Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Film Review: Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility

''Movie poster courtesy Columbia Pictures”

Another indulgence…

Hello all, I’m practicing my skills at reviewing films… Will you be my practice audience?

If my choice of films seems odd, keep in mind that I’m reviewing what I have on hand, what I’ve borrowed from other Peace Corps volunteers, and what family and friends have sent me from the States. In other words, I’ve not chosen the films I’d like to review, but am going with what I have at my disposal. So, in this way, this will be good practice: I imagine film reviewers seldom get a choice in their film selections for writing assignments.

Sense and Sensibility is a film released in 1995 starring Emma Thompson, a very young Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, and Alan Rickman. The film is directed by Ang Lee and Emma Thompson wrote, and won an Academy Award, for the screenplay.

I love Ang Lee as a film director. He is an absolutely amazing filmmaker and he won my heart forever with his Brokeback Mountain. As a director, he simply adores landscapes and captures scenery in a way that engorges his films with breathtaking beauty. And as Sense and Sensibility is a period piece based on the Jane Austen novel of the same name, the setting is early nineteenth century England full its dramatic aristocratic residences, dramatic aristocratic gardens, and dramatic aristocratic ladies and gentlemen in their period costumes riding around in lovely horse-drawn carriages. The film was shot in some of the most historic manors in all of England, including Saltram House, Compton Castle, and Trafalgar House.

The story follows a family of women who have recently lost their husband/father and his fortune, which then by law falls to the distant son. As a standard of the times, the women’s lives revolve around pursuing a marriage in the prosperous ranks and all of the worry and disappointments that go along with such a pursuit. Lee’s drama follows Elinor Dashwood, played by Emma Thompson, and Marianne Dashwood, played by Kate Winslet, in their pursuits of love and marriage. The sisters represent the “sense” and “sensibilities” of such endeavors: Elinor is the sensible one while Marianne is caught up in passion. Austen’s novel, as does the film, critiques the inequalities of women’s rights at the time: women weren’t allowed to even earn an income.

For modern day audiences, both now and when the film was originally released in 1995, a period drama showcasing the early nineteenth century lifestyles of English aristocracy, revolving around manners, etiquette, and culture of a time and place we have no relation to, is quite a stretch. In short, Americans are used to, and demand, quick paced stories set in current times with high-action and added special effects. Can one endure two hours of characters bowing politely with lowered eyes before resuming their needle point?

The answer is a resounding yes, but only with Thomson’s top-notch writing and Lee’s superb directing. Although Thompson herself plays the part of Elinor Dashwood, it is said Thompson wrote the screenplay with a much younger actress in mind—she had intended for Vanessa Redgrave’s’ daughters Natasha and Joely Richardson to play the parts of the sisters—and balked when Lee suggested Thompson play the character of Elinor, on the basis that she, Thompson, was too old. However, Lee insisted and Thompson was cast, of course, and the rest is history. Of course, Emma Thompson, the stellar actress that she is, does a wonderful turn with Elinor. However, I could not help but wish for the casting to have matched Rickman and Thompson as lovers and Grant and Winslet as a pair instead of the reverse. Of course, my casting would have proven untrue to Austen’s novel but in Ang Lee’s film, the love interests seemed inauthentic and I feel would have played better with the switch. Good thing I’m not Ang Lee, eh?

Greg Wise plays a wonderfully dashing scoundrel in John Willoughby that all but ruins Marianne, and it’s great fun to see performances of the supporting cast including Tom Wilkinson (too-brief an appearance!), Hugh Laurie, and Jemma Jones. Harriet Walter, as Fanny Ferrars Dashwood, and Elizabeth Spriggs, as Mrs. Jennings, are both a hoot!

The movie is lush valentine to nineteenth century England in landscapes, interiors, and manners and the acting is superb. Do yourself a turn and seek out Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibilities and be sure to watch out for the “period” sheep!

See you in Aug/Sept,

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Contraception everywhere!

I’ve never been surrounded by so much contraception in my life! I have over 800 male condoms, just under 100 female condoms, and birth control pills in my house! Why so much birth control for one, nearly-fifty year old woman who is not sexually active with others?

I walk by my garbage can and there are open, discarded condoms in my trash. The birth control pills? I’m taking them.

When I learned I was coming to live and work with South Africa in the United States Peace Corps, I knew two things about South Africa: a) that South Africa was the home of one of the greatest leaders in the history of the world, Nelson Mandela; and b) that South Africa’s people were dying in droves of HIV/AIDS.

As an education volunteer, I knew I would be coming to South Africa with a primary assignment to teach English. As with all developing nations, everyone wants to learn English, the global language, the language one “must know” if one wants to succeed in the business world. I couldn’t help but think to myself, “What’s the use of learning English if you’re only going to die from HIV/AIDS?”

Well, the good news is that as a Peace Corps volunteer, you can teach English and involve yourself with HIV/AIDS projects. This is what I’ve tried to do.

I originally hoped to have a “film club” project at the college with three goals: teach film studies (or at least promote interest in film), provide a safe recreational past-time for the college kids (I was hoping for a weekend “movie night,” on campus, for Friday and Saturday nights), AND to sneak in HIV/AIDS education (I hoped to scheme a plan to provide “free movie admission” for anyone interested in attending an HIV/AIDS discussion—come to my AIDS talk, see a movie for free!). So, I skipped off to the local health clinic and carried home 800 male condoms and 100 female condoms and applied for a grant for the movie equipment.

Well, it’s a year and a half later, the condoms are still in my house and I’ve resorted to using them for DVD repair. (Hence, the open, somewhat-used, discarded male condoms in my trash can: the lubricant from the condoms supposedly repairs scratches on DVDs.)

