until she opens her eyes. “hi mom.” he says. I want to hug her, and steal her away from this place. He doesn’t seemed phased, and I am traumatized.

 

We chat for a while, she should be going home tomorrow. Her diabetes has been uneasy as of late, and the weekend festivities of a retaliative Lobola ( the cultural tradition of deciding a new brides price with the grooms family, which is usually proceeded by a party something similar to an engagement party, meets a BBQ), sent her blood sugar sky rocketing. The Taiwanese doctor attending to the female ward, refuses to discharge her until her levels stabilize. Her spirits are high, as they always are, and she begs us to bring her something edible for lunch. Hospital food is a universal desperatity, so we don’t waste time making a plan to smuggle her a nice take-away from our favorite restaurant. We laugh as George coughs and I sneeze, and she asks for a phone number for a casket maker. I’ve never quite understood the dark swazi humor, but looking at the 3 of us in our separate ill states, we could take bets on who would need it first. I have grown very fond of George’s mom; she is strong willed, but kind natured. Evident by the immensity of friends she had made with all the staff and patients in Ward 18. She reminds me daily at the school that she runs, and where I work, of her kindness with her endless involvement in every child’s life and concern for their well being. This is a commonality that both of our mothers share.

 

As we leave, George says “don’t ever take me here…” I burst out a quick, “ummm… yeah… me either.” I realize at that moment, that George isn’t as comfortable as I thought about his mother being at the government hospital, and i’m relieved, but curious. Before I can ask, he explains, “ at least she is only paying 10 Emalageni a night, the private hospitals charge a couple grand a night.” it suddenly all makes sense, although I would still prefer to go to a private health care clinic , especially in Swaziland, I am reminded of several moments in my own life, living in the USA, where an option of government health care could have saved me thousands of dollars.

 

The more I thought about it, the more this somewhat traumatizing visit to the government hospital had me concerned, I was actually jealous. I thought about the sea of faces I passed, in the open-air corridor. People that had no doubt traveled great distances to come seek health care. People that probably used their last, worn out bills in their wallets to get to the hospital. Maybe they don’t have running water. Maybe they don’t have electricity. Maybe some of them live in a house built with mud-bricks and sticks. Then my thoughts turn to writing this blog, as I sit here typing now. I think about my friends and family and how they must have been worried by the end of paragraph one, what if something were to happen to me? Where would I go? Its ironic really, that in the states I rarely had health care. I made over $40,000 a year, plus benefits, and I still couldn’t afford a trip to the doctor, let alone the emergency room stateside. Not to get into a political rant about universal healthcare, but after living here, and seeing how a government hospital can help the mass majority, despite insurance benefits or community standing; it amazes me that a 3rd world country, such as Swaziland, can care for its people better, and with more options then a country as rich and powerful as the United States. Something worth pondering don’t you think?

a journey to Cape Town…

12.30.14

Its Friday afternoon, and my leg is endlessly bouncing as I sit waiting in anticipation. Glancing out of the lounge window I can see the red VW Golf, sagging with the weight of our life, which has been packed and stuffed with our belongings in every available crevice. I look at the clock for the millionth time in the last 60 seconds, its nearly noon; our cut off time for being at the border. The second hand of the clock is moving so slowly I wonder if the clock may be broken, I stop myself from checking the battery. George should be back soon, hopefully with the final paperwork we will need to start our lives in South Africa. I part the lace curtain and stare at the gate, willing it to open so our journey can begin. Then the phone rings, George is coming home, but there were delays at the government offices, of course, we will have to wait until Monday to leave for Cape Town.

The weekend drags. We are fugitives, waiting for our release. In hiding from our friends and family; we had already said our goodbyes and don’t want to give reason for anyone to doubt our intentions of going. Cape Town will not be a “Swazi plan”. We stay inside, willing ourselves to sleep until Monday morning comes.

Monday morning is like de ja vu. I sit on the couch bouncing my leg, staring at the gate, waiting for George to return home. My fingernails are nubs, and my heart feels like it’s trying to escape through my chest. I am about to start walking to the border, if only to release some energy, when George returns. “Its time to go” he says, the words drifting through the air like perfume.

The drive to the Swaziland/South Africa border seems longer then usual, but they are playing our song on the radio. Our smiles are infectious, and for some reason we can’t stop high-fiving ourselves—something we have never done before. High-five for the song on the radio. High-five for the impressive packing that is nearly overflowing into the front seat. High-five for the sign that says 10km to the border.

