It is difficult to write a blog about my experience in Peace Corps when I do not feel like I am in Peace Corps. Today marks 37th day away from my site, and I miss my family and home here in SA more than I ever imagined I could.
Early June (sometime before my last blog post) I started having some cramps and abdominal pain, which I wrote off as every day wear and tear. Besides, in my attempt to replace my usual cardio routine with aggressive abs post knee injury, a sore stomach was in my mind a mark of my hard work paying off. After about of week of this continuous low slow pain, I had a night full of fevers. However, the next morning seemed again like business as usual, so I continued life in my typical routine. Note to reader: I am sure at this point, you are yelling at the computer GO TO THE DOCTOR CRAZY…and you would be correct. But just to help you understand my mentality here…medical issues=scary because the last thing you want is an issue that will take you away from site or possibly send you home.
The next night however, I could no longer ignore my symptoms. Around 2am local time, laying in bed in a puddle of my own sweat, shaking with the chills from my fever, I decided that first thing the next morning I was going to call PCMO (the Peace Corps Medical Officer) even if my symptoms had improved by morning, which they had not. I live in one of the few areas in SA that still has malaria, so that was the initial thought from my PCMO, and I was directed to make my way to the nearest PC approved hospital for treatment.
Thankfully, my friend who lives a taxi ride away was awake, talking with me and volunteered to accompany me to the hospital since we had not been before and were not sure how to get there. Three public taxi rides and a few hours later we had almost made it to the hospital, and my eternal gratuity was gifted to this volunteer for insisting to join me because I was very very out of it. In my sleepy/fever ridden state I was confused and convinced we were in another part of SA far from the hospital we were seeking, and a bit later thought I was back home in Italy.
Fast forward six days, and I was finally released from the hospital after fighting off that nasty little infection. Another notch in my Peace Corps medical experiences later, I was making my way to a backpackers for the night to rest and recover before returning back to site. I decided there that I needed a change in my life, and opted to cut off 13 inches of my hair in an attempt to hide from whatever bad luck medical bug was on me since I arrived. Side Note: it didn’t work…
Now, back to my Peace Corps service, as you know, the first three months in country I spent at training, then after my swearing in ceremony, I spent the next three months integrating into my community and writing a community needs assessment that will be utilized as the platform from which my counterpart and I derive projects. After I submitted my completed CNA report, integration period, also known as “lockdown” had concluded, and I am free (ish) to travel around SA and visit other volunteers, cultural events, and what what. The end of this period is also marked by a two week conference with the rest of the volunteers in my cohort that I serve with.
The highlight of this In Service Training conference was without a doubt when my counterpart, who traveled for two days to make it to the far province where the conference was hosted with me, volunteered to participate in a training activity in front of the 60+ volunteers and counterparts. She is an 18year old, who had never left home before, with a particularly shy personality, who came out of her shell so much over the 5 days she spend at this conference, it was such an awesome thing to get to see, and I am beyond beyond beyond proud of her.
Additionally, we held cohort elections for the VAC committee, which is a volunteer advisory council, aimed to work with our Country Director on policy and procedure within SA, as well as to communicate concerns & challenges between volunteers and CD. I am jazzed to be serving on that committee for the next year with one of my good friends in our group, and hope we can do a just job for our crew!
After IST concluded, I got to take a quick day on the beach in Durban with friends before returning to the capitol city of Pretoria for a checkup for my knee. The one day in Durban not only reset me after spending 14 consecutive days in a conference room, but also will probably go down in history as the day I spent more time laughing than any other day of my life. They say laugher is the best medicine, and it managed to take my mind off of a lot of stressful things that were going on at the time in my service. To my Durban PCV crew-you know who you are-a big thank you to you all. I wish that kind of day on everyone at least once.
After Durban, my PCV friend and I got on the 8:30 bus to head to Pretoria. It is extremely rare that things start, run, or end on time here in SA. When the bus rolled out of the station promptly at 8:30, the scheduled departure time, my friend turned to me and said “Ive never had a bus work out this well before,” at which point she instantly realized the juju she sent out and tried to find some wood to knock on. None could be found, and thus begins the tale of my first S&S (Safety and Security) incident of my service.
Not long into our ride, we rear end the back of another bus while in traffic on the freeway. We look at each other, bummed that our bus is now going to have to pull over, exchange info and deal with insurance, inevitably delaying our trip back to Pretoria a substantial amount. We pull forward ahead of the bus we just hit, go off the side, and accelerate away from the bus and the traffic, continuing on our journey. I’ll admit it, at this point, I was actually pretty excited we didn’t stop. In that 20/20 perspective, this should be clue one that something was not so Xap with our driver. Again, feel free to yell at the computer 🙂
Now, before I continue I want to paint you picture of this bus. It is a double decker bus, with two rows each with two seats. We are on the upper deck, and maybe 6 or so rows back, just behind the steps that lead downstairs. Around 11:00 in the morning, the women who are sitting in the very first row with the big forward windows start yelling some “haibo” and “hawa”’s, which is essentially yelling “yikes, no, ahh, eish, OMG” thing like that. My friend and I turn as commotion grows, and the Haibo’s continue and they are yelling some things around in Zulu. (I speak Xitsonga, and my friend speaks Spedi, neither helping us at this point)
When the screaming continues, I ask the man across the isle from me what is happening, and he lets me know that the driver is asleep. At this point, I am confused. What could you mean the driver is asleep? Like, was he sleeping? Is he sleeping currently? Who then is driving?
