Learn to roll with the train

Romanticized things rarely fulfill romanticized dreams. That is the fatal flaw in the build up, you often find yourself disappointed. At that point, people tend to pivot one of two directions. I myself have learned over the past year that a good laugh can get you a long way. So please, join me on a journey of laughs on my train ride through South Africa…

At the conclusion of my holiday fun, it was time to make the trek back from Cape Town to my village. Cape Town is nestled by Table Mountain in the Western Cape of South Africa, essentially the very south west corner of the country, while my little slice of heaven and Ole Pinkie are int he opposite corner, north east by the border. The simplest way to travel from there to where I live, is to fly from CT to Johannesburg, at which point it is just an all day bus and two taxis for me to make it home.

However, a quick little flight wouldn’t do well for an entertaining blog post, or for my emaciated bank account, so I opted to take the train 🙂

I did a bit of quick research, and the 26 hour train ride seemed like it would be fine! It had sleeper compartments for R780, a dining car, and it would give me the chance to go right through the center of the country and see some of the areas I otherwise would never find myself. So, train it is!

Happily, I had been traveling with another PCV my lovely friend Tahlia at the time, so I had a partner for this upcoming adventure. Once we had decided train over plane, we went to the main station downtown to book our ticket for the following day. After somewhat impatiently waiting in the ever slow lines to purchase our ticket, we make our way to the front and wait as the attendant fumbles over the computer program a few times before confirming what, at this point, both Tahlia and I fear to be a full train. Indeed, all the sleeper cart tickets have been filled, but there were a few third class tickets still available for the bargain price of R480 (approximately $40) so we say go for it, and instantly begin laughing. 

We don’t at this point know what a third class ticket on a 26 hour train will actually be like, but the laugh was filled with less humor, and more a daunting, insane, what have we gotten ourselves into laugh.

The next morning, we said our goodbyes and headed to the train. Our new friend from Cape Town was kind enough to drive us to the train station (a magical luxury) and even took us to a cafe for one last cup of really good coffee ahead of time. Tahlia and I are in travel mode, purchasing add on items we can eat on the train to save money, and mentally reviewing the plea we plan to orate to the train manager trying to get at least one bed somewhere in a sleeper compartment so that we can rotate getting a little shut eye.

Alas, the train manager can not help us until later in the journey when the see if anyone has not gotten on at the stops along the way, so we walk down the long platform, passing car after car until we reach the very front of the train with the last 5 cabins holding seats for 3rd class ticket holders. Upon further review of our ticket we realize that in third class it is free for all seating, and we nestle ourselves into two seats that had the minimum pee smell. From across the isle we glance at each other and start to laugh, wide eyed anticipation echoing in our sounds as we settle in for our very long ride.

Still with 30 minutes to departure, Tahlia decided to mission around through some of the other cabins to see if perhaps something better is hidden in this train. After a few minutes, she returns with a triumphant grin, and announces for me to pack up my things and follow her for she has found us a new home. She tells me that it is beautiful, a completely empty cabin! The air conditioner is cooler there, the pee smell does not exist and there are no people to entertain. It is, by all accounts, a miracle cabin! Once we grab out things, the train attendant tells us that the front compartment Tahlia found people can’t sit in because the toilets on either side no longer work. We explain that we have no problem walking to another compartment for the bathroom, and giddily skip to the front of the train, open the door to cool fresh air and settle into our new space. At 9:59, one minute ahead of schedule, the whistle blows and the train slowly begins to roll forward.

The best part about our new home we found, is the space where the forward facing rows of seats and backward facing rows of seats meet. In this magical no mans land between, there is enough space to lie down completely if you tuck your feet under one of the rows! We have been saved! Our very own “sleeping” space, at the bargain price of R480. Tahlia had with her the blow up camping one man sleeping pad, and I have a pile of clothes covered in a towel. Two perfect beds. We set up, pull out our books, and let the train lull us into a nice morning nap.

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It is 12:11, a quick two hours into our journey, when I open my eyes, uncomfortably hot and sticky. Tahlia too is sitting up, taking out her ear plugs and removing her sleeping mask as we look around, confused that our once gloriously cool cabin has transformed into a ripe sauna in such short time. Clearly, they are trying to smoke us out of the cabin my turning off the air we joke, and walk up and down our whole section opening up the windows to let in the breeze. It was however very temporary relief, as the breeze coming through mimicked the hot sticky air we were currently breathing. We decide to wander through the train, find the bar car, and see if other cabins are cooler.