Our energy continues past the border and a few hours into South Africa. Every song on the radio seems to be our favorite song we have never heard before. We dance and do our best to sing along to the words. Then without warning, the radio began to fuzz, and we lost our station. The “red rocket”, as we were now calling the VW Golf was imported from Asia, and only had a few low frequency stations, and we had just lost the only station we could get. But the sun was shinning, and my hand is surfing the wind passing outside my window. We pass small towns and farmland stretching out in front of us in every direction. There is a storm in our review mirror, that can’t seem to catch us. Whenever we stop for a moment, the rain trickles on our windscreen briefly, and then we are off again. Its like the rain clouds are chasing us south, encouraging us to head toward the sunlight.

By the time we get to Bloemfontein, the halfway mark, we are exhausted. Lack of radio has left us like zombies, and we tried desperately to fill the vacant, hollow noise inside the car with noise. When conversation grew restless, we tried the knobs on the radio, eventually arriving at merely one static station, some news broadcast in Lesotho, a language neither of us can understand. We are only halfway to our destination, and already I feel my backside forming to the hard bucket seats. We have traveled 8 hours, and my eyes are burning from watching passing headlights on this endless stretch of highway. Our bodies sag with the need for a recharge, but our brains are too excited for sleep, they are urging us to keep going, just a little further- striving to get us to the city at day break. We pull over for coffee; maybe some caffeine will clear our heads enough to make a proper plan.

We decide not to tempt fate, we must get a few hours of sleep before we carry on. Our budget is nearly non-existent, and we decide R350 will be a nice meal in Cape Town tomorrow, so why waste it on a hotel? We are adventure seekers on a mission, we will do what any seasoned road tripper would do and sleep in the car, and so we park in the back of the petrol station off the freeway. Our seats refuse to recline against the piles of luggage in the backseat. We try slouching down, using towels that wouldn’t fit into bags as pillows. Three minutes later our backs are complaining so we try extending our feet onto the dashboard. George’s legs go across to my side of the car; my legs are draped over his. His knee keeps turning on the radio filling the car with endless meaningless chatter, and I can’t stop laughing. We struggle on, tying our limbs into knots, I’m on sure if we will be able to untie ourselves in the morning. When we get situated enough, a car parks next to us, releasing several loud children who for some reason feel the need to inform everyone in a 10km radius about their bladder issues. They stay next to us for longer then we could handle, with no apparent agenda other then to keep us awake. We start the car and move to another area of the parking lot and retie ourselves into some kind of tortured comfort.

Fifteen minutes later the car starts again, and we are back on the road, failing to find any kind of peace. The road is straight as an arrow, and drenched in complete darkness. The one lane highway is torture on our struggle to keep going. One moment we are full speed ahead, then the taillights in front of us grow larger requiring us to brake to meet the speed of the semi truck in front of us. We count the headlights passing, praying for a break and then press the gas petal full force again. This game carries on, until 2 headlights become four, and we compromise with our weary brains for rest, pulling over on the side of the dusty highway.

I was startled awake by the key turning the ignition. The sun is slowly creeping over the stark, flat horizon in the distance casting a beautiful sepia hue over the landscape. Some time in the night, we had made it to what would be our last stretch of the journey, crossing the Karoo Dessert. It would take another 8 hours of driving before we reached the mountains that shelter Cape Town on its northern border. The dessert naked with beauty and only covered by a thick blanket of white puffy clouds that draped low over the hills in the distance. As we drove closer to the mountains that had been teasing us for hours the clouds lifted to the peaks, and hung there, as if there was a cloud making machine, spewing out fresh cotton puffs from the top. When we reached the main string of mountains, and passed through two large peaks, the white clouds that were billowing over the cliffs on the northern side, turned grey and dark with rain into the southern skies. These clouds didn’t break for several hours, but only seem to sink lower and lower to the ground, until we were completely surrounded by an eerie fog, and then without warning we escaped through the wall, like traveling through a worm hole to another galaxy.

The landscape is different now, green, lush bushes are creeping closer to the road. The red mountains have turned grey, and are jetting up from the ground all around us. The road becomes windy, and the clouds have regained their rightful place in the blue sky, high above us. There are vineyards appearing in the distance, and we are certain with each new bend in the road, the skyline of Cape Town may appear.

The road widens, and traffic appears from seemingly nowhere. We begin the dance of large city highways everywhere, bobbing and weaving, merging and passing. Taking spaghetti weaved exits, and on-ramps. GPS is set to our new apartment in the southern suburbs, and after nearly 16 hours in the car, we are confident in our navigation skills—and it’s a good thing because our phone GPS died as we entered the city.

When we arrive on our little street, the house numbers are not in order, and we struggle to find our front door. The houses are small, and stacked on top of each other like little dollhouses packaged together on a shelf at the toy store. There are huge trees shading the fresh tar road, and we can hear people busy in their tiny yards busy with projects, hiding behind tall privacy fences. We locate number 45 in between 37 and 50, we find no one is home; the time to explore is now.