I had asked for the female condoms because I hoped to have separate HIV/AIDS talks for guys and gals. The burden of practicing safe-sex in South Africa (well, really, in probably every part of the world) lies with the woman. Due to cultural demands on female and male gender roles, the males hold the power and very much dislike using condoms, and it can become a power play if a female requests the use of a condom. I had hoped to have small, informal group discussion with the college girls to help them understand that female condoms are available and to help them understand how to use them. (A first for me: I inserted my first female condom in South Africa; I thought I’d better be ready to answer any question!) When I asked for the female condoms from the clinic, the nurse was very reluctant to give them to me because of the expense: she fussed, “I’d better not see any of these girls wearing the rings as bracelets!” (The female condom has two flexible rings to hold the condoms in place, and yes, the rings are flexible and large enough for the girls to wear as bracelets. ) I promised I would not distribute the condoms without educating first.

So, there in my room lies a box of nearly 100 female condoms.

So why do I still have them?

Cultural attitudes, that’s why. There is very much a parental disapproval of the dispersal of condoms on college campuses because they feel the college is promoting sexual behavior among the students. Not only is it the parents that feel this way, but it’s also the college educators that feel this way. There is some truth to this, that sexual behavior is likely to increase. However, I feel that kids will have sex anyway so why not give them the means to protect themselves? Mine is, of course, an American attitude and American attitudes often aren’t well received in rural South Africa.

The condoms are currently provided by the college but the kids have to ask for them from their Student Support Officer. Furthermore, the South African government has made condoms available to all South African citizens through the nation’s health clinics. When I talk to the kids about this, they say when they go to the clinic, or even the Student Support Officer, they feel the health care workers shame the kids about having sex, something along the lines of “You’re too young, you shouldn’t be having sex,” etc., so the kids avoid going to the clinic for free condoms.

Well, yeah! Come on people! College-age kids are nothing but walking hormone-producing, nothing-but-sex-wanting machines! And it’s killing them and it’s killing the future generations of South Africans because they’re having unprotected sex!

I have tried to sneak condoms into the dormitories and public restrooms on the campus, only to find whole packages with 12 or more condoms inside, thrown on the ground, in a defiant, “No one’s telling me to use condoms!” There is dreadful misinformation and rumors about condom use and the spread of AIDS in rural South Africa: one such devastating rumor is that the condom is intentionally infected with the HIV virus and therefore to use a condom is spreading HIV. By the way, it is biologically impossible for the HIV virus to remain alive in the prepackaged condom-environment.

Also, I detect an attitude of disdain at one more white, talking head telling black South Africans what they should do about HIV/AIDS. When I told them about meeting a man that was living with HIV for over thirty years, the kids countered, “Well, yeah, that’s because he’s white.” Their argument: white people have all the advantages. And, well, yeah, he is white.

So, I’d all but given up on the film club, but this is still a teeny, eeny, weeney chance it may still pull through. We’ll see. I’m running out of time… And quickly running out of time…

Oh, the birth control pills? I’m taking them. Eish! At nearly 50 years old, my body has decided to throw the hormones out of whack and the pills are to help it, my body, get back on track. (Sorry guys, I know you don’t like hearing about it—try living with it.)

So, here’s a girl that is all dressed up with nowhere to go!

See you in Aug/Sept,

PS. Condom payload update: I had approached my campus manager about his supporting condom distribution in the dormitories and public restrooms, so he knew of my significant “stash.” He called me this morning, to ask if I might carry the boxes of condoms to the Student Support Officer’s Office. Apparently, our campus, in its upcoming audit, will earn a “nonconformance” for not having any condoms on hand for the students. My contribution of condoms to the college now, although they may never be used by the college kids as intended, and therefore may never be used for STD/early-pregnancy prevention, has saved the college from a “non-conformance” on its audit. Eish! All form, no function!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Beginning goodbyes…

My African spinach (amaranth) going to seed.

For many days during my Peace Corps South Africa experience, I wondered whether or not I would be able to remain in Africa and complete my Peace Corps service. This African world is very different from mine and I’ve had a hard, hard time adjusting. If a volunteer chooses to end their service early, before the 27 month time commitment is finished, the official term for the volunteer’s Peace Corps status is “Early Termination.” There have been times in my two years in South Africa that I’ve contemplated “early terminating.” When I would think thoughts of going home early however, I realized that if I did terminate my service early, that I would need at least six months to tell everybody goodbye, so I might as well stay. I would need at least six months to disassemble my house and distribute it to community members and I would need at least six months to mentally, emotionally, and spiritually prepare myself for the return home.

Obviously, as I’m still here in South Africa, I haven’t terminated my service early. As you may not know, I’m now within my six-month window of officially returning home. Official in that my service contract with Peace Corps officially ends September 16, 2011. So, I have six months to tell South Africa goodbye.

I am saying goodbye to my last summer and last rainy season in South Africa. The rain has transformed our little college campus into a vibrant, bustling wetland: dragonflies buzz by my open windows; the South African weed, blackjack, is taller than I; my equally tall amaranth is turning to seed; the black-headed heron is perched on a telephone pole outside my doorway each morning, surveying his domain; the grass is growing so tall and so quickly, the job of cutting it has overwhelmed the regular campus yardmen and the task has been contracted out. The blooms of the wild zinnia are fading and a lovely, lovely weed that smells like marigolds--is in bloom. I never did learn what this weed is, but I love it and I and delight in it. This will be the last time I see it. The field beside my house still bustles with butterflies pollinating the late season African weeds and the moths with the big eyes on their backs swarm into my house each night, attracted by my reading light.

My last African garden is fading and I’ve harvested the last of my tomatoes, okra, and wild spinach. There are watermelons yet to be harvested, however--they’ve come from volunteer seed that very much enjoyed my trenched bed. I hope I enjoy the watermelons as much! They’ll have to ripen before the killing frost, which will probably come mid-April. I’m not sure there is enough time for them to ripen.

I’m trying my best to sit with each one South Africa’s dramatic sunsets and hope to not miss a single one. Of all the things I’ll miss most of South Africa, I believe it is the South African sky that I’ll long for. There are very few days that pass in South Africa where the sky, in and of itself, isn’t completely engrossing in its dramatic beauty. I’ve spent many a late afternoon/early evening just sitting and staring at it. I’ll also miss the spray of the Milky Way that I can see outside my windows at night—so many stars! It is so, so beautiful and reminds me of the magnificence of the universe. I hope to spend time with each remaining full moon in Africa before I come home as well. The swell of the full moon in Africa makes my heart ache. And I will be careful to rise with each African dawn.

