Saturday, March 3, 2012


Whenever I describe my experience living in a village in South Africa, my listeners make sympathetic noises about how difficult it must have been. They're not wrong. Hauling water in a bucket under the hot African sun in a desert was no leisurely stroll in the park. Walking up that enormous hill in Kuruman to the taxi rank, with a month's worth of groceries on my back, was hardly a piece of cake. Everyday living took a lot of effort.

However, after a couple months back in America, I can't say I find life here all that much easier. Sure, water comes from the tap, hot and cold, no need to bleach, filter or boil. That's nice. I don't need to walk anywhere. I only walk for fun. That's nice, too. So while staying clean, healthy and mobile requires that much less effort, there are other elements of living here that wear me out.

Social interaction was the most immediately obvious. My first day back in Rochester I went to visit some friends. All we did was chat in a small group, but after the initial giddiness wore off, I was exhausted. I wrote it off as jet lag, but I doubt that now. While I had (and have) many friends in South Africa, most of my time was spent living a hermit-like existence. The majority of conversations I had were with myself. Me, myself and I are wonderful conversational partners. They only speak to you in a way you are guaranteed to understand, they always agree with you and when you want to end the conversation, so do they. There's no need for social graces. In South Africa, I mastered the art of conversation... alone. When I did visit my local friends, the conversation was conducted in seTswana, Afrikaans, South African English, or some combination. Because of my lack of fluency, I wasn't often expected to follow the conversation that closely. If someone really wanted to talk to me, they would slow down and I would listen up. Otherwise, I tuned out. It was a coping mechanism to combat the constant stream of incomprehensible chatter around me. Given that I spent years not listening to people, the sudden expectation that I will be an active participant in conversation is difficult for me to meet. It's not just an issue of attention span, but also of language. Everyone here speaks to me in fluent English, using words, phrases, accents and speed that I never or rarely encountered during my tenure in Africa. While I did speak plenty of English with fellow volunteers, those encounters were few and far between. Here, the English language, in all its astounding expanse and variety, is everywhere, all the time. It's overwhelming.

Grocery stores are also completely exhausting. While South Africa had very modern stores, the local ones on this side of the ocean feel ten times as big compared to where I used to shop. The aisles go on forever. There are a dozen brands for every product. The produce section alone could feed a city block for a week (only slight hyperbole). There's a specialty cheese shop. The ceiling is so high, the lights are so bright. The labels are all so colorful. There's self-checkout. It's a quick trip to the loony bin as soon as I start looking for the kale amongst all the other leafy greens. I'm a hop-skip-and-a-jump from insanity hunting down the sun-dried tomatoes between the rows and rows and rows and rows of canned tomatoes, sauces, soups and whatever else comes in tin, wrapped in paper, splashed with yellow, red and ancient Roman fresco detailing. Peering down one aisle to see if the fish monger might be on the other side, I begin to wonder, neon and metallic Lays products swirling, is this the inspiration behind The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test? Granted, some of my feelings may be explained by my first post-Peace Corps grocery shopping experience also being post-eye doctor appoint which resulted in freshly dilated eyes. That was a trip. Still, I am frequently paralyzed by indecision as a direct result of too much choice. Choosing one item means saying "no" to every similar product. When there are only a few alternatives, it is easy to calculate the best choice. When there are a dozen or more options, not necessarily adjacently located, the process gets tiring fast. Combined with floor plans the size of whole villages, and you've got one frustrated returned Peace Corps volunteer who would gladly return to a peanut-butter based diet in exchange for some peace of mind.

I expect as time goes on I will reacclimatize to the English-speaking world and conquer the local grocery stores. In the meantime, I am concentrating on enjoying the miracles of washing machines and central heating.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Surprising Stats

I could never get the stats page about this blog to load on my Blackberry. Now that I'm back to my regular computing machine, I finally had the opportunity to check it out today. I won't bore you with many of the details, but I'd like to offer a hearty welcome to my readership in (drumroll, please) Slovenia! I have no idea what you were looking for, but I hope you found it and I'm mighty glad you came.