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(above: The moment we realized no air con anywhere)

It is on our bar car mission we learn that no where on the train is cool, and that train wide, the air conditioner is no longer working. Cabins are lined with overheated passengers, first and third class alike, sending hopes and prayers out the the next 23 hours and 50 minutes is not going to be as horribly hot as it was in that moment. Spoiler alert: the air con never came back on.

Instead, this now becomes a mission of will. We know, that once the sun goes down, it will be cooler. We know it usually takes about two hours after sun down to feel a difference, with each passing hour after that getting a bit cooler and a bit cooler. That gives us about 9 hours until we will have relief. This is also the same time when we go to the bar cart to buy a cold drink, and learn that the food and drinks are all cash only. Together Tahlia and I were able to scrape together about r200, and we begin to strategize about what meals we can share and how we can stretch our money to survive on the train.

At the four hour mark in our journey, we are reading books in our compartment, now in as little clothing as socially acceptable, wetting bandanas and our cool ties, trying our best to not overheat. When walking through the other 3rd class cabins back from the bar car, men and women alike have all removed their shirts, children are down to diapers and underwear, as we all try to weather this heat together. It is 1:47 when we decide to turn back on the phone to see where in the country we are, and laugh hysterically when we see the little blue dot on google maps showing the progress we have made.

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(Note where Cape Town is, Johannesburg is, and we are the blue dot)

One thing Tahlia and I did on this train was become buddies with all the staff. She was able to speak Zulu with majority of people, while my XiTsonga got me some minor greetings, but the effort was appreciated still. Zulu and XiTsonga are both black languages. The staff on the train were all black. With the exception of Tahlia and I, every passenger in the third class compartments was either black or colored. When the staff told us it was fine to go into the premier/first class lounge to get ice from the ice bucket, we opened the door and transitioned into an all white compartment. As we visited the compartment a few more times throughout the train ride to get ice, I noted there too were first class black travelers. But never in any of the stops or change overs were there any white passengers who ventured into the 3rd class side, minus a friendly 19 year old white South African who was curious about what Tahlia and I were doing there, intrigued we were in 3rd class, and came back to our cabin to play cards and explore.

The first time we went into the first class lounge to get ice, we were a little hesitant since our ticket was a 3rd class, but staff assured us we would be fine. So we crossed the threshold into the cabin, made our way around the bar and scooped a few of the last remaining ice cubes into each of our water bottles. There were two white ladies sitting in the lounge, who overheard Thalia and I discussing how nice it was here vs our accommodation. They spoke up, assuring us that it would be no problem if we wanted to hang out in the first class lounge because we were white, and we fit right in. Tahlia and I shared an awkward-attempt to be polite smile- with the women, and returned back to our side of the train.

As our friendships with the staff progressed, they would come on breaks to hang out in our end of the train compartment, chat with us, relax, and have a drink from out “sharing bottle” of tequila we brought to make friends. But another thing that happened, that can be attributed to a combination of factors including that we are white, that we are women, that we are foreigners and that we are Americans, is that every time Tahlia and I would leave the compartment to go explore, visit the meal cart or play cards in another spot on the train, is that someone who worked there would go and sit in our compartment and watch our stuff. We didn’t ask for this, and candidly we took our valuables with us every time we left the compartment anyways, but it was an observation we made during our trip.

Once the sun had finally set, we had a family of three come into the compartment and set up camp next to us. We moved so that the makeshift bed for myself and Tahlia was only on one side of the isle, and they were able to make a bed for them on the other. When we woke the next morning, our compartment was a whole new world! We had a group of ten people or so who had speakers and were jamming out to some SA tunes. We had an older white gentleman who joined our compartment, traveling to Joburg after spending the last few months on a rafting trip with his group the Fossil Floaters! Shout out to you my friend for living life well!

The other noticeable change to our compartment was the lack of change to our outside scenery. When we had looked out the window two hours before, the same exact landscape peered back at us as the landscape we saw currently. Upon further digging, we learned that the train was having electrical issues and we had been sitting in that same spot for about two hours. What we didn’t know, was whether or not we had stopped for periods of time at other times during the night. When we finally started moving and got to the next spot on the trip, we looked at what time, according to the schedule we should have been there, to learn that we were in fact 7 hours behind.

