Thursday, October 10, 2013

Goie More from Graskop!

Good Morning from Graskop, Mpumalanga everyone!

Just dropping in briefly to say a hearty hello! I'm here at Valley View Backpackers in the beautiful town of Graskop, which is right nearby Kruger National Park.  Yesterday, I was delighted to meet up with John and Patty Mills in my secondary shopping town, Groblersdal, and after lunch at Nando's we piled into their trusty vehicle and set out to brave a thunderstorm and conquer Longtom Pass before finally arriving at our final destination.  Must check car roof today for hail dents!

Today after breakfast (and hopefully some pancakes!) we will drive up to God's Window, and the Potholes that are relatively popular in the tourist sphere, maybe see a waterfall or two along the way, picnic lunch, and then head up to Tzaneen where I will be dropped off to join my fellow Limpopo PCVs for a provincial conference, and J&P will continue on with their wild African adventures!

Life at site has been going along smoothly: I'm working towards the completion of my first World Map Project at the primary school, and am looking forward to next Thursday when I will meet with selected faculty to implement the Mmeshi Primary Peer Mentorship Program, which will utilize all of the wonderful donations of English children's books that I have received from Grandma at La Posada, and from Lisa Ellenberg at the Catlin Gabel Lower School Library.  More info to come!

Until next time,

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Christmas Holiday Part 2: Christmas in Machipe

Having spent a mere two days visiting my PST host family before IST in June, I was looking forward to spending a full four days there enjoying the holiday season in the village.  I arrived after about 2 hours on a taxi and found my 12-year-old host brother, Sello, waiting for me on the side of the tar road off of which their house is situated.  I jumped out of the taxi as quickly as my huge backpack would allow me and went to greet him.  He welcomed me with a controlled nonchalance.  “Hi Goitsi!” he said, giving me a one-armed hug as I had to harness all of my willpower to match his coolness and keep from smothering him in a bear hug.  Neighbors began to laugh at the exchange. “Eish Sello say hello to her! You’ve missed her!” they urged then, turning to me added “Goitsi, he’s been sitting there ALL DAY LONG waiting for you!”.  Sello looked mortified as his friends began to tease him so naturally, I used his embarrassment to give him the twirling hug that I had been planning for days.  So much for staying cool!

Holidays in the village are enormously different from the cozy, warm, fire-lit, tree-side, eggnog saturated affair that I had grown up experiencing.  My entire stay in Machipe was embellished markedly by visiting neighbors, cooking parties, and daily trips to community centers nearby where the children, who were out of school at this time, could frolic around in the open spaces and go swimming while the adults proceeded to get absolutely annihilated with ‘holiday spirit’.  


 It was a blast.  We spent hours braaing, drinking, socializing and dancing, Ashma and Tebogo ever watchful of me and the invariable line of inebriated suitors who would follow the “white girl” around with coolers of hard cider and beer balanced somehow on their lurching shoulders. As much fun as I had there, and as joyous a reunion as Christmas inevitably was for me, after three days of straight village partying I found myself in desperate need of a break from the 3-day hysteria of celebrity, and decided to depart a day early and allow myself to unwind with a “buffer” 48 hours in Pretoria preceding my flight to Cape Town. 

Next Time: Bringing in 2013 Cape Town style!

Christmas Holiday Part 1: The Drakensburgs / Ballito KZN

On the lucky day of 12/12/12, Susan, Doreh, and I hopped on aboard a bus and began what I would remember as the adventure of a lifetime.

After roughly 6 hours of evangelical Christian propaganda film exposure courtesy of Intercape, we disembarked in Harrismith, Kwa Zulu Natal (KZN) and picked up our little white car that we would refer fondly to only as “The Intergalactic Obamatron”.  (Unfortunately the origins of the esteemed title have faded into legend and there is nobody alive today who could say for sure from whence the name originated.)
From Harrismith, we began leg one of our journey by driving across the breathtaking landscape of KZN to Bergville where we were to spend two nights at Amphitheatre Backpackers.  After a night of much needed sleep, we awoke eager to explore our new surroundings.  As three PCVs stationed in the pretty, yet comparatively barren and definitely landlocked Highveld and Venda areas of Limpopo, the lush, mountainous region in which we found ourselves was simply awe inspiring. 

