Sunday, December 20, 2009

Things are heating up, small gestures, I'm thrilled, I'm outta here, and HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

I believe the insect activity is increasing as the heat is increasing here. I knew it was getting hot when I was walking about my apartment and touching things: Why is my cell phone so warm? Why is my glass of water so warm? Why is my chair seat wet? Why is my bed wet? Why is the toilet seat warm?

Yes, it is getting this hot. When my mom asked, “Is it unbearable?” I replied, “It must not be, if it is taking me wondering why things are so hot and wet to notice.”

So yes, it is getting hot here, but so far it isn’t bad. Since my dorm room is on the top floor of a west-facing corner, my room begins to heat up about 3:00 pm, is warm enough for me to leave for awhile, and holds the heat until after midnight.

But the air is very dry and arid and this dry heat is not nearly as uncomfortable as the humidity back home.

Not that you guys are having that problem now. Did you get snow?

When I first arrived in at my permanent site, I noticed that ants, large ants, seemed to be scurrying about everywhere. They were so abundant that I worried about squashing 100s of them with each step. (I didn’t retain this worry very long.)

But lately I’ve noticed, that if I’m wearing sandals, and stand still for only a moment (as when I stop to snap a photo, stop to examine a bug or plant more closely), I begin to feel these stabs of pain in my feet. The ants will climb on board and start chomping away—and they don’t want to be shaken off!

I was talking on the phone yesterday and felt the stinging pains and had to reach down to scrape them off. For the rest of the time I was talking on the phone, I would kick them away as they approached. Undeterred, they banded together in a game of “kick ant” with me: I would kick one about 12 inches away, it would quickly revive and renew its charge on me while I busied myself with one or more of its comrades.

I’m wearing my hiking boots for my little strolls now. They keep me protected from these vicious little buggers! (I've also read, that unlike sandals, the boots will protect the tops of my feet and ankles--where snakes tend to bite. Thanks sis, for the boots!)

I'm also posting some shots of the cows and I sharing a hot Sunday afternoon heat wave. I hope it rains soon and the bull, at least, can eat a bit better. There is a shot or two of one of the poor donkeys with his front feet bound. This donkey's feet are bound with nylon rope; I've seen donkeys and even a horse with its feet bound with chain. In one of the donkey shots, you can see some of my village up in the hill side.

I've also posted some shots of the bee-like creature that I know not what it is, but it is huge like our bumble bees, buzzes like our bumble bees, but is much longer in the abdomen and not as thick. When he flies, he seems like a thick, lazy, very heavy hummingbird rather than a bumble bee. He does have a stinger-like protrusion on his rear end, but from my reading, I think this is a reproductive stem rather than a stinger. (Or I should hope.) In the evening, they amass in the top of thorn trees and you can see them congregating in the hundreds. I LOVE THEM!

And then, of course, more sunsets--last night's.

When I first began my service at permanent site, I was put off (as everyone is sick of hearing about) with the constant requests for money, treats, trips to America, etc. I was particularly put off by the security staff asking for such gifts. It was constant and it was irritating and I grumpily ignored the requests.

In reading about South African history, or any African history, I’m finding that it was (and perhaps still is) quite common and expected for ordinary citizens to bribe those holding security-enforcing positions: border-crossing guards, policemen, etc.

Of course, such a practice is corruption and in my irritation think, when asked by people holding these positions: Aren’t these people getting paid to perform their duties?

At one point I wondered if this gift-requesting from the guards was simply a hold-over from South Africa in more turbulent times, and therefore a “cultural difference” if you will.

Regardless, the requests irritated me and I ignored them. I wasn’t subjecting myself to such tyranny.

Along the way I’ve found myself buying little treats to give to those who “take care of” my more important needs of living in South Africa. For example, I’ve taken to buying the ladies at the post office small bars of candy. (Chocolate is ADORED here; but where is chocolate not adored?) They are, after all, making sure I receive my mail and packages from the US, and I greatly appreciate their care.

I find myself buying cold drinks for the ladies at the library, who always welcome me to their library, their computers, and therefore, their internet.

It occurred to me, “Although this gift-giving is simply an expression of my gratitude, isn’t this gesture, in much the same away, a bribe? Or could it be perceived as such?"

One of the security guards here on campus is the male version of “the lioness” (the matronly lady at one of my schools). He is “the lion.” He has worked here forever, is much older than I, etc. We kind of don’t like each other. But he is probably someone I should work on getting to like me, since he is in charge of my safety and security.

By 10:00 on Saturday morning, it was too late to move about outside because it was already unbearably hot. I needed to run to the post office and he was on duty. We did our awkward greetings and I went on my way.

While in town, I bought him a cold drink at the grocer, and on my return to campus, gave it to him.

I wish you could have seen the look on his face: such a beautiful smile and such a humble gesture of acceptance (he cupped both his hands to receive my gift in the traditional South African way). The gesture of the gift, a very small one by me, has gone a long way to ensuring my safety here on campus. I’m only regretting my hard-headed resistance in wooing his approval.

That same morning, and here comes the "I'm thrilled," I met the gentleman in charge of the community garden. I have asked, and he has agreed, that I establish, monitor, and maintain a compost pile for the community garden. I’M SO EXCITED! I have some weird fondness of composting and everything about it. I could live happily ever after, not gardening in any other way, if only I could compost. It’s just so satisfying to see waste transformed into vital, alive, rich black soil. Composting makes me very, very happy. So I'm thrilled to be invited to assist with the garden in this way: I get to compost and the community's soil will be amended.