The heat of the South African summer has almost ceased for this season. So I’m saying goodbye to the hot African heat! Many would think it unbearable, but it was not for me. However, I love the hot, humid, sticky heat of the Ohio River Valley as well! At times, it would be very, very hot, but I wouldn’t notice until I picked up my phone and wondered why it was hot to the touch; or turn on the tap water, and wonder why the water was hot. I would, however, notice the heat of the African sun in late afternoon, when it would become so hot I would flee my caravan home in fear of baking myself alive. In these last few days, I’ve noticed in late afternoon, “The fan is not on and it’s 5:00 pm, what is wrong with this picture?” I know that summer is fading and I need to tell it goodbye.

For both of my summers in South Africa, I’ve had the pleasure of befriending a spider. For my first summer in Africa, I befriended an amazingly dramatic garden spider, situated up nicely in a thick bush of lavender. She was green and yellow like our yellow/black garden spiders, but her body had jagged edges instead of a smooth, oblong shape. I would visit her each day and delighted in her and in her web “spring.” She looked ferocious, but I knew that was a part of her strategy to deter predators. Although she would certainly harm a fly, she wouldn’t at all harm a person—other than with fright! I remember feeling sad at the end of that first summer, when she expired, as all spiders do. And I missed my evening strolls to check on her. Similarly, I had a spider friend this summer, a different kind of spider, who spun her web outside my living room window. I would spend my evenings watching her repair her web. I don’t know what kind of spider she was, but she was brown and chunky with red markings on her belly. She would disappear during the day, and just as night began to fall, and without fail, she would drop down and begin her evening of acrobatics backlit by the dramatic African sunset. I enjoyed her company very much. One day this week, she was out earlier than usual and hanging in her web in an unspiderly fashion. “Uh, oh,” I thought. Yep, her time had come too. I still pull my chair to the window each evening to watch the sunset, but I feel lonely without her.

Bad shot of me--nothing but nostrils--ok shot of Ounaai, but you can tell she's afraid of the camera. 
This was our last day together.

I had to say goodbye to another of my companions this week: I let go of my little girl dog, Ounaai.

My aunt has had dogs in her life, but when she lost her last one, over 10 years ago, she said, “No more.” When asked why, she replies, “Because it hurts too much to lose them.”

When I first read Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, I was horrified at learning she wanted to shoot her African horses and dogs before she returned to Denmark. I remember thinking to myself, “What a cold and heartless woman.” However, I did not understand Ms. Dinesen’s motive; I did not understand it at all. I believe I’ve come to understand her motive now: She didn’t want to leave her beloved animals behind to suffer neglect, cruelty, starvation, or mistreatment. She would rather have shot them then worry of their suffering.

Ounaai became very dear to me very quickly and it was painful to let her go, but I knew I had to find her a home before I left Africa. Yes, I could have brought her home with me to the USA, but such a choice is simply not practical.

Ounaai has gone to live with a friend who owns a farm about an hour from where I live. His yard is fenced (so she’ll be safe) and the house is home for my friend and his mother, and they have a dog and two cats. Ounaai knows and loves this friend—he feeds her grilled meat!—so she’s not gone off to strangers.

The day before she would be leaving, I spent as much time with her as I could and took care to play with her lots and love her up well before she left. She, of course, did not know she would be leaving, so was completely unaware of the cause of my extra attentions. I don’t think she noticed my breaking heart either. I realized I had no photos of her and I together, so I tried to take one. Ounaai is very, very afraid of the camera and hates it very much, so I only took one shot instead of tormenting her on our last day together. Sorry, the photo is terrible of me—nothing but nostrils—but somewhat good of her.

The next morning, her new owner drove up and she was very happy to see him. I walked her to the car, picked her up, gave her a few extra smooches, and placed her in the car, and she was off! She was a very good dog for me, and I hated to see her go, but I knew it best.

I was unprepared for the hurt I would have at her loss. I hadn’t realized what a sentimental old goose I am, to have become so attached to this little dog. I guess there is a lot to be said for a creature who provides consistent love and affection to another creature who lives in a world she feels unwanted and unloved in.

I moped and cried for days feeling overwhelmingly blue. Fella, a neighbor’s dog, who has kept me company in Ounaai’s absence, even brought me a gift hoping to help cheer me (I’ll spare you of telling what the “gift” was.”) He was missing her too.

I miss her very much and still find myself looking for her, more than a week later.

I want to thank my parents, publicly, for helping pay to have her “cleaned up,” especially for helping me have her spayed. Although I hate the lost expense—and her spay was very expensive--I don’t believe my friend (or anyone else) would have wanted her if she weren’t. So thanks Nan and Pap, for helping me get my puppy a good home. She was a very good companion for me and had a lot to do with my finding happiness in Africa. Memories of her will be favorites from my Peace Corps experience.

So I’m saying goodbye to my last African summer, saying goodbye to my last African rainy season, and saying goodbye to a few of my important, South African friends. I have another South African winter to get through—Brrr!—but it will too be a last for me, so I don’t want to miss a moment!

See you in Aug/Sept,

A decent shot of Ounaai: she's unaware of the camera. 
You get a sense of what a happy dog she is.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

James Cameron's Avatar

Ok, ok, I’ve only now seen James Cameron’s 2009 film, Avatar. Give me a break—I’m living and working in rural South Africa!

The short of it—I loved it!

Ok, ok, I know James Cameron’s films can be hokey and predictable. I know there is something obscene about supporting the work of a man that produces films that earn $760 million; I know he can be a bit clumsy in portraying delicate themes--like, spirituality; and I know we have to endure yet one more scene with a busty, gutsy woman in a white tank top, but you’ve got to admit: if you want a visually-stunning, sensory feast, then Cameron, more often than not, delivers!