Our first hike was a relatively simple venture past Cannibals and up into this beautiful gorge that was hidden within the jungle-like mountains of the Northern Drakensburgs.  It felt so great to be free of the endless dust of my site and to bask instead in the cool thinness of the air, feeling the moisture on my face and hearing nothing but the wind cooing through the trees and the soft chuckle of the small river that flowed crystal clear out of the mountains.  Ahhh it was just heaven.  
This hike actually proved to be a perfect starter hike as the three of us were able to get a feel for eachothers’ hiking styles and other “outdoor mannerisms”.  It became apparent that Doreh and I, when confronted with the boundlessness of nature and the allure of the unknown, revert almost instantaneously to a state of child-like glee by running, leaping, climbing, exploring and letting our imaginations run as wild as our surroundings.  Susan on the other hand, was more of a reflective type, who enjoyed the beauty with an admirable and cautious reverence.  In the end we figured out a system wherein we would all take the trail at our own pace, so long as we never ventured too far away from each other.  No man left behind as it were.  We became champions of this method as our hikes grew in length and in difficulty.
The next day we ventured out from Amphitheatre and followed the mountains South for a few hours around the edge Royal Natal National Park with our sights set on hiking to Tugela Falls and conquering the famed ladders that dangle in pairs from the opposing cliffs.  Lets just say that TIO had yet another chance to prove her worth on this particular occasion as we took a road clearly intended for 4x4 drive up to an altitude of really who knows how high.  My guess was over 1 mile high, as the air felt similar to that in the Colorado Rockies.  

The hike was wonderful.  A few of the parts required a bit of an admittedly dangerous scramble over wet rock that went sloping downward to destinations unknown, but true to the team we were we helped each other along with the gracefulness of seasoned pros. Yes, that is what it looked like. No arguing with my fantasy here :).   When, after a couple of hours, we finally reached the chain ladders, Doreh and I took turns accompanying Susan (who is afraid of heights) on one of the two parallel ladders, with one person bringing up the rear.  It worked marvelously and Susan was able to conquer them on both journeys up and down in the wind and the rain without shedding a single tear.  OooRAH!  By the time we arrived back at the car, our feet were thoroughly drenched from walking through streams that were cascading down our trail, resulting in our wishing that we’d chosen to voortrek in aquasocks instead of sneakers, and we were tired, hungry, and happy.  I’m sure you can imagine the state of our car at the moment: NASTY, muddy sneakers, peanuts and raisins EVERYWHERE (nobody knows how), dirt, mud, sticks, bags of wine, and a Santa hat.  It was glorious. We had officially moved into the car.

From Tugela Falls, we zipped back down the mountain and made our way to Inkosana Backpackers in Winterton, Champagne Valley National Park.  Naturally, as we had chosen to embark on this adventure during the peak of rainy season, it was wet and muddy when we arrived at our campsite and we were forced to employ our ingenuity by using a mash of tent, twine, and tarp to keep ourselves and our now worse-for-wear backpacks/sleeping bags from being completely and irreversibly soaked.  The atmosphere of the backpackers was great though; you could feel the excitement vibrating amongst the guests as they reflected the outdoor activities they’d undertaken that day and planned new ventures for the next days.  Given the weather and our leaky tent situation, we spoke to management and decided to only spend one night there with the hope of driving off to a relatively drier location for our planned overnight hike.

On our way to our destination at the Monk’s Cowel trailhead, we decided to make up for our missed second night at Inkosana and stop for one night of first world luxury in the quaint, if touristy, town of Clarens.  We set up our tent at Clarens Backpackers, which, in contrast to the others we had been to, was one of those accommodations that appears to be the womb of hippiedom and is in a constant state of party, busker-inspired street art-type activities, and hangs somewhere in limbo between unadulterated partying and the coma of recovery.  In short, it was the ideal location for three young PCVs on vacation.  Aside from the live music and laid back revelry of the backpacker, the quality of Clarens was revealed to us as we took a stroll through town, lapping up comforts of restaurants, coffee bars, and…..breweries??? That’s right my friends: THERE WAS A BREWERY IN CLARENS.  Let me reiterate: THE FIRST BREWERY THAT WE HAD SEEN IN A YEAR. 
Disclaimer about SA beer: If you are a fan of Coors, Bud, Natty, or Keystone LIGHT beers, or happen to enjoy drinking cold, carbonated piss-water, then the beer in this country is for you.

With that disclaimer in mind, we were all practically overcome with emotion when we stumbled upon a local brewery hidden in this little town on the edge of the Drakensburgs in KZN.  We ordered a tasting of everything they had and I settled eagerly with their Red Ale.  Though admittedly not as stellar as the Reds we’re spoiled with in the PacNW, I couldn’t have cared less.  It was the most delicious thing I’d ever had in my life and I savored every last sip of it until the brewery closed and we were on our way. But not without buying a case to take with us on the road.