No. No. He meant that while we were coasting up the mountain, slowing to a stop as there was no longer a foot on the gas, because the driver, sitting in the driver seat, had quite literally fallen asleep.
The women, who can see this happening in the large mirrors the driver uses below them, begin stomping on the floor of the bus screaming BUTI (brother) to the drover trying to wake him up! He shakes awake, and one woman goes down the steps to talk to him, while we all try to slow our heartbeats and settle back into our seats. She comes back up the steps, settles in, and we begin to relax. Less than a minute later, the women start screaming again, as our driver continues to fall asleep on the windy mountain roads between KZN and Free state provinces. At this point, the people on the bus have escalated concern to a much heightened state, and are demanding the driver pull the bus over. He refuses.
My friend gets up to go down and insert some additional pressure on the driver to pull the bus over, as we along with all the locals on the bus, are very fearful of the dangerous situation we have found ourselves in. Side Note: typically in SA, or any time traveling, you accept a different amount of risk/normalcy than you would in the states. I try to derive my amount of concern in a situation from the amount of concern host country nationals feel from the situation. When the bus full of HCN’s are concerned, its time to knock your panic up a few notches.
I remain seated, and can hear the exchange of my friend as she begins dropping some strong diction to get this driver to see reason and pull over. Her five minute interaction went something like, “Sir, I am a United States Peace Corps Volunteer, and you need to pull this bus over immediately…..Sir, you need to pull this bus over….I would really hate to have to call the embassy and get them involved….Sir, You have two minutes to pull this bus over before this becomes kidnapping…sir, I would really hate for this to escalate to an international incident.”
This whole time, I am up on the top deck of the bus still giggling to myself because it is strange to hear things put in terms, but also trying to remain serious because she was not wrong. This was a very serious situation and the driver needed to pull the bus over and let us off. He refuses to pull over and wants to make it 30ks further where the rest stop is. As the exchange continues, the driver FALLS ASLEEP AGAIN, mid conversation!! The other patrons on the bus say that he must be drunk, a conclusion I am inclined to agree with, and I grab my S&S card peace corps provided to me and begin making phone calls to our security officers. I couldn’t help but smile when the gentlemen next to me leaned over and asked with a big smile if I was calling the embassy.
We finally arrive at the rest stop and depart the bus and ask our luggage to be removed from the back trailer. I climb up with one of the bus company employees to point out the bags, and am now a good four feet up off the ground hanging on to this trailer when the bus driver decided to start moving again. I cling on to the side as the bus employee comments “Yo, this driver is crazy” and runs up to tell him to stop. All the while, my friend runs over and tells me to jump off, but can’t with my knee as it is so I just hang on tight. When the driver stops to listen to the yelling bus employee, my friend who has been running next to the bus puts her hands out and has me jump into her arms to get down. Because after such a crazy bus experience, it would be too much for the universe to just let us get our bags out simply.
We are informed by safety and security that we will overnight in the hotel at the rest stop for the night, and Peace Corps will send a driver to come get us in the morning. So, we collect our bags and walk, a bit dazed, and giggling about the absurdity of the experience we just had up to the hotel to check in.
While sitting chatting with our new good friend in the Free State at the hotel bar, who was very excited to meet his first two Americans and asked for selfies within the first two minutes of meeting, and sharing the story of our crazy bus experience, we learn that the owner of the hotel is really good friends with the owner of the bus company we just got off. Within a few minutes, the national representative was on the phone with us, asking for a full account of the bus incident, and then sent people after the bus to remove the driver and ensure everyone was safe. It is important to remember that while my friend and I were privileged enough to be able to get off the bus, staying overnight in a hotel and loosing the price of that ticket is not a luxury that everyone has. It was very tough, when multiple people from the bus came up to us asking how we planned to get to Pretoria, wanting to find another option and to not get back on the bus, that we were unable to provide them with a new route back. Just another example and reminder of the privilege we have here as PCV’s, and a reminder that even while we live in “harsh” conditions and live without, we are only a phone call away from a complete change in circumstances while the friends, family and colleagues we meet and make here do not have that same easy out.
Now, back to the reason I was in Pretoria in the first place. A repeat MRI revealed that I essentially taught myself how to walk incorrectly while attempting to self rehab my knee at site. Now, my muscles and ligaments are working against each other, pulling my knee in different directions and causing a fair amount of pain. I was referred to an amazing biokineticist who has been working to help train my muscles in my leg to learn to walk properly again. I have been in Pretoria rehabbing my knee for about a week and a half, and will continue to do so for two more days, when my big sis arrives in SA!!!!! Then I will be taking week off of rehab to show her around this lovely land that has quickly become a new home.
Highlight of that trip? I get to take her back to my site to see my family and community after 40 days out of site…this will be the first meeting/merger of my American family and my South African family and I can not wait!