Just around the corner is the main road of Kenilworth, lined with a shopping center, a few franchise restaurants, clinics, vets, and lines of cars. Overwhelmed from our journey, our bodies ached with discomfort from our now outstretched legs, as if they have forgotten how to do this thing called walking. We find a small bar with a beer garden, and decide it would be a good place to waste some time. The beer is cold, and has never quenched our thirst this well before—they must make it differently in CT we think to ourselves.

Later that evening, we surprise ourselves with a second wind. Our small apartment is taking shape with a few items from home, and now we want to see what CT has to offer. Our dear friends Matthew and Franco come to pick us up. Entering Franco’s KIA Rio was like entering into a racecar, or a space shuttle, or a death trap. The gas was heavy, the brakes were heavy, the spaces were too narrow, my heart was in my throat, and all 10 of my fingers were tightly gripped around the headrest in front of me. Matthew is talking so fast, he might as well be speaking Chinese, and all my brain is left to register is the blurred lights passing outside my window. I try to catch a few signs along the racetrack, to gain some reference to where I am in the world, but fail. We are suddenly off the highway and onto a narrow street meant for 2 lanes, but with a string of cars parked along each side, we are constantly dodging oncoming traffic and pedestrians. There are so many people on the street! For a moment, I forget that there are usually many people in a big city, but my Swazi brain cannot compute this at the moment. The ocean is beautiful, when I can catch a glimpse, or focus on anything but the loud, booming music coming from the speakers, as Matthew plays DJ with the volume knob to the beat. We take a shape right turn, causing all people, and lights to disappear in an instant. It takes me a moment to adjust, we are parked, and we are alive.

Our first meal is at the Waterfront, on the Wharf. With the Ferris wheel glowing in the background, I feel as if I am on Navy Pier in Chicago for a moment. Time is moving in and out, and once I am finished eating, an overwhelming desire to sleep is upon me.

For the next few days the four of us tour Cape Town in Franco’s space ship. Time slows down and I spend every car trip re-associating myself with this massive city. For some reason CT is nothing like I pictured it. Possibly because I have always under estimated anything “city like” in Africa. What has been described to me as urban before, has never come close to matching my own experiences—but this city has left me eating my words. I come home, laying down new roads traveled on my map, connecting dots, and putting together the many neighborhoods like a giant puzzle.

The first few days I am like a tourist, taking it all in, taking pictures and marveling in the amazing mix of international food options. Cape town is the most beautiful city I have ever been to. Flanked by the Atlantic and the Indian ocean and a plethora of bays, there is no shortage of beaches or scenery. Table Mountain sits in the center of the city, like a compass. Signal Hill (on the northern back of Table Mountain) faces towards the north, and leads us home every night to our small valley in the Southern Suburbs. Lions Head sits prominently on the southern side of mountain, facing the ocean. Below it sits the posh, wealthy area of Clifton and Camps bay, lining the cliffs above the ocean with multi-million dollar homes.

Traveling east on this costly road, along the 12 apostles mountain range leads you to Hout Bay, an amazing little fishing area, now home to many artistic dwellers. They have craft market every Sunday with some of the best food, wine and craft beers I have ever tasted. Along this bay there is also fishing port where fresh fish and seafood can be bought, while casually observing the many seals that hang around begging like dogs for the scraps.

A bit further down the road is the southern peninsula, which has quickly become one of our favorite spots in Cape Town. Muzienburg sits on a quiet bay, and is always littered with surfers of every kind. The white sand beach stretches on for miles, and is dotted with colorful lines of beach chalets from the early 1920’s. The surfer vibe fills the air with a kind of carelessness peace that is contagious.

If you follow this bay north, across from Muzienburg the charming beach towns continue. This coastal road walled on one side by a steep mountain that extends higher then visible from a car window, and leaves you wishing for more ground on the other side with a steep drop to the crashing waves of the ocean below. The road eventually parts with the seaside, and begins to wind through the mountains, giving way to green pastures and vineyards. Wine country is all around us. Vineyard after vineyard with wine tasting and tours at every corner.

Its now just shy of a month in city and already it feels like home. We have spent everyday exploring a new area, and then going back for seconds or thirds. There are surprises everyday, and we have been left trying to figure out which aspect of our personality to call on to fit with an area to live in next month. It will be a difficult choice, but I am certain there can be no wrong answer. Today George started his new job, as a real estate agent. We have been joined at the hip for nearly a month straight, living in a small square box, and exploring in a small hatchback. Watching him walk out the door today, I was torn; happy that our new beginning is really starting now, and a little sad that I won’t have anyone to high-five today. Change is good. In fact if this adventure has taught me anything its that sometimes a little crazy is good- for we have been rewarded on every step of our journey this far, and I know that the good luck will continue through 2015 and beyond.