The next morning we awoke bright and early, packed up the car and continued on our journey to Monk’s Cowl for our overnight trek into the wild.  Really I’m making this sound much more badass than I’m sure it actually was, but hey, the wild is the wild, no matter how long three city girls spend in it right? Right :)  Locking all of our non-essentials in the car, we took off  on our ascent up into the mist in a scene that would not have been out of place in a Jurassic Park movie.  As we had been warned, weather in the Drakensburgs can change in the blink of an eye, and true to form, we were allowed occasional glimpses of our surroundings through breaks in the rolling mist and clouds that raced with an unearthly competitiveness up and over the ancient green peaks of the mountains. 

After about 4 hours of soggy, upward trekking through the mist, we arrived tired and happy at a little thicket next to a bubbling stream of cold mountain water where we would set up camp for the night.  Our hike had taken us a ways above the line of cloud cover, and our view of the landscape below was utterly prehistoric in its beauty.  Although we passed a few more ambitious hikers than ourselves on the way up, the area we now found ourselves in was completely devoid of human life other than our own.  In quiet reflection you could feel the antiquity of the mountains in the very air you breathed, feel the millennia of monumental upheaval and slow and steady erosion that the earth had endured there.  Never in my life have I heard such silence, nor have I ever felt so reverent, utterly small, yet simultaneously in cadence with nature as I did perched in those ancient peaks looking out over the world as it unfurled below us.  The experience was wholly transcendental for me and is not one I shall easily forget.

As soon as the sun peaked on the horizon and we tasted the crisp dewiness of morning air, we filled our water bottles from the stream and began our descent forward in time and down the mountain back to the car.  The view was considerably clearer this time around, and we were surprised to observe the slippery cliff faces we’d been able to navigate with relative ease the day before.  Regardless of our newfound knowledge that a false step could send us cart-wheeling over the edge and leave the remaining members with the awkward task of deciding how on earth to explain the event to Gert (our safety and security guru with Peace Corps) we made it down the mountain in about half the time it had taken us to ascend the day before.
As soon as we’d reorganized our filth in the car and had taken one of the top-five most delicious showers of all time, we piled back into the Obamatron and took off South toward the town of Underberg on the border of South Africa and Lesotho.  Underberg was a nice little place, and serves a couple of PCVs as a primary or secondary shopping town.  There is a decently sized white South African population who lives there (of either Afrikaner or British descent) and held a few little shops that sold things like banana chips and espresso over ice. Delish.  Sani Pass Backpackers was where we stayed for the night, and in the morning we arose early to take advantage of the beautiful DRY landscape by going on a hike before making the hike up Sani Pass and into Lesotho. 
Doreh wasn’t feeling well, so Susan and I met up with an Afrikaner we’d met the night before to go on a hike through a game reserve to this swimming hole.  Given our vastly differing pace preferences, Susan decided to start her morning with a smaller route as Pieter and I voortrekked our way up into the foothills, scrambling over boulders, behind waterfalls, and down ravines until we reached the swimming hole.  Aside from the breathtaking beauty of the location, the experience was made even more spectacular by the fact that you could not only jump off of cliffs into the crisp, cold water, but were also able to drink to your heart’s content while fully submerged.  Ahhhh. If only every river was so pure!

After a bit of an adventure bushwacking our way back to the backpackers in a loop that was approximately 15 kilometers long, I reconvened with Susan and Doreh, said goodbye to Pieter and began the journey up and into Lesotho via Sani Pass.  We’d spoken to fellow PCVs who had recommended we “hitch” up the pass with one of the 4-wheel-drive vehicles that would inevitably be passing by on their climb up the pass.  Best we’d not heeded that advice.  Long story short the three of us ended up making the hike by foot, all the way up the pass from the boarder crossing in a torrential and violent thunderstorm.  Given the fact that there was nothing to be done about our situation, and that I was still amped from my morning adventure, I admittedly had a blast in our situation.  Fortunately though, I was wearing tennis shoes and a raincoat. My partners in crime however, were not so lucky.  In the end we made it to the top unscathed and shivering, and were welcomed into the “Highest Pub in Africa” with applause by the lucky, paying customers who had past us hours before in their cars and minibuses.  I don’t think a round of glüvine has ever been so well-earned by a group of silly American girls in the history of our generation.