7 hours extra on a hot train is bad enough, but to factor in that we didn’t have money for the two additional meals we would now be sitting on the train for, we were feeling the dread. We knew we had to make a plan! We decided to talk to the restaurant manager on the train, who we had been hanging out with the night before, and attempt to surrender our passports as collateral that we could run a tab, and when we arrived in Johannesburg one of us would run to an ATM and the other would wait behind. While he wasn’t able to do that, we were able to trade him $20 American dollars that I found in my bag as leftovers from my parents trip, and alas we survived to the end of our crazy train travels.

There are many other parts to this adventure that I left out, since I am already in the weeds a bit with the story, but I hoped to put, in as simple and unbiased terms as possible, some of the things that we see and experience daily in terms of privilege. And what ended up being a 34 hour train ride through South Africa was just another isolated lens with which to view the unique country I currently reside in.

Side editorial comment: my friend messaged me to let me know there were numerous spelling and grammatical errors in my blog post. My response: I am sure there are. Please forgive such tragedies  prevailed upon the English language, but know that I do not reread, spell check or give any kind of review before I post. I want you to read exactly as I would tell the story, imperfections and errors and all.

water – aqua – acqua – mati

I should really being by saying that I have many “half baked” blog posts on water. It is very difficult to convey the importance of water to those who have not had to limit or live with less. And so, I have tried many times to find a way to tackle explaining water shortages, water insecurity and what a difference access to water can have in time management of your day, all resulting in me feeling that you still would not quite grasp the severity of what I want to explain. So instead, I will use a very different scenario, being back in a metropolitan area currently undergoing a water crisis, to finally broach the subject. I am hoping that writing about the experiences in a place that does have access to running water can help you all to relate a bit better to what the usage looks like.  I can tell you now that I firmly believe water IS the single most important commodity in the world, and we all need to do our part to respect that and savor it, because folks, thinking it will always be there when you switch on the faucet is accepting to ignore some very real challenges facing us, not for your grandkids, not in 50 years, not in 10 years, but now…

The last leg of vacation with my parents was a trip to Cape Town, a first time visit for both myself and my parents. The first thing I noticed as we went trough the airport were the plethora of signs, displays and audio messaging detailing the dire water crisis Cape Town currently is in, and its plea to utilize water minimally during the water shortage. At this stage, the city has taken many measures to try and minimize water usage, and the day the city will be depleted of all its water stores is fast approaching.

One display was a ceiling piece, with 87 strings tied and attached to 87 hanging liter bottles, imploring Cape Town residents and visitors alike to keep water consumption down to 87 liters of water per day. My initial reaction was to laugh. I could not use 87 liters of water in a day in my village if I tried! In fact, once it is your responsibility to use a “wheelbarrow” to and from a tap that is a 45 min walk away from you, wait in line to fill your 20L jug and push it back along the wobbly, uneven dirt “roads” (more like a beaten path) then you know exactly how much water each activity you do on a daily, weekly and monthly basis takes. But to take a step back down off my high horse, when in a city or area with basic plumbing and infrastructure, the only real “measure” you have at any given time is the water bill that you pay for the service each month.

How much water is in a flush of a toilet?

How much water is a “quick shower” or dare I say a bath?

How much water is used brushing my teeth? What if I only turn it on to wet my toothbrush and off right after, then on again at the end?

How much water is it to was a plate? To run a dishwasher?

How much water, really, does one use, when thinking conservatively, in a city?

These are all things that I honestly don’t know. So instead I will share with you a few of my “water moments” of the trip.

To the restaurant in OBS that can no longer provide tap water to patrons because of the drought, who instead lowered its bottled water prices to be at cost, thank you for doing your part.

To the rental car agency who provided us with a smudged, dirty car for our journey because they stopped washing the cars with water, thank you for doing your part.

To every bar, restaurant and public toilet that proudly displayed the water conservation anthem of “if its yellow let it mellow,” thank you for doing your part.

For the buckets in the showers of hotels, asking patrons to collect all shower runoff into the buckets that can be used for cleaning later, thank you for doing your part.

To all of the residents and travelers who found new and creative ways to shower while keeping to the 2 minutes per person per day limit, thank you for doing your part.

To my friend I made in Cape Town, who listened intently when I discussed my concerns over water usage in SA. Who asked questions, didn’t become defensive, and could openly discuss post apartheid implications of water inequality still existing in SA as a white South African with privilege, thank you for being open to a new perspective.

