Saturday, June 26, 2010

My hotel room in Messina

I’m typically not a hotel person, but I LOVED everything about my hotel room in Messina. I stayed at a hotel smack in the middle of ugly Messina, but my room faced the back and overlooked the beautiful African sky and, you guessed it, a baobab!

I’ve previously mentioned that this is really a terrible time to travel in South Africa because of the World Cup Soccer matches and everything is booked and jacked up in price. When I called to check the prices of rooms, I was expecting to pay R500-R600 per night. You can imagine my panic at hearing one hotel wanting R1,200 per night! For a single room!!

The Limpopo River Lodge in Messina is recommended in many of the travel guides. While a single room at a regular rate is listed at R115 per night, after hearing R1,200 per night, I thought I was getting off pretty easy at R250 per night--especially during World Cup. And Limpopo River Lodge is where I stayed.

It was a small, modest room but spotlessly clean. (In fact, my bed was changed every single night and my towels washed—much to my “let’s conserve resources” dismay.) I had a private bath WITH A SHOWER! I took a hot shower every single day whether I needed it or not. (Since my move to the trailer, minus a hot water heater, I fully relate, now, to other PC Volunteers who are always eagerly anticipating a hot shower!)

Also, there was no evidence of spiders, scorpions, snakes and the like, so for a full week, I slept out from under a mosquito net in full, no worry bliss! Although I originally balked at the anti-malarial prophylaxis, (for me, 6 weeks of doxycycline), I’m glad I was taking it, as I did receive mosquito bites!

But the best thing of all, and I feel somewhat ashamed to admit this, was that it HAD A TV WITH A 24-HOUR MOVIE CHANNEL!! I binged on movies! It was wonderful. It wasn't a premium movie channel, so I didn't get to see anything recently released, but I didn't care.  I had a wonderful time rewatching Australia This was one of the major -motion pictures I saw before leaving the States: I delighted --and had forgotten--the "let's all live together even though our skin colors are different" themes and I think a baobab may have featured in one of the lovey-dovey scenes.  Do baobabs grow in Australia?  I saw Tom Cruise's Valkyrie, a Harry Potter film, a documentary on Annie" Leibovitz (LOVED it!), something with Martha Plimpton--regardless, I loved, loved, loved watching movies. 

And of course, I had the lovely South African skyline right outside my window!

I was clean, safe, and happy!

Soon, Karen

Friday, June 25, 2010


In the past five years or so, I’ve fallen in love with park service and have spent a considerable amount of time volunteering for parks. When I learned I was coming to South Africa, I was very excited about Kruger National Park and it was at the top of my “must see” list.

I was soon to learn too, that service to Peace Corps in South Africa rotates groups in two different areas: the Northern Cape and Northwest Province (where my group is—in the semi-desert region) and Limpopo and Mpumalanga Provinces (where Kruger is). So, I missed my placement by one rotation! Although I realize “everything happens for a reason,” I would have preferred working and living near Kruger! In fact, one of our “mentors” (a PC Volunteer that arrived in South Africa earlier than my group), who is placed in the Limpopo/Mpumalanga area, “visits Kruger all the time.” In fact, he said, “I’ve been there at least 20 times.” I was very jealous upon hearing this and wanted to pop off his head.

When planning my trip, although I mostly wanted to hang out with the baobab trees in Messina, I thought it would be nice if I could rent a car and visit northern Kruger while I was in the area. My first obstacle to overcome was, Could I rent a car in South Africa on a debit card (instead of a credit card)? Car rental in the States is possible with a debit card, but one must go to a bit of trouble to a) locate a rental car agency willing to rent on a debit card; and b) have a chunk of cash to serve as a deposit to rent the car. (In the States, in the past, this amount was $400.) Could I find a rental car in Messina, willing to rent a car on a US debit card?