After a lovely 24-hours basking in the altitude of Lesotho, we had a final celebratory drink or two and caught a ride back down the pass to the backpackers where we’d left our trusty car and all baggage deemed “non essential” for our ascent up the pass. Thankfully it wasn’t raining as we rolled and wobbled down the pass in the back of a pick up truck belonging to a man from Lesotho who, as we learned, owned a Tuck Shop located in Underberg. We arrived at our backpackers, paid our new friend R50 each (about $4 at that point in time), then prepared ourselves and the car for the next leg of our journey. For Susan, that meant taking a taxi to Durban where she would meet up with another group of PCV’s to travel around the “Wild Coast” of KZN/Eastern Cape, following a route similar to the one we took almost one year ago, after IST.
For Doreh and I, it meant dropping Susan off at the rank outside Underberg, and switching digs to stay at a new backpackers nearby, sandwiched between Underberg and the evergreen peaks of Lesotho.  We camped at Khotso Backpackers for two nights; the longest we’d spent in one fixed location since we’d left Pretoria.  It was a welcome treat for us, and we ended up bringing in the Maya end-of-the-world event cliff jumping and braaing with an eclectic mix of new friends from South Africa,  the U.S., and Germany.  The weather was beautiful, and we were able to enjoy quite a few strolls through the surrounding hills and see the ponies employed by the backpackers to trek into Lesotho via trails hidden in the folds and rifts of the mountains.

After two lovely and incredibly fun days at Khotso, Doreh and I were once again seized by our insatiable wanderlust and, after calling Avis for the umpteenth time to extend our rental agreement, piled back into the car and sped off toward the beach town of Ballito which is located about an hour north of Durban.  The decision was actually very spur of the moment. We’d decided to await the results of the Mayan Prophecy far away from any major body of water and heed the advice of John Cusak in his smash-flop movie 2012 by waiting out whatever apocalypse loomed ahead in the safety of the Drakensburg Mountains.  After we could safely conclude that the world wasn’t crashing down around us, we decided to use the remaining 48 hours before our bus ride indulging in some time lounging by the Indian Ocean.

After braving a hellish mall to find a new Blackberry that would replace the one I’d set free somewhere in the mountains of KZN, we made it to Monkey Bay Backpackers, which was located 3 or 4 blocks from the beach. Our stay there was out of this world, however brief.  For the next 48 hours we swam in the ocean, over-enjoyed fresh seafood and caipirhiñas, participated in watermelon fights, and took strolls on the beach while munching on chili-coated strips of pineapple impaled on a stick.  For two water babies from Oregon and Maine landlocked in rural Limpopo, it was sheer bliss.  So blissful, in fact, that we managed to miss our night bus back to Pretoria by approximately 60 seconds. Thankfully there was a second bus leaving shortly thereafter and we managed to secure seats for a minimal charge after pulling the tearful “broke PCV” card. We arrived in Pretoria the next morning and took the Gautrain to Bosman station where Doreh barely made her bus back to site and I tried to recover from our bus ride over a double shot of espresso before heading out to the taxi rank to make the journey up to Machipe. 

Next Time: Christmas in Machipe!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Blessings Are In The Rain

Here is a blog entry that I wrote a few weeks ago after a particularly unique experience at site :) 


Writing now to document a fantastic ‘Peace Corps experience’ that happened to me today.  More Drakensburgs/Cape Town to come I promise! The prospect of documenting a month-long, incredible vacation at this point seems beyond daunting though, which may be contributing to my reluctance to actually sit down and write it all out.  Dread.  BUT, I do acknowledge that the trip would have been very much impossible for me if I was without many loving and generous friends and family members so I have good news for you: I have started the entry.  Yes, it’s true! And I promise to have it uploaded by the end of next week along with the necessary and appropriate photographic accompaniments. 

Right now though, it’s time to put the past behind me and get back to today!

The day began much as any other would have; I got up at around 7:00am, did some yoga, and read the news on my blackberry over a mug of instant coffee.  Today we had our second permagarden training workshop for interested village stakeholders where we present information regarding the sustainable usage of soil (so as not to “mine” it of nutrients as happens so often), how to rotate crops, and how to successfully create, manage, and use compost and manure-based fertilizers.   
Today focused exclusively on fertilizers and the process of mulching (which will be invaluable here at my site as we are approx 1600m high in elevation with high winds and an absolutely brutal sun) and once again, my counterpart Debrah worked miracles with the attendees and spoke with gusto all about the things we had been taught together at the Peace Corps’ permagarden workshop back in September.  She even spoke to the women about the importance of nutrition and having a balanced diet wherein the nutrients in your veggies aren’t completely annihilated by salt.  She spoke about how deeper color generally indicates a higher nutritional value in your produce (no beige right parentals?).
For those of you who have spent time in rural South Africa, you’ll realize what a phenomenal feat this is, and understand that I was soaring with pride as I listened to her deliver this message to a populous that is ravaged by high blood pressure and diabetes.   I feel like if I do nothing else during my service, at least this message (however small it is) has been delivered and absorbed by such a loving, charismatic leader within the community.  Rock on ladies.
After the workshop, I returned home and collected some more bears to distribute to the children of Mashuana Preschool who had begun to attend school late.   