Paranoid in America

I've been back in America for a couple weeks. By and large it's been wonderful, but the occasional waves of culture shock are jolting. As I was lucky enough to spend time in a few of South Africa's modern cities and towns, I am not too overwhelmed by highways or hot water. Rather I am more often struck by how out of place certain attitudes I adopted abroad are here in America. Most common of these attitudes is a strong belief in, and preparation for, ever-present danger.

In South Africa, the danger is usually real. Just about every South African I know has a few horror stories to tell about how many times they have been mugged, how many of their cars have been stolen, and how often their homes have been broken into. It is no wonder that most South African houses are built to resemble fortresses, and that keeping the doors locked and valuables hidden is as natural to residents as breathing. At first, I thought all this 007-like security was a bit much, but eventually, I assimilated. After being chastised repeatedly for leaving my door unlocked or my cell phone unattended in the village or about town, I fell into a routine of constant vigilance and consequently, paranoia. It was normal in South Africa, but it's unnatural in America.

On my return journey to the States, I traveled relatively light. I had just one suitcase, a backpack and a bag. The bag was a souvenir from a trip to Cape Town, but I never carried it while in South Africa. It had no closure at the top, so I deemed it too risky to be usable. Still, it was the perfect size for a carry-on, so I took it along on the trip home. All was well until I stepped out of the airport and promptly hopped on the New York City subway. The suitcase and backpack were locked, as per Peace Corps recommendation, so I had no worries about either of them, but my bag was open and I was very worried about it. With my one free hand I clutched it closed. Every time a turnstile or staircase forced me to let go, I peered around at the crowd, just waiting for someone to reach in and grab my wallet or cell phone. No one did. It's America.

A few days ago, I was asked to fetch something from a parked car. "Sure," I said, "Where are your keys?"

"It's unlocked," came the reply.

My mind raced. "Unlocked? Who in their bloody right mind leaves a car outside, unattended, unlocked? What is wrong with these people?" Nothing. It's America.

The list just goes on and on. Entering someone's home in South Africa involved opening gates, unlocking burglar bars and switching off alarm systems. Entering a house here is usually as simple as turning a knob. I did not expect to find this quite so unnerving, but every time I hear the words, "Come on in, the door's open!" I'm swept up in a fresh wave of amazement and disbelief.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Time and Purpose

I have a problem with time. It's moving too quickly! Exams are over, my marks are completed and my teacher career is almost past the finish line. This Saturday is my farewell party. There are people coming in from town, Deorham and, of course, all over Loopeng. I will be back "home" in upstate New York in three weeks.

I'm excited. I'm nervous. I'm a little bit nauseous. I'm frantic. I haven't started packing! I'm surprised. I never once thought time would move so quickly. I thought this experience would never end, and now it almost has.

I've made an uneasy peace with the work I got done. I did my best. Maybe it was enough and maybe it wasn't, but the whole Peace Corps experience was a net positive for both myself and the various places I worked. I'm content.

Loopeng will be a difficult place to leave. Just yesterday I went for lovely walk along the riverbed and discovered a part of the village that was entirely new to me. After all the time I've spent here, and I'm still learning and seeing new things. My favorite discovery was one of those balloon-ish flowers that opens only at night. This one is huge, and tucked right up against the village's largest thoroughfare. I must have walked right past before. Now, I'm trying to soak up every detail.

People keep asking when I'll come back. I have no idea. I want to come back and visit, but I don't think "coming back" is really possible. I can't come back to my life here. I'm sure I'll wish I could. As rough as it's been, it has its charms.

Another Peace Corps friend wrote to me recently about readjusting to life back in the States. What she missed most about life here really resonated with me: living a life with purpose.

Lots of people have purpose in their lives. Teachers influence young lives, doctors save them, families raise them. But many people don't. Many people just get up everyday and go to work. For what? To earn a paycheck? To earn money for an anonymous corporation? For nothing?

Life as a Peace Corps volunteer has purpose: make the world a better place. The task may be entirely impossible, but it's there. It's something to strive for, to get out of bed for, day after day, disaster after disaster. I hope my return to America doesn't mean a return to my prior life as a purpose-less amoeba.