Avatar is another telling of the Pocahontas/John Smith story, whereby an outsider comes into an indigenous culture and brings along a whole slew of incoming imperialists to harvest all the available riches and throw the indigenous ways of life into ruin. In this case, the imperialist is the overinflated, non-stoppable machinery of American capitalism and greed—and of course, the bad guys are coming into Paradise to ruin everything.

Cameron’s computer generated film is gorgeous. Cameron has always worked on the cutting edge of developing cinematic technology and it is said Cameron waited a few years for the technology to advance well enough to reach the vision he demanded for Avatar. He spent a lot of time under the sea filming other projects, mostly documentaries inspired by his oceanic filming of Titanic. The influence of Cameron’s long time spent under water is beautifully reflected in the landscapes and movement in Avatar: everything is vibrant in color, and even though Pandora is depicted as a lush rainforest, the flora is reminiscent of coral in its vibrancy and all movement in the film, from the humanoids to the seeds of trees, flows through the air as it would flowing under water.

The actors for this film are new to me: Sam Worthington plays the male protagonist and Zoe Saldana plays the female protagonist. While the film is computer generated, Cameron used sensory data (from electrodes attached to the actors’ faces) to portray emotion and gestures. By Cameron’s account, the film is 60% computer generated and 40% live action. Cameron’s heroines ultimately defeat the bad guy in all of his films, but Cameron’s female characters endure bone-crunching brutality in their quests. I wasn’t sure if Worthington would be able to carry off the task of becoming our hero, but handled the responsibility of a star turn quite well. I was impressed Saldana immediately. By the end of the film, I was online to see where else I could find these actors. Stephen Lang, of course, makes a great, Cameron-film bad-guy and it was fun to see some of the power-house, human-movement-generated robot concepts from the Aliens movies of twenty years ago.

Although it is evident why Cameron cast Sigourney Weaver in Avatar—she was showcased and ultimately a breakout actress in Cameron’s Aliens film in 1986--, Weaver seemed uncharacteristically vacant and detached from the role of the saucy and bold Dr. Grace Augustine. Even Weaver’s avatar wasn’t convincing: Weaver’s avatar seemed a young, hip, twenty-year old to Weaver’s sixty year old Grace Augustine.

The highlight of the film for me, is Cameron’s film embracing and celebrating the Gaia Theory, which views the Earth as a planet as a living organism in and of itself. I love this theory and often think of Mother Earth giving us her best doggie shake to knock all of these destructive human fleas (us!) off of her at any time now. By using the Gaia Theory as the central theme for the film, Cameron easily incorporates Native American Indian spirituality that celebrates earth and nature as “all of creation” and reinforces what all good naturalists everywhere know: all things on Earth are connected!


PS. I hope you don’t mind the aside… It’s an indulgence. I’ve often wanted to review a film and now I have!

PSS. I’m posting a photo of me and a Mother Bear Project bear “dressed” in military camouflage. (The bear is not for me—it will go to a child—but I thought it darling… I LOVE camouflage. I wish I had brought my camouflage pants to Africa!) Other than avoiding Cameron suing me for copyright infringement (for using images that promote his film), can anyone tell my why else I might choose this bear in posting about Cameron’s film?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Come on! Let’s run errands in my shopping town!

I'm showing you pictures of rainbows that have been gracing my sky the last couple of nights. Believe me; you don't want to see photos of my shopping town. Imagine the shopping areas of Preston Highway or Dixie Highway... Yep, that's what my shopping town looks like—U-G-L-Y!

I normally loathe going to my shopping town. Just the thought of the taxi rides coming and going can keep me home-bound longer and eating rice and lentils much longer than necessary. This isn’t so much a South African thing (although the taxi rides don’t help!) as a Karen thing: I’m known to procrastinate and put off shopping trips and errand running in the States too.

I do whine long and loudly about the need to visit Vryburg, my shopping town, when necessities run low. Which is why I was so surprised that, for the first time since arriving in Africa, I actually enjoyed a visit to my shopping town!

• I use my mental crow-bar to pry myself from my home and head for the taxi to town. I have my shopping bags, sunhat, sunglasses, and umbrella at hand. The sun is shining; it will be fine.

• My ride on the taxi can take 40 minutes to an hour, depending on how full the taxi is and how long we have to wait for other riders. I’m lucky: I rarely wait more than 20 minutes for a taxi to fill and head to town. As my taxi heads north to Vryburg, four adult men engage in a spirited conversation about I-don’t-know-what (the conversation is in Setswana) but I’m more than a bit troubled by the fact that the phrase “protective order” keeps repeating throughout the conversation, for the whole of the 40 minute ride, and is met with rousing jocularity and hilarity. (I worry that these adult males think it’s funny that a woman has taken out a legal protective order against one of these men because of battering and that they think it hilarious.)

• I ask to be dropped a the “cemetery,” which is a bit out of the ordinary (for a white, American woman to be asking to be dropped at a very, very large, black South African cemetery) and a quiet falls over the taxi as I climb out of it. I’m not going to the cemetery; I’m going to the State Veterinarian’s Office that is on the same road as the cemetery. (If you’re curious as to why I was going to the vet’s office, see my blog:

• After an entertaining visit with the veterinarian, (he coached me as how to better administer a vaccine and we chatted about a dog’s recovery from the bite of a puff adder!!), I’m walking down the dirt road to the main road and notice a bird of prey perched on a telephone wire. Wait! It’s not just one bird of prey, there’s another… And another… And another! Oh my goodness! There are like 50 of these birds of prey right here! Sure enough, there were many, many southern pale chanting goshawks (Melierax canorus) in the area! What a treat! This is the first bird of prey I noticed when coming to live in South Africa and I delighted watching him “hovering about” over a field in search of prey. They’ll scope, fly to a spot, then hover—much in the same way a hummingbird will, but a goshawk is much, much larger than a hummingbird--and pounce if prey is available or fly to another area if it is not, to hover again. Before this day, I had only seen solitary goshawks. It was a treat to find a field full of them and I stared at them for quite awhile. Then I headed toward the main road and the “sketchy” part of my walk.