For those of you who are unaware, I received approximately 150 hand-knit teddy bears from this wonderful USA-based organization called The Mother Bear Project.  It truly is a wonderful organization and I encourage all you knitters out there to look into participating in such a great cause.  The kids were so happy when they received them, and in the days that followed I received countless requests from surrounding crèches for bears of their own.

By the time I finished distributing the bears, it was around two o’clock in the afternoon and the sky was beginning to darken with the promise of rain.  Eager to blow off some steam on a run and cocky about my resilience to hydroexposure (“I’m from OREGON! I can handle ANYTHING!”) I strapped on my Vibrams (adding to the stereotype, I know) and stepped outside to go for a quick run around the village.  I should have taken many things into account before I embarked on this venture. Like the fact that the power had gone out 30 minutes beforehand. And the fact that on my run I kept seeing people running for what I now know was cover.  But, my tenacious ego and me didn’t heed these warning signs and we pranced away down the road on our run anyway. 

The first drops fell as I was making my way back up the final 1k of hill that leads toward my house.  I kept running. A few more drops fell. I looked ahead.  What I saw was nothing. A sheet of white that faded upward into rainclouds so dark that I swore they must have been solid.  Growing nervous with anticipation I picked up the pace and closed my eyes as the storm slammed into me. 

Struggling against the walls of water that had materialized all around me, I squinted around for any sign of shelter.  As the sky lit up suddenly with a flash of lightning, I noticed a shrubby patch of trees barely taller than me that were nestled at the side of the road by a vacant field of long grasses.  My only chance for salvation I ran to it, jumped down into the thicket and, curling up into a ball at the base of the little tree, I waited.

Now, I acknowledge that some Portlandians out there might be rolling their eyes and wondering how intense this rainstorm actually was, given the fact that our precious little biome tends more often than not to resemble an omnipresent puddle. But let me explain:  The rain in Portland, though seemingly endless, is generally a gentle occurrence that evokes the mood so conducive to creative writers, indi/alternative music groups, junkies, and graphic designers.  It’s the kind of rain that allows us to brag about not needing umbrellas because “only tourists use those” and to look forward to playing outside because nothing makes an activity more fun than mud.
African rain, on the other hand, is a different breed entirely.  Rain on the South African Highveld is a violent, warlike occurrence that assaults the land and any poor creature unfortunate or dumb enough to find itself exposed when it hits.  Streets turn to torrential rivers in minutes, skin is bruised and eyes are blinded by the ferocious lashing of the wind and rain that is unleashed while lightning and thunder crack and explode into the sky like electrical bombs.

I sat huddled in my thicket for what felt like an hour.  Concerned for the wellbeing of my iPod, I’d managed to pry away some bark from the tree and form a little pocket in which it would be sheltered from the onslaught of water that was cascading over my body in a solid stream.  I truly believe I might have been dryer had I been dunked in a lake.  The thrill of the sudden violence of the storm had begun to wear off at this point, as had the heat I’d created for myself from my run and I was beginning to get cold and a little miserable. 

During these uncertain times in the Peace Corps, a PCV may find themselves exhibiting certain odd behaviors to try and make it through. This was one of those moments.  As the wind and rain howled around me I  looked about and observed all of the insects that had become my roommates in the tree.  As I peered through wet eyelashes at the poor winged creatures that had taken refuge on my shoes and arms, I noticed that they looked as soaking and as miserable as I felt.  Willing the storm to pass, I tried to keep my spirits high by commenting on the atrocity of the weather to a spider that was clinging to what was left of its web located in the tree about 4 inches away from my face.  Seriously. And you know what? It helped. A ton actually.  I imagine it’s similar to being lost in the forest and easing your urge to panic by hugging a tree until you feel safe.  Maybe those OMSI camp counselors were on to something after all!

In any case, after chatting with my eight-legged friend for another 10 minutes or so, the storm had subsided enough to where I could see the road and what looked like a break in the clouds.  Seizing my chance, I grabbed my iPod from its bark shelter, washed my muddy butt off in a puddle, and dashed off as quickly as I could through the ankle-deep water rushing towards me down the road.