To the friend who after discussing water issues wanted to find a way to set up low cost rain catching mechanisms for the building he lived in so that they too can help to minimize waste, thank you for doing your part.

To the older gentleman I met, still holding tight to his racist ideals that believes the water crisis in Cape Town is a result of water waste from the people living in informal settlements outside of the city, which mind you consist of pieces of sheet metal loosely attached together to form walls and a roof, thank you for feeling free to share your opinions with me. I hope one day you will learn, that when people there are thankful for the rains because they get clean drinking water, even though the rain also means that sewage from the public toilet will flood the bottom few inches of their home, they are the ones who are doing far more than their part for the water crisis. To all of those living in such offensive conditions, I am sorry. We all need to do better.

To all of you reading this who will finish the blog and who will start to question their own water usage, thank you for doing your part.

To all of you reading who will finish the blog and actively seek a more water conservative lifestyle, thank you for doing your part.

And finally, to Ma Letti and Ma Cynthia who had to collect and carry water for me while my knee recovered, it is such an unbelievable kindness, and I can not thank you enough for doing way above and beyond your part.

Stay well, stay hydrated, and PLEASE conserve water.

Blog? What Blog?

For those of you who have been following my story and feel abandoned, left stranded in the world of silence and the blogless abyss you would be correct. I want you to know that your feelings are valid and that I have indeed left you in the dark. Apologies to all.

To help provide clarity, I wanted to share with you my process for writing, and how the story usually comes together. I typically find an incident, moment or experience that once it occurs, I find myself piecing together the words I want to use to describe that in a blog. That is my first indicator that it is time to write again.

For each post, I try to write it in one sitting. Once I break or step away, the freshness and reality of the scenario gets lost in  the sea of continuous days here in Peace Corps. Because of this, I have at any given time on my computer a dozen half written blogs, pages and pages of stories, experiences, emotions and encounters that lie waiting for my return to finish. Sadly, I rarely return back to the work, as a new blog has emerged and I skip ahead to work on that.

When I am able to finish a blog, I post right away. And as I know that I rarely return to half written blogs, the logical next questions is why not just finish each one right when I begin it? And while that is always my intention, the unfortunate reality is that life gets in the way. Some days I sit on a mat outside the door of Ole Pinkie, and can write until some of the neighbor kids come by asking to play a game. When I find myself in the city I seek out a quiet cafe with a small corner table to settle into the work, but get pulled away by the lure of volunteers I haven’t seen in months who are also in the city.

The question then becomes, what do I do to ensure I can keep my blog alive and well? Do I just post the half baked half written stories, giving you all a glimpse into the story but falling short of the conclusions? Do I practice stream of consciousness writing and provide you with every chaotic, unpolished thought that passes through my ever pivoting mind? Or do I endeavor to complete each work as they come, and tell life that it will just have to wait until I manage to get the words on the page?

I don’t yet have an answer to that questions, but I do have an update for you. My update, or rather more of a promise, is that in the past year of writing I have filled you in on many things about my life and experiences, but I have also been leaving out some of the more difficult experiences and realities of life here.

Many of my colleagues, myself included, have developed a mental barrier for ourselves, where we have had to adjust the threshold of “caring” in terms of the view we have on the world here. In order to not drive myself insane, or find myself in tears constantly, I have built metal boxes where I choose to lock away some of the heartbreaking realities that we see on a daily basis. My second group of visitors, my parents, have come and gone from South Africa, and one glaring similarity between their reaction and my sisters reaction when she came has forced me to acknowledge and seek to explain the hardships some citizens of SA experience. The ever tangible remnants of Apartheid regime, the continued economic oppression of groups of people and the blatant racism that runs free in this beautiful land is a painful thing to view and process as a traveler. It was the same for me when I first arrived. I remember feeling rage, feeling heartbroken, feeling sad and feeling inspired by the trials and triumphs of people here. And I no longer will be keeping these feelings in the box.

I am not sure what exactly will come next. I don’t know if I will go back and finish some old posts, or if I will publish them in their current state. One thing I do know, however, is that a few things are going to change. I am going to push myself to express and expose some of the issues that are going on here. I am going to talk to you openly about the horrid situations that young women in particular face. I am going to discuss “dinner table forbidden” topics that make us cringe, because to not is to do a disservice to you, to myself, and to the wonderful people I have had the pleasure of sharing my life with this past year.