I’ll begin that new project on my return from my holiday. Return? Where am I going?

When I doing my volunteer stint in AK in 2006, I was told that many Alaskans hung a “gone fishing” sign in their work windows to indicate to customers that no business would be conducted for the next 3 months. It seemed, perhaps because Alaskan winters are so brief, that EVERYONE in the state was out of the office. No phone calls were returned, no emails answered, no business meetings were conducted.

I’m finding that true in South Africa as well.

There seems to be an unofficial 4-week South African holiday for the last half of December through the first half of January. I thought this holiday time was specific only to the schools, since the old school year has ended, (staff, educators, learners) but I'm finding it applies to everyone.

How do I know? Because I can’t find anyone to return a phone call, answer an email, or see me for a business meeting!

I had hoped to use this 4-week holiday period to plan and prepare for my teaching for the next school year. I’m a big planner.

(Wait a minute... I have to pick myself up off the floor from laughing so hard.)

I was promised time by those in charge of scheduling classes that “there would be time to plan for next year in December." This, translated from “indirect communication,” means: We’re outta here for the year and will worry about next year two days before school starts!” (Two days before school starts--if you’re lucky!)

Or so it seems. At first I felt panicked, watching the educators and schedulers running away from me, with no hope of guidance or preparation, but I relaxed a bit, when I realized that with my teaching experience, I will do fine.

So, I thought, “Well, I can’t prepare for teaching, so how about looking into secondary projects?”

I am here on the Education Project for Peace Corps, which has me working in the schools with children, educators, and administrators. But we’re allowed secondary projects of our choosing. I’d like to work in the community garden, of course, and I would like to work with the village clinic doing HIV/AIDs education outreach.

I had hoped to meet and plan with the administrators of the health clinic during these down weeks around the holiday.

(Wait a minute, I'm on the floor laughing again.)


Even still, I have enjoyed being alone and “unbusy” during this holiday period. But friends and family, including: my American family, my African family, and my Peace Corps family have all balked at my “not going anywhere” for the holidays.

Why my American family is alarmed is beyond me. I’ve spent much of my adult life working in the restaurant/catering business, which had me working and not participating in family gatherings for every major holiday: Derby, xmas, xmas eve, New Year’s, etc. I have missed many, many a family gathering because I was working.

Also, I hate all of the commercialization around the xmas holiday and hate the pressure of having to buy gifts. I have been known to “leave town” for the holidays-and a few of these trips were trips on my own.

So, my American family should know better.

My African family has been very worried about me staying at the hostel all by myself. Their top-two concerns are: Aren’t you afraid? And, Aren’t you bored?

I wasn’t afraid until Mr. Rat came by for a visit, but now that he’s moved on, I’m perfectly fine staying in the hostel alone. I adore the solitude and know it is temporary and brief, so I’m soaking up every second.

I used to say, “I can’t remember the last time I felt bored.” Now, I clearly do remember: it was when I was stuck at an educator’s “end-of-the-year party” for 13 hours with 350 people who wanted to harass me about how rich I was and who had been drinking heavily since very early that morning.

And, as an avid reader and writer, and one who likes to walk about with a camera studying the natural world, I can keep myself entertained--for hours and hours, for days on end. Not surprisingly, but unfortunately, the people here are not of a “reading culture.” People here, and especially young people, don’t read for fun. We are experiencing the same problem in the US, but not as severely--yet. Most rural S Africans don’t learn to read for fun, and for generations have not had access to reading materials, had the skills to read, etc.. (And many still don't even today, because of poverty, lack of materials, language barriers, etc.)

And then there is my Peace Corps family. Although sympathetic to my desire to “soak in the solitude,” all press that, “Really though, you should go somewhere.” And I'm sure they are right. It will do me a world of good to change my scenery and spend a bit of time with those who (easily) speak my language.

And, and I may inherit this tendency from my mother, I love to be "at home" and often need a crow bar to pry me out of my home to leave it. I've worked very hard to feel safe in my new home, have succeeded impressively, and I hate to leave it--especially since the students are gone and it is blissfully quiet. And the thought of riding public transportation for 6+ hours makes me more than a bit anxious!!

And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I HAVE SEEDLINGS TO CARE FOR! Only those of us that have chlorophyll in our veins instead of blood will sympathize here. But I have new starts of herbs and flowers and I hate to leave them to the hot dry air of Africa for a week. They, or at least the very new ones, are sure to wither and die without water. (No, there is no one here who can care for them while I'm gone and I'm not going to fool with some type of elaborate wick-bucket of water system.)

So, I’m going somewhere and my lovely new seedlings be doomed! A wonderful PC couple has invited me to their home for the xmas holiday. They like reading, as do I, and have promised a hiking trail up a nearby mountain and a trip to Pretoria to see a movie--not to mention xmas dinner. I’m thrilled.

Well, I’m thrilled about everything except riding the public taxis. But a fellow PC volunteer is traveling to Pretoria with me, so it will be less painful.

Although my friends are very well connected with technology, this is likely to be my last post for awhile. So, for my worry worts, NO WORRIES.

For everyone: Happy holidays!!

Soon, Karen