As I ran, I was met with shouts and hollers from people standing in their houses and passing me in cars. “It’s raining Pebetse! Are you crazy! You’re soaking!”.  I laughed and kept running, endorphins pumping through me as I felt alive with the camaraderie that only those who do crazy things together in the rain can fully appreciate.  It goes a bit like: “Yes! We’re crazy! This is ridiculous! But look at how much FUN we’re having! Aaahh!!”

After stopping to laugh at my ridiculous American behavior with a friend and her family on the side of the road, I finally made it back home to my hut.  I stripped down, dried off and slipped into my sweats and furry alpaca sweater.  Finally dry, I reflected on my afternoon and sat down to add the day’s lessons to my list of absolute truths I’ve come to realize in South Africa:

1)   Always carry a litterbag. (Uncle Steve, you are truly a man of vision!)
2)   Always carry a roll of TP or at least a pack of tissue.
3)   Clothing and baby animals are a lot more resilient than they appear.
4)   Keep your word at all times.
5)   No electricity is often a sign of bad things to come: PAY ATTENTION!
6)   If you see people running for cover, THERE IS A REASON!

This list will undoubtedly develop as I continue to navigate the intricate web of life as a PCV. Experiences will be had and lessons will either be learned right away or they may take some time.  Whichever our path, and whatever the storm we’ll make it through stronger and wiser, even if it means stopping to ask the help of a spider along the way :)


While we were all together in Pretoria for Mid-Service Training (Wow!!!) Lilly and Niki coordinated an AMAZING Passover Seder dinner that we all contributed to by each preparing a dish.  We were even lucky enough to have our Country Director attend the celebration, bringing along with him delicious little date, sesame, cumin, cayenne, and honey (I think) balls that simply blew me away.

Additionally, the feast included baked/mashed/cheesy potatoes, potato salad, butternut-squash-parmesan, salad, chicken, brisket, hummus, and more matzo and wine than anyone knew what to do with! I used this chance to experiment with flourless-chocolate cake that I then cut into bite-sized pieces and dusted with powdered sugar. Yumm!

 MST came and went with lightning speed. I can't believe we have only 9 months left until we meet up one last time as a group for our Close-of Service (COS) conference!  For MST we were divided into two groups who took turns meeting for sessions and getting poked, prodded, and drilled upon by the dentist and medical personnel to make sure that none of us are falling apart too severely. Speaking for myself at least, I can say so far, so good on the health front!

Heading back to site this weekend after a brief farewell to some of our beloved SA 23s, then I'll be taxiing back down to Gauteng to meet up with the Madre and Gilroy when they land in Johannesburg on the 27th! I can't believe how quickly time has gone by!

All my love,

P.S. I have not forgotten that I am miserably behind on blog postings, but never fear. They are coming!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

September - November 2012

Dear all,

So begins my documentation of the past four and a half months of my life. Get ready; it’s going to be a bumpy ride!

Jetting back to September , 2012, I will generalize and say that the month for me was marked by the departure of our dear SA22s.  Although I only knew a handful of them well enough to call my friends (and one in particular who I am lucky enough to call more than that) their absence has been indisputably noticeable and has given those of us who remain a reminder of the constant ebb and flow of volunteers that is an integral part of Peace Corps service.  Next to go are the 23s, who have already begun to steadily leave South Africa in pursuit of new adventures, opening up doors for the new SA27s who are due to arrive at the end of January.  Too all our dearly departed, “go well”, and a heartfelt welcome to SA 27! Yay CHOP!

October, admittedly, was the most difficult month of my service here so far.  As if hand in hand with the end of the school year, work began winding down and I found myself with an even more excessive amount of idle time.  Keep in mind that schools wouldn’t officially close for the next month and a half roughly, but you could feel the anticipation in the air that intoxicated the mind, body, and apparently the productivity of everyone and everything around.  Meetings were cancelled, classrooms were empty, and food was even sparser in our DIC than usual.  With nothing to do, time seemed to slow and I was left to simmer in a stagnant pool of my own thoughts and frustrations until the beginning of November when I gratefully left the village for a long-awaited Election Day bonanza in Polokwane.  A group of us PCVs congregated at the centrally located and wonderfully modern school/site of the lovely Susan Burton where we braaied, made deviled eggs, mac n’ cheese,  and boatloads of hummus with enough garlic to keep an army of vampires at bay for a decade.  Or any normal human for that matter :) 


Because of the time change (I believe we would have been around 6 or 7 hours ahead at this point) we spent our time upstairs in the apartment of one of Susan’s colleagues to soak in an all night binge of Anderson Cooper, Christiane Amanpour, and 2013 Election coverage.  In an attempt to keep this blog apolitical, I’ll avoid the particulars of our viewing experience (including but not limited to those charged political statements that inevitably come exploding out of the mouths of even the most modest viewers on election night) and say that by morning, we were all delirious with lack of sleep but with a newfound and joyful drive to continue on with our work until the holidays.