Thank you for your continued reading and support, and please feel free to engage in a dialogue below if you have any questions, comments, or are looking for additional information on anything that I post.

Sisters In SA

And just like that, I am back in Pretoria, sitting in a cafe, utilizing free wifi, drinking a double espresso that I can not afford and listening to my sisters favorite band. I am so incredibly grateful for the time that I had with her, but also disappointed that it is over so quickly! Originally, we thought it may be fun to have her guest write in my blog post, with her reflections of various activities, but then were too busy enjoying her last day in country to sit down and write. So, I will go forward and try to add color to things that surprised her/her reflections as we continue.

I have said each time I communicate with people back home how difficult it is to try and effectively portray some of the social and economic complexities (that I myself and still trying to sort through) that make this country such a unique place to serve. Even though my sisters trip was short, she was able to get a first glimpse at some those different factors at work, and I encourage any of you who can to reach out to her for her impressions of her trip!

The trip kicked off with me taking the train from Pretoria to Joburg airport to pick up Sissy on Thursday. I arrived a few hours early and anxiously awaited her to deplane and make her way through customs. I tried to distract myself with my three hours of free time, so I went and sat in a cafe, drank a Castle Light and read my book. Once her flight had officially touched down, I moved and sat out in the waiting area for International Arrivals, even though I knew full well it would be another hour or so for her to actually go through customs, get her bag and exit. But, there I sat. Twitchy hands. Restless legs. Anxious eyes quickly surveying the gap between the automatic doors each time they opened. Each time, my heart sank a little as the anticipation continued to grow. For those of you who don’t know, this is at least double the longest period of time my sister and I had gone without seeing each other in my lifetime.

Finally, the automatic doors opened to reveal a small old couple walking gingerly, and a blonde haired, blue, floral yoga-pant-wearing American, Longchamp bag & backpack in tote behind them, scanning the crowd. I hopped up from my seat and walked (okay, it was more like a run) over to the side of the gate to engulf her in a big hug! I didn’t realize the true extent of my excitement for my very first visitor until I felt the tears wetting my cheeks and realized that they were not only hers.

After our brief yet embarrassing reunion, we shuffled out of the way from the walkway we were rudely blocking and I jumped into my typical travel rant about what was coming up, and what was the plans are, how much time we had before we had to leave, what our options were and so on and so on. We had not even crossed the airport to the dining areas before I had her practicing the greetings of three of South Africa’s official languages. On this three hundred yard stroll I also stopped to hug her more times than I could count because the reality that my sister had just flown 25 hours to come see me had not exactly set in yet 100%.

Rather than plunge my sister right into the typical SA transportation (aka public taxi) that I normally take, I booked us each a seat on a shuttle that would take us from Johannesburg to Nelspruit, the capitol of Mpumalanga (the province I live in).  For those of you who know my sister Jacqueline well know that she has a “tiny bladder” which is not great for long trips, or trips without stops frequently. To her much needed mercy we had an unplanned stop along, or the trip could have been much worse! Thus began the first in a series of many lucky transport opportunities.

The next came quickly as we arrived in Nelspruit, much later than I had anticipated, and the long walk to the backpackers from where we were dropped off crossed through a number of areas that are best traveled only during the day. While attempting to make a plan, a friendly woman from our bus who we had not spoken to came over to offer us a lift to our place! Thank you friendly shuttle stranger 🙂

We unpacked, changed and headed out to a small Portuguese place for dinner where we met good-luck transport number three. A local who’s mother had a doctors appointment the next morning in Bushbackridge offered us a lift, which saved us two taxis, three hours and a lot of knee cramps.

And like that, we were back in Tsonga land, traveling through the places that now bring me a home-like calm, excited to show off my smily blonde American to all my new friends 🙂 Having Jackie in my village was great! Seeing my sister and Ma Cintia interact, sit together and enjoy each others company even though they don’t share a common tongue is a really wonderful thing to experience. Jackie also got a small taste of what my life is like in the village. We purposely planned her trip here to be short, as she was not eager to embrace some of the more challenging aspects of rural living (who can blame her)  but it was enough for her to see the realities of how some rural communities live.

The next morning we hopped on a 5:30am, 9 hour ride over to Durban since my sister loves the beach. However, we were greeted in Durban by what could only be described as wind storms. This was a funny flip for us. My sister loves the beach, where I prefer a city with a view of the beach. The first night, as the storms rolled in, my sister and I shared a bottle of wine on a covered patio right on the ocean, listened to the raindrops drum on the roof and hear the thunder call in the background of the evening as lightning lit up the sky for us. There we sat, each reading our book and taking in the calm that the crazy storm brought to us.