Well, finding a rental car agency in Messina was quite a story in itself. You would think that a car rental agency would want to place itself on a main road, in a highly visible area; not so with Avis in Messina: it was located in a hide-away corner in the suburbs! It took me a day to find it! Long story short: yes, they rented me a car on a US debit card.

My second obstacle was: would Kruger have accommodations for me to stay a couple of days? (This is World Cup season and every major tourist attraction in South Africa has been booked for months.) Prior to leaving my site, I had tried to phone Kruger and visit its website in hopes of booking. After many, many rands spent on “hold” I was able to get through at one point, and yes, there were campsites available. Since my trip plans weren’t solid—mostly because I assumed it would be difficult to rent a car—I did not book a campsite prior to my departure. (In hindsight—always 20/20!—I should have booked and then I could have cancelled my reservation had I not been able to rent a car.)

When I realized I could indeed, rent a car, I tried phoning Kruger again, and after a couple of tries spending 20+ minutes on hold, I decided to give up. I asked the rental-car lady if “A one-day trip to Kruger would be worth it?” (In my all-or-nothing thinking, if you couldn’t stay for a few days, you shouldn’t even bother.) She talked me into taking a one-day trip, and I’m glad she did. It was worth it. (Although I would certainly like to go again and spend more time.)

In fact, just the drive from Messina to Kruger’s Pafari gate was worth the effort and expense: driving through South Africa’s Venda region was a lovely way to spend an hour and a half!

So, what about Kruger? What about Kruger? Read a bit from, A Let’s Go Travel Guide: South Africa: with Coverage of Southern Africa (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003):

A vast stretch of wilderness comparable in size to Israel or Taiwan, Kruger National Park is one of the largest and most successful conservation areas in the world. Supporting a staggering variety of plants and animals within 12 different ecosystems, the park also documents the history of human diversity through a number of cultural heritage sites. Balancing flat bushveld and rolling savanna with a meticulously planned network of campsites and roads, Kruger is an accessible and deservedly popular attraction drawing over one million visitors each year. . . .

Today, Kruger protects 2,000 plant species (50 of which are endangered), and 507 bird, 114 reptile, 34 amphibian, 49 freshwater fish, and 147 mammal species, including the endangered wild dog and roan antelope. Successful relocation projects and an aggressive anti-poaching program have stabilized the park’s rhino population, contributing to South Africa’s status as one of the only remaining countries with a significant population of both black and white rhinos. There are roughly 1,300 white and 200 black rhinos in the park today. . . .

An ambitious plan is currently underway to link the northern section of Kruger to protected areas in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Botswana, which would create an enormous trans-national park and allow for the reopening of traditional elephant migration routes. (365-66).

So, how about that Kruger, hey? Pretty cool, huh? How can you come to South Africa and not see it? So, I saw it—at least for a day!

When touring Pilanesberg Game Reserve I realized that while it was certainly thrilling to see the wild animals, a part of me died when I realized I wouldn’t be able to get out of the car, as predators reside in the parks and game areas and it isn’t very safe to have people alighting from their vehicles to be potential lunch for lions. So, Kruger has strict rules about staying (and keeping all body parts) inside cars—although you’d be amazed at the kids you see with their full upper torsos hanging out of car windows for better looks.

So, inside the car I stayed for most of the day and wild animals I did see. There are places in Kruger where you are allowed out of the car—at your own risk—and these included, for me, a picnic area and a bridge. There was a bridge spanning the Luvuvhu River where you could alight from your car for viewing/picture taking.

I saw large groups of animals together: impala, zebra, Chacma baboons, vervet monkeys, nyala, and kudu—and these were great fun to sit and watch within feet of my car!--but I had seen none of the “wow factor” animals (lions, buffalo, giraffes, etc.) until, well, until I needed to use the restroom.

After spending a magnificent day in the park I decided I should head back to Messina, but I needed to pee “one more time” so I headed back to the picnic area that I had visited earlier in the day. And boy, am I glad I did—because I was able to spot and watch a herd of elephants taking a dirt bath and then, much to my delight, they crossed the road right in front of my car! What a treat!