• The cemetery and the vet’s office lie just outside of Vryburg and there is a 10-minute stretch I walk by the busy highway. I have the word “sketchy” in quotation marks, because this portion of my walk isn’t sketchy at all: it’s along a major highway full of cars moving in both directions at any hour of the day. As is always the case, a white South African will pull over and offer me a ride because they fear for my safety. If I accept a ride (which I rarely do—it’s only a 10 minute walk), they admonish me severely for walking here. “It is dangerous!” or “It is unsafe!” they tell me over and over again for all of the three minutes I will be in the car with them. “Yes,” I reply, “This is what people tell me.” (White South Africans have told me for two years now how unsafe it is for me to be living with black South Africans and they are just shocked—shocked--that we do so.) Whatever.

• I finish the sketchy, busy portion of my walk and head into the suburbs. I notice a tractor-trailer pulled up beside a grocery store and I can’t keep my eyes off of the cab of it. In the passenger’s side sits an abnormally-large, (not fat or too tall, just LARGE) woman with blonde hair that is smiling like she’s starring in a Broadway musical. She’s dressed like she’s starring in a Broadway musical too: I can see a low-cut, strappy blouse above that million dollar smile. Why in the world is she smiling? I’m mesmerized with the spectacle of this woman. Ha, ha! The joke is on me! It’s a cardboard cutout of a dazzling woman that the truck driver has in his truck to wow his friends. I almost double over from laughing so hard. This is the funniest thing I’ve seen anywhere, not just in South Africa!

• I go to the pharmacist to pick up my first of a three month prescription of birth control pills. Yes, birth control pills. I’m a bit irritated because I’m supposed to take them for three months and Peace Corps will only pay for a month at a time. Are you kidding me? A) I do not want to be taking birth control pills in the first place (my body needs a hormonal “adjustment” and B) I really, really, really don’t want to have to come back for two more times for these pills I don’t want to take. (But I’m being silly, really. I will have to come back to Vryburg for shopping trips and to make another stop in my errand day is really no trouble. But I feel irritated nonetheless.) However, on leaving the drugstore, I burst out laughing at the idea of my taking birth control pills. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve needed any of these!

• I make a visit to the editor/publisher of the Vryburg newspaper, the Stellalander, because they’ve just discovered that I dropped and left my winter hat in their house when I visited last winter. I’m happy to go because I will need this hat in a few weeks, as African winter is headed my way and because these people are happy to see me. I hadn’t realized how much my soul longs for company and companionship of those that seem delighted in me. I miss people delighting in me. So it felt good to exchange pleasantries with these wonderfully kind people who had no idea how kindness-starved I am.

• I leave the office of the Stellalander to go see another woman who delights in seeing me, the librarian at the Vryburg library. Wow, perhaps I should come to Vryburg more often… People actually like me in Vryburg. Elna, the librarian, often sends me inspirational text messages. Here is her latest: “Your dreams will not die, your plans will not fail, your destiny won’t be aborted, desire of your heart will be granted by God, may your life be clean, calm, and clear, like the early morning water. May the grace of the Almighty support, sustain, and supply all your needs according to His riches and glory. You never know when you will be blessed. Good things happen when you least expect them. God is with you this morning. Amen.” Isn’t that sweet? She knows I sometimes fall down in the dumps.

• I move then to a jeweler, to pick up my “faux” wedding ring that I had dropped for repair. I find things that I love in second-hand shops and then spend a fortune on them to repair or refurbish them. I bought a great pair of cowboy boots second-hand, then spent four times what I paid to have them resoled. I bought this ring, the week before I left for Africa, in a second-hand shop, and paid less than $10 for it. It’s sterling and I love its antiqued appearance. The band split on me a few months ago and I debated having it repaired. It was intended to ward off aggressive suitors here (and has somewhat worked) but I’ve grown very fond of the ring and love it very much. I inquired about the repair and having it sized. Sure enough, I paid more for the repair than the ring itself! ($15). I was surprised, and soon dismayed at how different the ring looked when I picked it up: It looked like a different ring! It was bright and shiny, and well, different looking! The lady at the jewelry shop said, “Oh, we cleaned it too.” Cleaned it? They removed the antiquing! That’s why it looked so different! I was upset at first, shrugged it off, then though, “Heck, I’ll rub some black shoe polish or something on it to get the antiquing back.” However, it’s dirtying up nicely on its own.

• Then, lucky me, I had lunch with American friends and they cheered me even more. They too, were happy to see me! .

• Now, the somewhat-urgent-reason I needed to visit Vryburg on this day, in addition to needing to run all of these other errands: I was meeting someone who was bringing me a warthog tusk. A warthog tusk? Yes, a warthog tusk.

In high school, I met and dated the guy that I commonly refer to as “the guy I should have married.” (He was very good to me.) He joined the marines as I finished high school and we lost contact. I hadn’t heard from him in years and we hooked up recently on Facebook. (Yes, Facebook is good for something!). He’s been asking, for a year and a half now, if I could please get him a warthog tusk. Now, you probably can find these items at souvenir type places, but I am very rarely at a souvenir type place. I couldn’t imagine how I would find him one and was even thinking of checking on EBay. (Shh, don’t tell!) Well, I didn’t have to look on EBay, because I met a nice young man on my bus ride back from Cape Town. We were chatting and he told me he was a hunter. I casually mentioned something along the lines of, “Hey, you couldn’t get me a warthog tusk, could you?”

Well, yes he could and he did. I met Rudi, my friend, in Vryburg as he was riding the bus into Pretoria and we knew it would stop in Vryburg. So, guess what I’ve got in my hot little hands? You got it! A genuine warthog tusk!

You just never know what’s going to happen in Vryburg. Perhaps I’ll be happier to go on my next visit!  Perhaps YOU can meet me there!


Friday, March 18, 2011

Mother Bear Project and SA's Human Rights Day

I think I intuitively knew I’d be discouraged by my February project with the college, and had the forethought to plan something easy and fun for March. The great thing about the Mother Bear Project is Amy B, the woman that organizes the shipping of the bears, is a dream to work with.