Tomorrow's a big day. I'm headed to town to blow my entire paycheck on party supplies. My family's borrowed a grill and invested in a new soundsystem. I'm going to buy wors and pap and beer. I may be leaving soon, but I'm going out with a bang!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Heat and Humor

In case you haven't noticed, I have been blogging a lot lately. There are a few reasons. First of all, I suspect you will all lose interest as soon as I leave South Africa so I want to jabber on as much as possible while I still have your attention. Secondly, I have a lot of free time at the moment. Learners are busy writing exams, but they haven't yet written mine, so I'm in that awkward limbo where I'm not teaching, not marking and yet I'm still attending school. Anyway, here's another post that's been percolating in the back of my head for a while.

"How do you keep from getting depressed?" is a frequently asked question for Peace Corps volunteers. My reaction is always, "Uh, what makes you think I'm not depressed?" I once cried at a dinner party because there was so much food and the other guests kept rattling on about orphans, which led me to thinking about one particular orphan I live with who cries every day because he's hungry. True story. I am frequently depressed. However, nothing can jolt a person out of a depression-induced funk quite like a hearty laugh, so for that I turn to the following:


This is a webcomic I've been reading for years. I'm not sure where or when I first came across it, but it has remained consistently funny. It's got a strong nerdish bent, so it's not exactly slapstick comedy, but if you know just a bit about math, physics and computer science then I'm sure it'll put a smile on your face every now and then. It updates Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at

Hyperbole and a Half

This is not quite a blog and not quite a webcomic, but it is 100% awesome. Allie, the author, describes her life experiences using amusing narrative interrupted by stick-figure illustration done in Paint (or a similar low-brow program). I cannot tell you how many times I have laughed out loud at her descriptions of social entrapment, the antics of her dogs, her childhood out West and her near-death experience in Texas. She's writing a book now, so the website is rarely updated, but the archives are worth a look at

David Thorne

This guy is an Australian comedian whose schtick seems to be harassing anyone and everyone he comes into contact with. His attempts to settle a bill using a drawing of a spider, design a missing cat poster, invite himself to a party and refusal to collaborate with a colleague are particularly memorable. You can find them at

In other news, it is finally hot in the Kalahari. It reached 100 degrees before noon today. It wouldn't be so bad if there was any hint of rain, but the sky is blindingly clear.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


South Africa may be home to several of the largest cities on the entire continent, but it is also home to a mind-blowing level of total dysfunction in some areas.

I went to the post office last week to pick up a package. It was work-related, so don't get too excited. Anyway, here in South Africa, you must present ID to retrieve a package. For locals, this requirement is satisfied by their Orwellian ID books. Foreigners need to present a passport.

Standing in line, I suddenly realized that under no circumstances could I surrender my passport. I settled on my Peace Corps ID instead, which has my passport number on it.

I rocked up to the window. Passed over my package slip and ID. The post master frowned. My ID expired on September 16th, my original COS date. I explained that my contract had been renewed, but I had yet to receive a new hardcopy ID. He sighed deeply and asked for my passport. I shook my head. He sighed again and went off to fetch my package.

Why did I refuse to show him my passport? Because my visa is expired! The Department of Home Affairs has had my application for months, but they have yet to formally grant my extension. I'm officially in limbo. As exciting as it is to be an outlaw, it's also pretty annoying. South Africa has an obsession with indentification, so a valid passport would be most helpful. As I have no plans to leave the country between now and December, I'm okay, but come December 20th they better let me on that plane.


After two and a half years in South Africa, I am leaving next month. While I am all kinds of sad and depressed one minute and crazed with joy and excitement the next, most bizarre to me is that people here just don't seem to get it. They keep telling me how much they'll miss me, then they try to load me up with work for the next term. I explain that I won't be here and then they beg me to extend my contract. I shake my head, they shake theirs and we settle at a kind of awkward impasse.

Part of the problem, of course, is me. I spent two years declaring I would leave in September, but September came and went and I'm still here. Since I obviously extended my contract once, people no doubt think it would be simple for me to do it again. As much as I would enjoy staying just a few more months, being granted a second extension is wildly unlikely and besides, I recognize the need for to start my "real" life. I have school to attend and a career to get started. I have a whole other life to get back to. As great as my experience has been here, that's all it's been, an experience. Fun, valuable and certainly educational, but it has to end. I understand that, I wish everyone else here did too.