Rejuvenated by good food, friends, and daily showers, I returned to site and was able to push through the month of November in much higher spirits than had accompanied the month of October.   My birthday weekend on the 10th was marked also by the christening (baptism) of my host sister’s baby boy Lesego on the 11th. The whole house was in an uproar for days preparing for the celebration.  The entire family seemed to have had made the trek home for the weekend, including my host sister who is also named Pebetse, and cousin named Manku, both of whom are in their mid twenties like myself. Having them around was like a breath of fresh air, and we spent the weekend goofing off and having fun in the sun surrounded by more family than I’ve ever seen together in one place with my own eyes.

On the morning before the christening (my birthday), I was busy baking my family a chocolate layer cake with citrus cream cheese frosting and rainbow sprinkles when I was interrupted by a knock on my door followed by hushed giggles.  Wiping my powdered sugar covered hands on a dish rag, I opened the door to find my family standing there with Pebetse and Manku in the lead holding a solitary red velvet cupcake with a candle pushed delicately into the middle.  Normally I’m not one for birthday celebrations, but as they began to belt out “Happy Birthday To Youuu!” I was so touched that it was all I could do to not embrace all of them at once in a huge hug.  Instead, I just stood there blushing with a bashful little grin on my face until they were finished and I managed to squeal out infinite thanks and explain that their cake was almost ready.
A short disclaimer about Sepedi birthday celebrations:
On your birthday, your friends and family shall not shower you with gifts and cake, but instead fully expect you to bake them cake and shower them with bottles of champagne. Typically, I was under the impression that the number of bottles of champagne purchased ought not to be of a lesser number than your age, but as I am a relatively impoverished PCV, I figured 4 would be enough :) )

As a follow up, I have to say that I love this birthday custom.  It completely erased the weird feeling I dread every year that comes from not wanting people to feel obligated to celebrate me. Now, I know that that’s not really what birthdays are about, and truth be told I adore celebrating other peoples’ big days, but I can’t help but feel awkward about the celebration of my own.  This new system let me off the hook and instead provided me with an excellent opportunity to spoil my host family with cake and booze. Along with a full day in the kitchen preparing for Lesego’s feast? What more could a girl ask for on her 24th birthday??

As anyone who knows me well could confirm, I’m a sucker for kitchen work and would opt to pursue life as a sous-chef if there was a way I wouldn’t be killed by the stress of it all first.  This being the only true trait I posses that conforms to traditional gender roles here in the village, the women of the kitchen wasted no time in commending me for my hard work on the skinning and chopping of various gourds and veggies and declared that they needed to marry me off quickly to someone in the family before I was taken away by another man and my ‘wifely talents’ were wasted elsewhere.  Laughing, I thanked them for the compliment and told them than I would consider any offer they had so long as they also found a way of transporting all of the cows required to pay my hefty lebola overseas so that they could be inspected and approved by my father in Oregon.  We’ll see if their determination can survive Delta’s baggage policy.

As far as I could tell, the christening of baby Lesego and the consequential party that followed went off without a hitch.  Everyone was full, drunk, and happy, and Lesego looked like a dapper young gentleman in a white silk suit with a bowtie. Sorry Oshkosh, babies have to flaunt it here in Africa!  I used the joyous occasion as a reason to break out my video camera for the first time in-country and am now working on editing it all together into a DVD for my family to keep and inevitably show to house guests for years to come.  It was so much fun for me to do, and will also help me remember the experience after I leave this place in one years time.  My how time flies!