The next few days were filed with wind storm madness as well, as well traveled around Durban reading our books from place to place. My favorite day was when we went exploring some of the traditional and underground markets in the area, and had a feast of Indian food that was beyond delicious. We met some amazing travelers along the way, and had some really wonderful experiences, all of which I will continue to detail!!  Side note, from when I began writing this post and finished it now has been over a month, but I wanted to post at least part of the trip! Another blog to follow, sorry for the delays!

Scratching the surface of what you missed…

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!

Worth the Words?

I am in South Africa by the invitation of the South African government, and under the representation of an organization that is a part of the government of the United States of American. And while that comes with an immense amount of privilege, it too comes with a variety of additional constraints.

Some of these are in place for my safety and security. As with any organization, there are certain things that the company you work for will not let you participate in or partake in because of the impact it could have on the representation of that company. Today, these things usually fall under the “morality clause” section of an organizations HR book. And you would be hard pressed to find an active employee speaking out against its company on social media or other platforms less they may not be an active employee for much longer.

My employer is the United States Government for all intensive purposes. I am a member of the United States Peace Corps, and as such am discouraged from displaying any political persuasion that could be construed as an opinion of the larger organizations that I represent rather than an opinion held of my own individual belief. And I do not disagree with this role.

The work that you do as a PCV is of a delicate nature. Currently, I am working hard to integrate into my new community, and to get a group of people to learn to trust a complete stranger and foreigner into some of the most intimate parts of their lives. I am asking for people to trust me with their health status, sexual behavior, sexual history, and other intimate details of their day to day lives and stories which is not easy to share even with people you are closest with. So naturally, I believe that this type of work demands a delicate nature.

So to continue to do the work that I so desperately want to continue to do here, I must remain apolitical. It is incumbent upon myself and other volunteers to sidestep political conversations and to continue to be representatives of America, and to promote cross cultural understanding of Americans on the part of South Africans, and of South Africans on the part of Americans.

Where this notion comes into conflict with my rational is what “Americanisms” I choose to impart on the people I work with. There are so many things that I love so much about America, but they seem to be things constantly challenged by the administration that I left behind in charge of the country I love so much.

So today, I wanted to put into words a few things about the America that I want to represent, the America that I believe in, and the America that I know, no matter what challenges or shortfalls may be faced in the coming days, weeks and months will forever endure to be, because that is another thing I find American.

My America is a place that I love with all my heart. It is a pillar of hope and opportunity for the rest of the world, where a person can change their status and their lives, and make a better world for themselves than the one they were brought into. My America’s front door is always open, and reads  “give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Thou warden of the western gate, above Manhattan Bay, The fogs of doubt that hid thy face are driven clean away: Thine eyes at last look far and clear, thou lightest high thy hand To spread the light of liberty world-wide for every land.”

The America I wish to share is a place that has a dark history full of mistakes, but a history full of people wishing to make things better. My America knows hard work, knows compassion, knows loss and knows love. My America defends the rights of its citizens, and defends those who can not defend themselves. My America believes in the power of both collectivism and individualism. My America believes in balance of powers and of power in the hands of the people. My America will promote education, critical thinking and new ideas. My America will not shy away from the challenges of the future, but will stride forward and adapt to make the world a better place. My America is a place that has both privilege and poverty, but that strives to make each life livable.

Before I climb back down off the soap box I find myself on, I want to share that it is growing up in my America that has given me the freedom to be able to form this opinion for myself. It was by coming to age in my America that I was encouraged to ask questions, seek understanding and to always feel empowered to question the status quo and that my ideas matter. That every persons ideas and options matter, and that they are entitled to those thoughts and opinions.

Some of my friends and family, when I told them I was planning on doing Peace Corps, questioned why I would choose to leave America to help abroad when we have so many challenges in the United States that need our help. One of the volunteers I am serving with sent a photo to our group that a relative of hers took when in New York, and it was an old advertisement for the Peace Corps, with a large picture of the Statue of Liberty pointing outward, and the catch line reads “Make America A Better Place. Leave the Country.”