I met these powerhouses of women that run this awesome day care center last year at the crèche graduation. I worked with these women this year to distribute the toy bears to their orphans and vulnerable children. We timed our event to honor South Africa’s national holiday: Human Rights Day.

The photos speak for themselves; the kids are darlings!

Of course, these little ones don’t yet understand the history behind their nation’s holiday, Human Rights Day, and the HIV/AIDS connection is that it is a human right for all to live in a world affected by HIV/AIDS to have the right to treatment if infected, and education for prevention if not.

Human Rights Day, in South Africa, however, marks a very significant historical event. The apartheid government darkened South Africa’s nation in 1948. Tensions regarding such a brutal separatism challenged the government almost immediately. In 1959, the tensions were worsening and national demonstrations were staged by protestors. On March 21, 1960, one such demonstration was planned for township of Sharpeville and sadly, police opened fire on the protesters and killed 67 and wounded 187 demonstrators. It is said that most were shot in the back. Eighteen thousand protesters were arrested.

Nelson Mandela, along with several other powerful, African leaders would be arrested only four years later and apartheid only later dismantled in 1994. However, the Sharpeville Massacre, which is remembered annually and renamed Human Rights Day, marked the turning point for the fall of apartheid in South Africa.

Heavy stuff, I know, for toddlers and toy bears—but hey, I’m an education volunteer!


PS. For more pictures of our Mother Bear Project and SA Human Rights Day, see my public Facebook page (click on the link). You need not be a FB member to see the photos:

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Ounaai suffers my improving veterinarian skills

The only time Ounaai tolerates the camera is when she is sleeping.

Vaccination attempt: round one

I am nervous. I withdraw the liquid portion of the vaccine into the syringe, insert the needle into the vial of the powdered portion, squirt the liquid in with the powdered portion, mix the solution well, and then withdraw the now ready-to-use mixture back into the syringe. I am now ready to vaccinate. Ounaai senses something is up, but I sit with her, restrain her with my legs, speak soothingly to her, grab the scruff of her neck, and insert the needle. Jab is more like it--the needle seems as big around as a tree trunk. She yelps, struggles and I hurry. She struggles more, I worry of her escaping my grasp, and hurriedly plunge the syringe quickly. She struggles even harder, she is crying with pain, I am still plunging the syringe, but she struggles and I pull it out. Whatever was coming out of the plunging syringe, along with anything else pulsing through Ounaai insides, sprays into my eyes. She’s now thoroughly pissed at and frightened of me and I’m running to the sink to flush my eyes out with tap water.

As I’m flushing my yes, I’m thinking what it must feel like to be a healthcare worker, having just been sprayed in the eyes with a syringe full of something coming out of the human body. In the age of HIV and TB it doesn’t take a great leap to think of how frightening such a scenario could be, and for the first time in my life, I am empathizing with health care workers completely. After all, who knows what has just entered my bloodstream through my eyes. (A friend would later tease that at least I wouldn’t contract distemper.)

Perhaps she'll tolerate the camera if she is eating?

I call the vet, explain what has happened, and oddly, am more worried about whether or not I got enough of the vaccine into the dog than the condition of my eyes. I would hate having gone through such awfulness for nothing. I told him I had gotten “most of it”-- the vaccine-- into the dog and he told me she would be fine. As for me and my eyes, yes, he assured, I should be fine too, and to just rinse my eyes well. This I have done and do some more. Did I hear a chuckle in his voice? Did he think this funny? I have slight stinging in my eyes for the rest of the evening, but otherwise, all is well.

Nope, not tolerating the camera!
 Vaccination attempt: round two

Poor Ounaai. If only she had a competent health-care provider.

I did round two of vaccinations this weekend past and thankfully, she won’t need any more. (Well, she’s supposed to get a yearly booster…) I went to the vet to pick up her second round of vaccinations and ask for some “coaching” as to how to better administer it. The vet, who is wonderful by the way—everyone at this clinic is wonderfully helpful—asked me back into the “no man’s land” of behind the scenes vet care. (He’s let me come back before and knows I’m curious and not squeamish.) I tell him how my disastrously bad my first attempt was, and much to my chagrin, he is delighted and reacts with hilarity at my account of poor Ounaai enduring such a blundering, painful shot. In the back room, where dogs are recovering, he pulls out a dog from a cage to demonstrate the proper administration of an injection. (The dog needed a shot anyway; he wasn’t just using an animal for my benefit.) The vet showed me how to grab the scruff at the neck, (I was correct here), but he further showed me to make a “tent” in the scruff of her neck to form a depression in her scruff within which to insert the needle and to protect her muscles.

Oh, so THAT’s how you do it!!

However, the best advice was that he told me that if she struggled, to release my grasp on the syringe. If she struggled, I was to release the syringe, with it still inserted in her neck, (but not release the dog), and let her calm. The worst of it was over, she felt the stick and the needle was in, so she would no longer feel it. He told me to wait for her to calm and then slowly and gently depress the plunger of the syringe. He showed all of this too me on the huge dog that was recovering, and while he demonstrated everything beautifully, I kept thinking to myself, “Yeah, but THIS dog is sedated. Mine will not be sedated.”

Nope, definitely NOT tolerating the camera!

And this is the cool, the cool part, the cool part… The demonstration dog HAD BEEN BITTEN BY A PUFF ADDER!!  I was so excited! Not excited that the poor dog had been bitten by a puff adder, poor thing, but YES!, to have evidence that there are puff adders in Africa, even if I haven’t seen one.  Before coming to South Africa, I read anything about South African flora and fauna I could get my hands on.  In some of my reading, I learned that South Africa’s more common snake is the puff adder (Bitis arietans)—it’s found in all regions of South Africa.  A family member, noting my excitement asked, “What’s a puff adder?”  I replied, still excitedly, “It’s one of the most venomous snakes in the WORLD!”  She was worried, I was excited!  By the way, no, I do not want to be BITTEN by a puff adder;  however, it would be thrilling to see one.  As with all wild creatures, they despise being bothered and  bite only defensively.  They do not slither around with the sole purpose of seeking and biting someone.  I have not come across a puff adder in the wild, even though I worried I would when building my thorn fence (but it was winter time).  I have come across a cape cobra (Naja nivea) outside my village and a horned adder (Bitus caudalis) in Messina when I went to see the baobab trees.  Thrilling finds!