While I wouldn’t recommend visiting Kruger for only a day—the park deserves much more time than only a day!--I am glad I went and it is certainly a day I’ll never forget!



PS. The elephant shot is blurry because my hand was shaking! :-)

PSS. More pictures of my Kruger trip are on my Facebook page (You need not be a member of Facebook to view these photos):

A day alone with the trees

On my second day in Messina, I arranged for a rental car so that I could visit the baobabs and take all the time I needed to be with the trees, and that’s what I did: I spent all day walking among and sitting with these wise old trees.

It was a beautiful, gorgeous day, sunny and warm with the clouds darkening, at times, just enough to make a fine texture in the sky.

I would drive to “do not enter” side roads, park my rental car, and hike for hours and hours. I was thrilled to be out of the car and walking in Africa with giraffes, baboons, warthogs, and antelope. (The park is home for a great deal of African wildlife, but the listed animals are the ones I saw.) Since it is the dry season, the side roads and river beds were dry and sandy, which made for great viewing of animal tracks.

The park is not in the best of shape and is, in fact is severely neglected. (Hence the poor condition of the main road.) The park used to allow visitors to camp, and even has (had) a guest house and bush camp, but camping is no longer allowed and the facilities are no longer used and in disrepair. (The one building you see in my photos is of the guest house.) In fact, the park no longer charges admission into the park.

While I was saddened to find this treasure of a park so neglected, I was personally thrilled to find myself nearly alone in this African wonderland. Just me, the trees, the animals, and the African sky! What a day! (It was the favorite of my trip.)

I have many, many more photos of the glorious baobabs of the Messina Nature Reserve on my Facebook page and can be viewed at the following link, but be warned, there are a lot of them!! (You need not be a Facebook member to view these photos.):

I usually cull my photos and pull out only the best, but I can’t part with one single shot of these trees.

It was a beautiful, wonderful day and my favorite day, by far, in Africa!



PS. This is going to get me into loads of trouble with my worry-worts, but guess what else I found in the Nature Reserve?! A horned adder! Isn’t he magnificent? I’m not sure what was up with him, he was extremely lethargic, and in fact, I thought him dead. He may have been in a hibernating state, having not made it to a burrowing place? I don’t know. Here’s some more info on the horned adder from Lee Gutteridge’s, The South African Bushveld: A Field Guide from the Waterberg (Southbound: Johannesburg, 2008). (Rachelle, if you’re reading, this is your field guide—it is awesome and I refer to it all the time!):

Horned adder (Bitis caudalis)

This small adder rarely reaches 30 centimeters in length, but what it lacks in length it makes up for in aggression. This snake will not hesitate to strike or bite. The color varies greatly through the range of this species, with the Waterberg preference for reddish, blotched with a sandy-orange brown. The most prominent feature for confirming this species’ identity is the pair of erect, horn-like scales above the eyes. This species is not found throughout the entire range, but has a limited excursion into the northern and central reaches of the Waterberg, where it shows a preference for rocky hillsides. It eats by day and night, feeding mainly on lizards. It can use its dark-tipped tail as ‘bait’ by waving it, after burying part of its body and leaving the tantalizing tip of the tail exposed. If it bites onto a lizard it will try to hang on, unlike the Puff adder which lets go. It will also eat toads and small rodents. It gives birth to about ten young in late summer. The bit is painful, with swelling and necrosis. This is a dangerous snake, but no fatalities are known. (224)

I thought this a young snake originally, but after reading this, my snake was probably an adult (as he was about 30 centimeters long). I could not find on this snake (then or now) the dark-tip of the tail that it uses as “bait.”

I was thrilled to find him and wish I would have stared at him a bit longer.

Finally! The trees!

So why Messina?