The text below then reads that “Of all the ways America can grow, one way is by learning from others.” It proceeded to give a few examples of projects that can be done and some of the work, and concludes with “There are those who think you can’t change the world in Peace Corps. On the other hand, maybe it’s not just what you do in the Peace Corps that counts, but what you do when you get back.”

I think this ad manages to capture one of the goals that I wish to achieve in my time here. I am an American, and I will always strive to help my country and to do my part to make it a better place. But I am also a citizen of the world. I am a member of the human race. I am an inhabitant of the planet Earth. And as an American, a member of the world, a human and a resident of Earth, it is imperative that I seek to make better, to protect and to serve each piece of my identity. 

And so, with no particular rhyme or reason to this post, I am going to conclude by saying that it is tough to be here, so far away from America when so much seems to be changing. I am taking some time to identify the different pieces of myself and of what I represent that I believe is worth fighting for and worth voicing. What are the things in your life that you hold dear? What, to you, is worth the words?

Finding my home

Avuxeni world. It is really hard to know where to begin. There is so much I wish to catch all of you up on, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to properly capture the information in some kind of order. So apologies ahead of time…

To begin in the middle, I have officially sworn in as a United States Peace Crops Volunteer in South Africa. The emotions that I felt on that day, and throughout the ceremony, were feelings that I hope I never forget. During the ceremony, I gave a speech to my fellow volunteers and to the guests assembled at the embassy, reflecting on our time in training and our aspirations going forward. During the week leading up to the speech, when writing along side two of my peers, I found myself doing a fair amount of soul searching and contemplation. PST (pre service training) is hard. It is a tough ten weeks where you have to give up all control, embrace discomfort and unknowns, and put an extreme amount of faith in people you have just met. What makes a person give up their home, their country, their lives and families and friends and world and move for 27 months to a strange new land? That was the questions I found myself wondering through the process.

However for me, the answer was troublingly simple. In my 5th grade yearbook, we were asked to put what we wanted to be/do when we grew up. I said that I wanted to help people. This was something that I had forgotten about (likely repressed because I ended up crying in the bathroom when other kids made fun of my answer) until an old friend I had lost touch with reminded me of my words. At the time, that was the best I could do to put on paper what career path I would take; to help people. I didn’t know if that would mean being a doctor, a social worker, a teacher or a humanitarian. But I knew, that that was my life goal. When I was in 7th grade, a horrific tsunami rocked South East Asia during Christmas, and the world awoke to find that hundreds of thousands of lives were lost in the blink of an eye. This was the first time I can remember that my world grew. No longer were the people in my family, town and city the only people I wanted to help. There was a whole new world, full of sadness and pain. A world of loss. A world of trouble. A world that needed help; and I wanted to be a part of it.

I’ve struggled over time to find my place in this world, and my role in being a “helper.” Ambition clashed with ideals. Humility took a back seat to aspirations. And though I propelled myself into project after project, degree after degree, I never felt that I was in the right place. An inescapable feeling of being untrue to myself was something that followed me everywhere. The scariest kind of truth we can choose not to tell is truth to ourselves.

When I stood along side 32 other volunteers, raised my right hand, and repeated the below words, I stood strong in my convictions that for the first time in a very long time, I knew that I was exactly where I belonged.

“I, Alyssa Angeline Lokie, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge my duties as a Peace Corps Volunteer. So help me God.”

Word can provide no just description nor convey the way that I felt then, and still now each time I think back on that day. I am beyond humbled and thankful to be joining the league of volunteers. It is an incredible group of people I am lucky enough to serve along side of, and I know that over the next two years I will continue to be impressed and overwhelmed by their achievements to combat HIV & Aids in South Africa. And without sounding nauseatingly corny, I do wish to express again to all of you reading my most sincere thanks and gratitude. There is no way I would have made my way to this beautiful country and accepted this unique, exciting, daunting, challenging, thrilling adventure if it were not for the immense amount of love and support from all of you.

Fast forward past my goosebumps…

I am now at my permanent site which is quickly becoming my home. The people who I have met so far have shown me more kindness in a week than I could have possibly imagined possible. I live in a charming, highlighter pink colored one room home off a dirt road in my village under the (grateful to have) shade of a few large trees. For those of you who don’t know, pink is not now, nor has ever been, my color. The inside and outside walls of my home both are coated in this bright, highlighter pink that is bright enough to give anyone a headache if they look directly at it for too long. But, as life has continued to prove, everything happens for a reason. (I’m inevitably going to ramble on before making my point about the pink house, but don’t worry i’ll complete the circle eventually.)