Ounaai now very grumpy with my camera has decided to sit outside.

Anyway, back to the dog. I had often wondered what domestic animals do if bitten while grazing: the cattle, donkeys, and goats are all over the wild places between the villages. The vet told me that dogs actually do better than humans with a puff adder bite. This is because a dog has very loose skin that has plenty of “give” to accommodate the swelling of tissue that results with a snake bite. Humans, on the other hand, have tight skin and therefore have no “room” to “give” with the resulting swelling. The vet then he pointed out, of the dog, “See how big his head is? His head is five times its normal size!” (I couldn’t tell because I was unfamiliar with the breed. He just looked to me like a dog with a big head—hey, some breeds have big heads!—and woozy from his sedation.) The vet felt certain of this animal’s recovery and further added that the antivenin for dogs is very expensive. So, this guy had a very caring owner.

So, that was pretty cool. However, I still had to face Ounaai, so it was time to head home.


This is Ounaai’s former beau, Fella… Isn’t he gorgeous? 
The “heat” of the romance cooled with Ounaai’s spaying.

Poor Ounaai. She just knew something was up. As soon as I walked in the door, she ducked her head and cast down her eyes. I just read Louise Erdrich’s Shadow Tag and Erdrich does a fantastic job of portraying the family dogs in the novel as ultra sensitive to the family dynamic—dogs just know, you know? I could tell Ounaai knew something was up. In the States, our vet back plies our animals with Pupperoni to distract them when administering vaccinations. I couldn’t find any Pupperoni in Vryburg, but decided to try biltong instead. (Biltong is a South Africa’s version of beef jerky. Go ahead, roll your eyes. But I’m telling you, a girl in Peace Corps has gotta do what a girl in Peace Corps has gotta do!) I approached Ounaai, with biltong in hand (and the syringe behind my back), but she would have none of it. Because she is a very, very good dog, she did not run from me, but sat bravely for the painful horrors that awaited her. I tried to give her the biltong, but she only tentatively held it in her mouth, not even biting it, but holding it between her lips! I tried to wrestle up some neck scruff, but she had hers bolted down like armor. Bless her heart—she knew what was coming. Her injection went much better this second time. I felt much better about administering it, felt better informed with the how and why of it, and was generally more relaxed all the way around. She did struggle a bit, I let go of the syringe, and she quieted immediately, just as the vet had said she would. I reassured her, the worst of it was over (she had already felt the needle stick), and I lightly depressed the plunger. With the needle withdrawn, she decided she liked biltong very much, could she have some more?

Fella is very shy.

Just think… If I kept at it, I could become the best vaccinator Ounaai has ever had! It’s too bad I only had a couple of tries and she had to endure my beginner’s clumsiness—especially in regards to a painful shot!

In thinking about Ounaai enduring the development of my veterinarian skills, I couldn’t help but make comparisons in other areas of my life. I shudder to think of my first class of freshmen composition students, and how in the world they survived me trying to figure out what in the heck I was doing. Surprisingly, my best student that first-go-round of teaching remains a very good friend, even today, and he remembers nothing odd or amiss about our writing class. And then my sons—oh my-- how they suffered from inexperience and my ongoing, blundering attempts at parenting! You can’t imagine how I wish for a second chance at raising my sons!

Ounaai suffers the development of my veterinarian skills; my composition students suffered the development of my teaching skills; and my sons suffered the development of my parenting skills.

Second chances? If only!


PS. While I is easy to fall into a guilt-induced spiral of shame and regret inspired by the lost opportunities of second chances, it occurs to me that some things just won’t improve with second, third, and well, many more tries: No matter how many times I try, I cannot seem to cook a pretty egg; no matter how many attempts I make at homemade hummus, I can’t seem to find happiness with my resulting paste; no matter how hard I study or try to learn an additional language, I can’t seem to find fluency.

PSS. Ounaai is officially “ruined” as a dog. She knows that in a cabinet in my kitchen sits a tin canister containing a lovely biltong treat that she sometimes gets if Karen is anywhere near the kitchen. So guess who is lying at my feet anytime I’m near the kitchen, mildly begging for a treat? Go ahead, roll your eyes! I’m rolling mine too!

Fella usually lies curled up in the tall grass outside my home at the bottom of my stairs.


Saturday, March 12, 2011

Christmas in March! How did you know...

I would need such cheering up!

Last week I was feeling overwhelmed by receiving so many packages in the mail. My sister sent me a huge package full of love, my Aunt sent me my absolute favorite pecans (which make me delightedly happy, for some reason), and my friend Mary sent me a package full of sweets and school supplies.

Again, I felt overwhelmed with receiving so many packages and I always swoon and almost faint when I see how much my loved ones have spent in shipping!

Imagine my surprise when I went to the post office this morning!

A shout out to my friends who have sent school supplies: reward stickers, colored pens, notebooks, fun reward toys (glow in the bracelets!), and INFLATALBE GLOBES! Yay! And for me: stationary, stamps, back issues of the Sun Magazine (my favorite), spiritual reading, Dr. Bronner’s soap (another favorite) and SPICES! I’m a lucky girl!

My good friend Joe Y, who influenced me greatly in my naturalist pursuits, has sent along some children’s books with a nature focus to share with my school children. He’s doing wonderful things influencing our next generations to become stewards of nature!

Be sure to check out his company’s website at:

I’m particularly fond of KK’s hope….Hmm… Wonder why?
 My mom has assembled a posse of wonderful women who have contributed greatly to my South African adventure and they sent me this humongous package chocked with goodies! Thanks Teen R and Faye J! Their goody box had all things school supplies: maps, more inflatable globes (Yay! A village can never have too many inflatable globes!), colored pens, pencils, markers, scissors (these will be a hot item!), erasers, glue sticks, reward stickers, tape, and sharpeners. My primary school will be very, very happy to see me this week—thank you both!