In Messina is the Messina Nature Reserve (formerly the Baobab Nature Reserve), 37,000 hectares of nature reserve that was established in 1926 to save the baobab trees from paper companies. Since the establishment of the reserve, the trees have been declared national monuments. The nature reserve holds over 1,000 baobab trees and many are over 1,000 years old. The oldest baobab trees are believed to be 3,000 years old.

So why the baobab?

I love old trees. When I was a child, my family took a trip out west and the most remarkable encounter, for me, was seeing the ancient redwood trees in the Sequoia National Park.

A couple of years ago, Deanna and I were looking at a book on remarkable trees of the world and when the page feel open to the baobab, both of our jaws dropped and we both decided that we must see these trees!

So when I learned I was coming to Africa, I thought I would realize my dream of finding the ancient baobab trees!

When we landed in Dakar, I believe I saw one, but it was very small—probably a young tree. As we were not allowed to disembark from the plane (nor would we have been allowed to wander about on the landing field to get near a baobab tree!), I was not able to get close to it.

When we arrived in South Africa, I was dismayed to learn that I would be living and working in too cold an area for the baobabs to inhabit. With a bit of research, I discovered that baobabs do inhabit South Africa, but only in the far northern regions of South Africa, near the Zimbabwe border.

So really, why the baobab?
While I believe the baobab trees incredibly beautiful, it can be argued that they are not attractive at all. Some might even say they are ugly. I’ve heard variations of the story of their “creation”: one story states that the Devil ripped the trees from the earth and replanted them “upside down” in order to anger God; another version states that the gods planted the trees upside down as a joke. And as you can see, the crowns of the trees do in fact resemble more of what a root system would look like.

Well, actually, I’ve found a wonderful account of the baobab from A Let’s Go Travel Guide: South Africa: with Coverage of Southern Africa (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003). (Thanks Bonnie—a great book!):

The Mighty (Funny-Looking) Baobab

You could mistake its massive bulbous trunk and gnarled limbs for the fossilized remains of an unfortunate mammal, but this object firmly planted in the soil and reaching its many twisted arms toward the sky is living flora known as the baobab tree. Often called the monkey-bread tree or the cream of tartar tree, the baobab (Adansonia digitata) is native to tropical Africa and one of the biggest tree species in the world, not because of its height, (about 18m), but because of its width and breadth. It can grow up to 9m wide, and its branches often spread up to 9m beyond the trunk, which in itself is so vast that it is often hollowed out and used as a dwelling or water reservoir. The tree’s roots can extend outward for many miles. One local legend says that the baobab’s peculiar shape is the work of the devil, who plucked the tree from the earth, overturned it, and thrust its branches into the ground, leaving the roots to dangle in the air. Another story claims that spirits inhabit the trees flowers and that anyone who picks the flowers will be cursed and eaten by lions. French author Antoine de St. Exupery used the baobab as a symbol of European colonialism in Africa. In addition to providing food for the imagination, the baobab has practical uses. Oval yellow –green fruit contains stones covered in a white pulp. The pulp, rich in vitamins, is eaten, as well as made into cold drinks, fuel, soap, and medicine. Extract from the bark is sometimes used as a substitute for the anti-malarial quinine, and the wood is carved to make drinking vessels, canoes, and musical instruments. (345)

Since it is winter here in South Africa and the dry season, I did not find any baobabs in flower. I did, however, find some still holding leaves and some still holding fruit. I’ve read that the seeds of the fruit of the baobab are ground to make “cream of tartar” and that the seeds are ground up and given to children to cease their hiccups.

I’m not sure if all the cream of tartar in the world comes from baobab trees and I’m not sure if the baobab only lives in Africa—but am curious. Anyone?

My first day with the baobabs was with Jerry, my personal tour-guide, who was summoned by the woman at the car rental agency. I would ultimately rent a car and revisit the baobab park on my own, but Jerry and his car took me throughout the whole park—a feat I would be afraid to try again later on my own (the roads throughout were rough and difficult to pass much of the time).