After the weekend birthday/christening bash, I had two weeks of normal life before taxiing back up to Polokwane to join most of the PCVs in Limpopo for the 2nd annual Limpopo Thanksgiving at the game reserve.  To say that the weekend was gluttonous would be a colossal understatement. I try to justify the overindulgent couple of days by noting that a group of us participated in a 5k/8k Fun Run on the Friday night before our official “Thanksgiving”, but even with a time of 20min (which I was dumbfounded by given my current fitness level) I don’t believe it holds a candle to the sheer amount of food consumed in the following days.  There were deviled eggs, various dips, veggies, bruschetta, springbok, turkey, chicken, lamb, 3 different stuffings, salads, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, scalloped potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy boats overflowing with creamy goodness, mac n’ cheese, baked veggies, wok – fried veggies, and really anything else you could possibly dream of.  Pie you ask? Ohhh god. Such pie came after the meal! Blueberry cheesecake, chocolate pie, pecan pie, apple pie, and others that I’m sure I missed due to what I can only begin to describe as “food blindness” i.e. a new level of food coma.  It was unreal. So unreal in fact, that I forgot to take any pictures. Shame. I'll try to remain more gastro-sober next year!
Panel of Speakers at World AIDS Day Event

Male Condom Demo

On Sunday, after gaining approximately 1 million KG over the course of 48 hours, I rolled myself back home for the next two and a half or three weeks before I would head out for one month of vacation in the Drakensburg Mountains and Cape Town.  The past few months had been spent on my part trying to facilitate the organization of a community World AIDS Day event that would serve as a fun way to talk with community members of all ages about HIV/AIDS and what we can do to reduce the stigma that surrounds the disease.  Admittedly, I was astonished when the big day came around on the 31 of November (the day before the official and internationally recognized World AIDS Day) and somehow, everything we had worked for fell into place.  Somehow, the food we “didn’t have” had appeared in copious amounts to fill every caldron, pot, and frying pan we had. The DJ, sound system, and HTCT tents (HIV Counseling and Testing) that “weren’t available” showed up.  The speakers who “were too busy to come” somehow found the time to make an appearance, if only about 4 hours late, along with about 50 community participants. 

Female Condom Demo
With everything in place we started the event, passing out hand made, red ribbon pins to every participant, and allowing time for prayer, song, dance, and health related presentations by community leaders and clinic workers about HIV and how we will address it within our community.  I contributed by demonstrating how to effectively use and dispose of both male and female condoms, much to the delight of my audience who erupted into fits of nervous giggles when I stood before them with my counterpart Debrah, who was boldly holding a massive cucumber I had bought for the occasion.  After that, we played a game provided in our Life Skills Handbook called “Condom Time Bomb” wherein condoms are inflated and filled with a question relating to condom usage. Music is played and the “balloon” is bopped around the crowd until the music stops and the person holding the balloon has to pop it and answer the question out loud.  It’s a really fun game to play, and not only shows how strong condoms are (dispelling the excuse that “they’re too small!!”) but provides a non-threatening environment in which people can familiarize themselves with touching condoms.
Condom Time Bomb
After playing a few rounds of this, we ushered the small children out of the room to play outside while the adults remained to watch an STI slide show.  Honestly, for the unadulterated horror I experienced in 9th grade at the hands of Ms. Gorman and her legendary “cauliflower penis” presentation, I was excited to impart the same information on to the adults of Mohlarekoma.  Sure, pictures of infected intimate areas are never pleasant to see, but they are crucial to a complete sexual education especially when HIV/AIDS is so prominent, yet simultaneously so invisible.  It’s important to realize the importance of condom usage not just to avoid pregnancy and HIV, but because contracting herpes, syphilis, and/or chlamydia isn’t an incredibly sexy thing to do either. Right kids?  As the sisters at Nmvolu Clinic say: “Wrap it or zip it!”.


With our WAD event miraculously accomplished, I felt a huge weight lifted off of my shoulders and the tingle of holiday anticipation surged to a golden glow of excitement.  Before I could leave though, I wanted to attend the graduation ceremony for children moving from crèche to grade R at Mmeshi Primary School. 

 Most of the small children who I have become incredibly fond of during my stay here would be participating in the ceremony, and I gladly offered my services as “official photographer” of the event. 

The ceremony was beautiful. All of the children were dressed in their finest as they ran around the drop-in center in their newly done hair and pressed black graduation robes.  Cute doesn’t even begin to describe how precious these kids were. After the learners received their diplomas and finished showing us their complete knowledge of stop light colors/meanings, shapes, animals, and vowels, they were presented with brand new yellow and red uniforms that would mark them as learners of Mmeshi. “They’re not your kids Alyssa” I kept on having to remind myself.  “Calm down, they’re not your kids”. 

 In complete disregard of my mantra however, I found my heart fluttering with pride as the children I’d spent some part of almost every day with since my arrival grow up before my eyes in a flurry of yellow and red.  It’s official.  I’m doomed as a ‘cool’ parent. Not a chance.


This concludes Part I of my four-month saga. Stay tuned for the Drakensburgs, Ballito, Christmas in Machipe, and NYE in Cape Town!