For me, they included COFFEE, (yay, yay, yay!) vitamins and probiotics, spices, MOVIES (yay! yay! yay!), cardstock and envelops (was critically short—thank you!), and a heat resistant spatula! Oh, and some ladies under-things that I needed (blush). Thank you!

And a few of you have contributed funds to my bank account--which always makes life easier!  Thank you!
It has been a particularly rough week and you couldn’t have known (nor would have I) how uplifting this shower of gifts has been. I feel bolstered, encouraged, and hopeful again! Amazing how a little bit—or a lot of bit!--of love from across the sea can be so regenerative.

Thank you everyone for your generosity! I am a humbled and lucky girl!


Sunday, March 6, 2011

Love crushes and the South African Dog Days of Summer

 Some people develop love crushes on people—and I certainly do! However, I also develop love crushes on old, abandoned buildings and here is my longest standing African heart-throb: the old abandoned Catholic Church in my village. This building, of course, is no longer in use and the current Catholic Church sits nearby in the foreground. I’m not sure how old this building is, but I know the principal at my primary school attended this church as his school when he was a child. I love the old ruin of it and have wanted to photograph it since I arrived. As with all things in South Africa, I wanted to photograph this church in the late-afternoon, early-evening light to avoid exposure to the blaring hot, African sun—exposure which creates unlovely photographs. And, as I’m still experiencing inconsistencies with uploading photos to my blog, so who knows what you will see!!--but hopefully the images are lovely enough.

As the day was late when I set off to photograph the church, I hoped Ounaai would accompany me as a companion; however, she is well-trained in not following me into the village as I’m usually off to school or church, both places where village dogs are unwelcome, and I scold her heartily if she tries to follow me. I need to figure out a way to better train her, about how to know when it’s fine to follow me and when it’s not. Will keep you posted. So, she was not with me this day, although I wished she were.

crossing the cemetary on the way to the church
As with many churches I suppose, it is necessary to approach this church by passing through a cemetery.  I’ve wanted to show you photos of the cemeteries of my people before, but struggle  with my conscious in regards to the appropriateness of the situation and with not wanting to exploit my people and their privacy.  So, here you are and I apologize if anyone is offended. 

the better-to-do are buried next to the poor
You can see, from the photos, that just like in living in rural South Africa, the poor  reside by the rich, or if not rich, at least better off.  The more elaborate the gravesite, the larger and lovelier the tombstone, the more elaborate the fencing, and the appearance of other fancier grave decorations, the wealthier the family of the deceased; or unfortunately, the more debt the family of the deceased has taken on to bury their loved one.  The gravesites of the poor are marked only with stones.  Three prominent dates are displayed on the tombstones of the well-to-do: the birth date, the death date, and the burial date.  Also, both names of the deceased, the English as well as the African name are displayed on the tombstone.  The most beautiful song I’ve heard since coming to South Africa was sung at a funeral: the men closest to the deceased sang only the two first verses of the national anthem, Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika.  (They sang the black African verses-isiXhosa and  isiZulu [first verse], and Sesotho [second verse] and  excluded the Afrikaaner and English verses [third and fourth verses, respectively].)  Their song was low in volume, almost a whisper, and very, very sorrowful.  It was the most beautiful hymn I’ve ever heard and its singing  so beautiful that my body ached.

oh wait!  a donkey!

The people that I live with hold very strict formalities regarding the approach and entering of a cemetery and I couldn’t help but feel I was trespassing.  It was eerily quiet, as all cemeteries are, I’m sure, and as I moved closer to the church to better photograph it, I was startled to hear quite a commotion coming from inside the abandoned, Catholic church.  I was more than a bit spooked with the unexpected noise!  Imagine my surprise at watching the resulting file of donkeys stepping delicately out of the church, one by one, ready to leave the cool interiors to munch about in the early evening dinner time.

Wait! More donkeys!
 My visit to the church was a quiet, solemn time, and the visit foreshadowed the coming of the South African dog days of summer, which are now arrived.

I was told by the former Peace Corps Volunteer at my site that South Africa truly has only two seasons: winter and summer, and I concur. However, if there is a fall season in South Africa, or at least in my area, I believe we’re experiencing it now. My garden, after enduring a full-growing season, is petering out. The production of my vegetable plants proved exceptional, I believe, due to my “trenched bed” digging techniques, techniques learned in our “Permagarden” training provided by Peace Corps, techniques to ensure plenty of root growth and nutrition for the growing plant. “Trenched bed” gardening is the labor-intensive practice of digging deep, then adding soil amended with compost and/or composted manure, and char to promote healthy plant production. I am still harvesting tomatoes when the community garden was locked back in December, when their gardening season (without trenched bed and other helpful gardening practices) ceased. My tomatoes, now in March, are almost harvested, the amaranth is bitter, and the blister beetles and Batman bugs are chomping my okra blossoms before than they can open. (I don’t know what the Batman bugs really are, but they are black, beetle-like, and have barbs coming off their hind-legs that remind me of Batman’s costume.) The infamous South African weed, “blackjack” is taller than I and their nasty, impossible-to-remove barbed seeds are at the ready.

Emily and I normally cross the creek bed here, but with summer rains, our crossing is detoured.

I’m seeing other changes that signal the “dog days” of summer. I’ve noticed the past couple of evenings that it isn’t broiling hot after 5:00 pm; I’ve noticed it’s becoming dark sooner—night is arriving around 7:00 pm; I’ve noticed the dramatic and frequent storms are lessoning; and I’ve noticed I’m needing a comforter by the middle of the night. My weather notes indicate that I was wearing mittens in mid-April last year and I’m watching my friend the spider make her last attempts at web repair in the evening light.

It will be very cold again, very soon, and I’ll be entering my second winter (or really the third, because it was mid-winter when we arrived in Africa in July, 2009). For some reason, I can’t imagine ever developing a love crush on the South African winter.


PS. For more pictures of love crushes and South African Dog Days, see my public Facebook page (click on the link). You need not be a FB member to see the photos:

Although she is not pictured here, Ounaai loves to run and jump in the long, late-summer grasses.