The tour consisted of Jerry driving me about and originally I would leave the car to take pictures. As I’ve been strongly drawn to the trees I wasn’t terribly surprised by the “strange phenomena” that occurred minutes after my first touching of a baobab tree: a herd of at least 30 giraffe came stampeding by within 30 feet of me! I couldn’t believe it! (See the photo below, a photo only I can love as it is the only evidence of my giraffe stampede. If you look closely, you can see the outline of a baby giraffe running and probably only I can make out an adult or two in the background.)

After the stampede, I came back to the car and asked, “Should I be getting out of the car?” Jerry replied that he thought there were lions in the park, so from that point onward I did not leave the car. I later learned that no predators reside in the park and when I returned the next day, I spent all day out of the car.

It was a magical first day with my beloved trees, but even better days were to come.



My Messina trip: First train ride

I am almost 50 years old and have never ridden a passenger train—until now!

I rode a passenger train from Pretoria to the northern reaches of Limpopo in hopes of finding my beloved baobab trees. I found them!

I absolutely loved the trees and I absolutely loved my train ride.

The train ride was 14 hours long and most of the ride was during the night. However, I did get almost 4 hours of train ride in the daylight and it was at the best time: I was able to see our passage through the Soutpansberg Mountains, the most northerly mountain range of South Africa, and see our arrival into Messina. Messina is home to the Messina Nature Reserve—a nature reserve that is dedicated to preserving baobab trees.

Since the baobabs won’t live in the frost plain (very wise trees these are!), I had read that I wouldn’t see baobabs on the southern side of the mountain range but that I would see them on the northern side. When I realized that we were traveling through the Soutpansberg mountains, I was very excited.

True enough, as the train moved through the mountains, I saw my first baobabs on the other side! They were magnificent!

A brief aside: there is a group of us in Louisville that hike Bernheim Forest monthly. In December and January, the group usually hikes to the “eagle watch area” in hopes of spotting American bald eagles. On one hike, a large bird was spotted and I was asked, “Is that an eagle?” I responded, “No. When you see a bald eagle, you will know it is a bald eagle because they are very distinct in appearance and like no other bird.”

I can say the same thing about baobabs: when you see a baobab tree, you know it is a baobab tree, as they are very distinct in appearance and like no other tree.

The trees are coming in the next blog, but I wanted to share some photos of the train ride first. I believe train travel has become my favorite way to travel! Enjoy!

Very soon,

Saturday, June 12, 2010

My trip

The South African school calendar allows for month-long breaks during the months of June and December. We also get a couple weeks off around the time of Easter and then at the end of September. This school holiday corresponds with the World Cup soccer tournament and anyone remotely interested in the sport has traveled to South Africa to watch the games. Let me repeat: anyone IN THE WORLD remotely interested in the sport has traveled to South Africa to watch the games.

I think it may be close to the invasion Louisvillians experience when the Kentucky Derby rolls around; however, it may be even more intense because the World Cup location changes globally, much in the same way the location of the Olympics changes, and South Africa has been looking to 2010 for a very long time. (Kentuckians get the Derby every year.)

Anyone residing in South Africa would be foolish to try to travel during this very hectic time.

Guess who’s traveling?

Ha, ha, I am!

Most of my fellow volunteers have already scratched their travel bugs and have extensively toured South Africa, so many of my friends are very happy to sit this crazy travel season out. I, on the other hand, have not yet traveled and have decided to venture out.

Why now?

Well, there are several reasons: a) I have a bit of money to travel thanks to a generous federal tax return; b) I finally FEEL like traveling (I’ve here-to-now been struggling with trying to integrate into my community and become comfortable in rural South Africa ); and c) I’m still not convinced that I’ll finish my service, so if I decide to go home, I want to at least see my beloved baobab trees.

So that’s where I’m going: in search of my beloved baobab trees.

Most people come to Africa in search of animals, and specifically in search of the “big five”: lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard, and rhino Me, I come to Africa to see a baobab tree.