My two friends in neighboring villages and I decided that on Thursday, two days after being in our homes, we would take the local transport taxis to a shopping town to get some groceries and much needed household items.  Let me translate that for you… A taxi, is a cross between a minivan and a minibus. It has four rows of seats and a sliding door on one side, and somehow manages to cram 3-4 people on each of those tiny rows. These taxis operate without any type of schedule or routine. If you are fortunate enough to live in a large enough village that has a taxi rink, you can go there and find the one heading in the direction you wish to go, and hop on. You will however, sit and wait until the taxi is full before going anywhere. Now, when I say full, I do not mean filled where each person is sitting comfortably. I mean filled, where each row has so many people and things that you feel the taxi could not possibly accommodate even a baby more, than watch in a mix of horror and amusement as an additional three people make their way onto the ride. This process takes time. Yesterday, I waited for 2 hours 18 minutes for my taxi to become full enough to depart for the 20 min ride I needed to take. I also ended up with someones chicken in a plastic bag between my legs and someone else baby on my lap. That my friends, is a taxi ride.

Now, my two friends and I all knew to expect this. We have, after all, been in SA for three months and have taken local transport in our homes where we lived before here. In addition, we are of a well traveled group who have managed to navigate public transportation in many different countries will less language skills than we have now. NONE of these answers however managed to soothe the anxieties of the people who swooped into action upon hearing our plans to travel to Hoedspruit. After two supervisors, three host families, two gogos, two friends and more telephone chain calls than I can count, the three of us managed to get everyone on an ok-ish page to allow us to take this journey ourselves. And let me tell you, it felt wonderful to gain back some of that independence lost during PST. The three of us each managed to get our taxies in our own villages and meet in Acornhoek. From there, we used our Xitsonga language skills to navigate our way to the correct taxi to take us on to Hoedspruit. On the way back, we contributed substantially to the chaos of the taxi rides with our many bags of goods and groceries.

My town does have a taxi rink which is awesome! However, I live further outside of town. When the taxis are heading to my rink, I can ask the driver to stop and pull over to let me off on the side of the road so that I can walk on to my house, instead of taking the taxi into the center of my village and walking back the 15-20 minutes to my home. The trick is, I have to recognize enough of the landscape to know where my little unnamed dirt road is among a world of unnamed dirt roads. So there I am, bags-a-plenty and anxiously peering out the window to search for the orphanage which I pass just a few hundred yards from my dirt road. Now normally, if I miss my drop off, I can walk from town and it would be no big deal. However, still walking with one crutch, and with the overly ambitious amount of bags I now had to somehow get home, there was really no way I could carry it all on my own. So there I am, looking longingly out the window hoping that I don’t miss it, when I see what I think is the building. But, when I look left, I’m not sure it is THE building. Yikes! Right, left, right, left, is it? Isn’t it? If I get off now and it isn’t then how far will I walk before I find it? It it is right and I miss it will I have to walk all the way back from town? Get off, stay on? Off? On? and while these questions rapid fire in my mind, I catch a glimpse of an obnoxiously colored, bright pink house in the distance.

“Driva, mina ni kombela yima swinene! Na Kensa engofu!” I yell, and proudly slip my way through the taxi, out the door and unload my things. That troublingly bright pink house just so happened to be extremely handy in guiding my way back home 🙂

There is much more I will continue to share! But, before I sign off let me give you a spider update. So far, ole Pinkie has has minimal spider appearances! There have been a lot of those small, thin long leg type spiders and a few other web making spiders, but nothing that has even come close to approaching the hand-sized horrors from my last home. Now, before you all cheer and exhale, keep in mind that apparently during the rainy season the big spiders make their presence know and seek shelter in your dwellings. That, added to the fact that the two rain storms I have had in my new home knocked out my power as well as revealed the eleven holes in my roof makes me not particularly thrilled for the rains to come. And yes, eleven. I kid you not. I counted all eleven at one in the morning when a massive thunder storm rolled through town. There I was, head lamp on, hopping my way around the room on my good leg, using every bucket, cup, bowl and basin I had to try and identify where the leaks were and put something under it. Three of these leaks were right above my bed, and I eventually fell asleep with a bucket between my ankles to catch the water dribbling down, and rolled up clothes to secure the other two that were next to me.

As aways, the adventure continues 🙂