Baobabs inhabit most of continental Africa but do not survive in a frost plane. Guess where South Africa is? Yep, much of South Africa is too cold for the majestical trees to survive.

So, I’m heading north.

We’re never supposed to give our specifics regarding location, but I’m heading to a “dusty little town” very near the border of Zimbabwe. In this city, there is a nature reserve just for baobabs. And that’s where I’m headed.

Usually when I travel, I’m meticulous about my travel arrangements. I preplan every detail: travel, accommodations, check-in dates, excursions, etc. This time, I’m jumping way out of character and going loosey-goosey. I know what will happen when I reach the trees and I’m booked for several days there. However, what will happen when those days end I’m not sure.

I may, and am very likely to, spend the whole of my vacation time hanging out with the trees. If I tire of the giants, or at least get my “baobab fix,” I may try to rent a car and visit northern Kruger and the Venda region. If I can’t rent a car, I may travel south and so some hiking in the Soutpansberg Mountains. And also, it’s very likely that after a few days with my trees, I’ll return to site!

Again, it’s unlike me to be so “unprepared” for my trip but I’m not feeling the least uneasy about it. In fact, it’s kind of fun to have the month of June feeling like a potential adventure!

I’m heading to Pretoria on Monday, June 14, and will board a train north to reach my destination city. I’m told that the best way to train travel in South Africa is by tourist class and wouldn’t you know, my route doesn’t have a tourist class! So, I’ll be sitting for a day and a half (it’s a slow train!) in the economy “sitter” train and pray that I have a decent experience.

I’m already asked by family and friends if I will have internet access. Well, I never, ever really know, but whenever I’ve traveled (to the trainings), I have always had Internet access.

But here’s where I’ll say it for my worriers: You MAY NOT HEAR FROM ME FOR AWHILE. You may not hear from me until the end of June. This includes phone, snail-mail, email, Facebook, and blog. Please don’t worry, just trust I’m finally, FINALLY having the time of my life in South Africa.

And be prepared to see lots and lots of photos of my beloved baobab trees!

Soon, or maybe not,


PS. Happy World Cup to all you soccer fans!

PSS. The photos of the baobabs are not mine; they are “mined” from the Internet.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Violence in South Africa

After spending three months in Alaska in 2006, I became aware of how emotionally taxing it is when you live in the threat of constant danger.

I lived and worked in Alaska’s Chugach State Park and before my arrival, I had asked my supervisor-to-be: “Will I see a bear?” And she replied, “Oh yes! You will have a bear encounter.”

I thought she was kidding, but I did indeed have a bear encounter. In fact, I had several bear encounters.

I was lucky enough during my time in Alaska to find myself hiking—a lot. While hiking in Alaska, you must be vigilant—always—against startling wildlife generally and bears specifically.

I made lots of noise while hiking and remained safe from bears during my time in Alaska, but I realized that it takes a huge amount of emotional energy to be on such high alert at all times. I remember thinking, on my return to the “lower 48,” that Louisville has its own version of bears: criminals walking the streets and that I was ready to return home and to deal with my more familiar version of “bear” back home.

When I mentioned to friends and family that I was invited to serve Peace Corps in South Africa, the news was, for the most part, welcome and everyone was very excited for me.

There were, however, a couple of things that gave me pause about my decision to serve in South Africa. Looking back now, and in hindsight (always 20/20), I wish I had paused a bit longer, researched more thoroughly, and thought more carefully.

As I gathered information informally, I was told that most South Africans “secure” their property and yards with some type of fencing. I remember wondering why.

I’ve since learned that fencing is indeed the standard “landscaping” in South Africa, and type of fencing seems in-line with the property owner’s income level: on the lower-income end, people with fence with razor wire; on the higher-income end, people will use electrical fencing. But all fence, regardless of income.

When we first arrived in South Africa, the group was accommodated on a college campus and I couldn’t help but notice that the campus was gated and had security guards posted around the clock for every day of the week.

On one of my strolls about campus, I came upon a vegetable garden. I was thrilled, as you can imagine, to find a vegetable garden, but I noticed right away that it was fenced, at least 15-feet high, with razor wire. I was puzzled at such a fence and wondered, “Does it take razor wire to keep the animals out?”

Since the end of Apartheid—1994—South Africans have lived in fear of violence, and with just cause. The discrepancy between the “haves” and “have nots” is huge. We see the well-to-do people in the villages living right next door to a tin shack housing orphans. We see this over and over again.

And the mentality of the criminals has been explained to me in these terms: People from poverty see the “haves” as those who can “lose, but simply get more.” So the crime rate: theft, robbery, breaking/entering, etc. is astronomical.

I hadn’t realized how severe the problem was for South Africans until I read a piece on William Kentridge in the January 18, 2010 edition of the New Yorker. In it, Kentridge speaks to how South Africans have felt living in post-apartheid South Africa:

“In many parts of the country, it hasn’t changed at all. Children in poor rural schools still get a miserable education. It’s also true that the main beneficiaries since the ending of apartheid are white South Africans. No one’s lost their beautiful house. There’s lots of violence around, but you had that before—now you have more of it. That’s the price of extreme inequality. . . In South Africa, there is never an assumption that a calm and gentle death is one’s birthright. September 11th in America had an interesting effect here. It helped lots of us understand that living in a dangerous, unstable world was not only a South African phenomenon, and that made people here less anxious to leave.” (Profiles: Lines of Resistance: William Kentridges Rough Magic 59).

As Peace Corps volunteers, we’re warned to be careful in travel, especially when traveling to our nearest shopping towns. In the taxi ranks, it is often very clear that I’m the only American in a huge crowd.

Just as I was on the alert when hiking in bear country of Alaska, I’m on just as heightened alert when negotiating my way around my shopping town. All of the adrenaline is very taxing on me and I’m exhausted by the time I return home.

There is a good-natured type of banter I encounter when boarding a taxi for my return to my village. It involves the “money collector” bantering with me in Setswana with the whole purpose of whether or not I can pass the “language test” or not. If I’m calm, reserved, and not alarmed, I can hold my own and my Setswana seems to satisfy (and often even please) the money collector and the whole “audience” of everyone on the taxi.

If I’ve been negotiating my way through the taxi rank and feel threatened, my system is flooded with adrenaline and I can’t think straight and can’t seem to locate the Setswana-speaking area in my brain. On these occasions, of course I fail my test and performance altogether.

And it’s on these occasions that I think about that missed chance to “pause” and returning to my own “bears” at home.



image of the bear:

Kuruman: better late than never?

On Mother’s Day weekend, I traveled to a nearby town to meet with other Peace Corps volunteers to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. I’ve already told you my sad story of my trip ending up being a very expensive taxi sit, but I want to share some photos of my friends and the lovely town of Kuruman. Better late than never, I hope.

Kuruman sits in the middle of the Kalahari Desert and the town’s name, Kuruman, literally means, “oasis in the desert.” The town is named this because it has a natural spring that feeds the town its water—even to this day. According to the 6th edition of Lonely Planet’s South Africa: Lesotho and Swaziland, the “spring produces 18 to 20 million liters of water per day, every day” (499). This body of water is called, “the Eye of Kuruman.” In the photo, it looks like a lake or pond.

I’ve read in a South African hiking book that there is a nice hiking trail that begins at the Eye, but no one is able to confirm this for me.

My friends Jonelle and Marcia took me to see it, but because I arrived so late, it was closed. I took pictures anyway!

The nice building behind the fence is the Kuruman Visitor’s Center, which unfortunately, is only open during the week! (I learned the hard way that the best time to visit Kuruman is during the week as traffic doesn’t flow well in and out of Kuruman on weekends!)

In the photos, that’s me with Jonelle and in another is Marcia and Jonelle. Marcia is the dear that cuts my hair every time I ask her.

Jonelle and Marcia were staying in a lovely guest house called the Kuru-Kuru. The owners of the establishment were more than charming and accommodating. Actually, these very same people hosted a lovely, lovely Thanksgiving dinner for several Peace Corps volunteers last year. I couldn’t go because it was during “community integration.” Peace Corps volunteers call “community integration” something else—“lock down.” :-)

As the hosts of the Kuru-Kuru are South African, they did a bit of research on the internet to make our very American holiday special. Jonelle tears up to this day recalling the turkeys, the dressing, the cranberries, and even a green bean casserole! The Kuru-Kuru hosts even provided an autumn-like ambiance with hay-bales, a scarecrow, and autumn “leaves” decorating a table.

It really is a lovely guest house and the hosts are absolutely wonderful. If you’re ever in Kuruman, I highly recommend a stay.

Although I only had a very brief visit, it was a very nice time, and I hope to return at some point when I can stay longer or perhaps not sit on a taxi for two days!



PS. Although I went for the Cinco de Mayo party, I only stayed a few minutes, and only snapped one photo of the party! There were lots of us there and I wish I had taken more photos!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

“Urgency won’t help you here.”

When I first arrived in South Africa, I was fortunate to meet and spend some time with the previous Peace Corps volunteer who was working at my site. I was coming in, she was going out, and I was lucky enough to have her “show me the ropes” of my new community.

I spent almost a week with her and the college, and when it was time to return to our pre-service training site, the college arranged to take me to the taxi rank so I could meet and ride with other PC volunteers back to Pretoria.

I was told my ride would be ready by 9:00 the next morning to get me to the taxi rank by 9:30, where I could meet up with my friends. I knew my time would be pinched, because by my estimates, the ride to the taxi rank was more in line with 40 minutes, not 30. So, the night before my departure, I was worried about arriving late.

The next morning, at 9:05, I was on the porch, tapping my foot, and pacing a bit. At 9:10, I headed for the administration building to inquire about my ride. At 9:20, I’m in a near panic because everyone I’m asking is shrugging and acting like they don’t know what I’m talking about.

At this point, my predecessor comes to my aid and says to me, “Urgency won’t help you here.”

I think of her often and hear these wise words whenever I find myself “feeling urgency” about anything in South Africa.

(And I’ve never, ever again counted on the college to take me anywhere.)

In February of this year, I was still living in the girls’ dormitory, and I noticed raw sewage bubbling up out of the ground. The raw sewage was coming out of a drain pipe directly below my bathroom window. Now, raw sewage is something I feel urgent about. So, I closed my bathroom window and did a quick internet search of “the dangers of raw sewage.”

I wasn’t crazy about the situation and wasn’t terribly worried about my safety, but called my medical officer and made a report with the college administrators nonetheless. While I was about 20 feet away from the sewage, I worried about the students walking by it in their comings and goings—walking directly by it. If it rained, they were walking IN IT. This was in February.

As the days went by, and then the days turned into weeks, I inquired again about the raw sewage and when we could expect repairs. The response to my inquiry was, “Oh, is that pipe still leaking?”

STILL LEAKING? How could you not know that the sewage was still bubbling up out of the ground? Do you have EYES in your head? The leak is in a major throughway—and by a parking lot. I was assured the matter would be attended to.

I kept my windows closed, watched for the flies that my medical officer said would indicate a more serious problem, and warned students to keep away from it.

And then it would rain. And rain some more. Ick!

Well, I’m sorry to say that the college never did find the situation urgent and was shocked to find that when the college hosted a local competition for primary school children in MAY, the college simply plopped a piece of tin over the mess and set up tables for vendors to sell food.

Let me repeat: they simply plopped a flimsy piece of metal over the raw sewage and women set up tables to sell food—to sell food to CHILDREN.

Again, my predecessor’s words in my head, “Urgency won’t help you here.” Apparently, urgency won’t help South Africans either.