Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Strike Season

It's that time of year again! South Africa is home to some very powerful unions who control all sorts of service delivery, including garbage pick up, electricity, the postal service and, of course, education. Around the end of July every year, all these organizations threaten to strike. Many actually do. In fact, this time last year both the military and post office went on strike. Cars were burned in Pretoria, and I had no mail for weeks, but the government caved and things quieted quickly.

The reason for my writing this now is that tomorrow is the final day of negoitiation between the Department of Education and the major teachers' unions. There is a possibility of a strike on Thursday. We had a big staff meeting today in preparation. No one was particularly fired up about the issues either way. There was a general sense of resignation, along with the usual feelings of injustice.

Anyway, I'll let you know what I'm doing Thursday!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Home Again, Home Again

I'm back in the village, back in my tiny but cutely decorated cell and am honestly able to say that switching sites was the best decision I could have possibly made. My new host family is awesome. When I started trudging to my corner of the house all my host sisters came rushing around the corner to greet me. I was gone for a week. It was quite the reunion, even before I unpacked a bit and offered a few kites I'd picked up in Pretoria. Everyone was super-excited about them, but of course, no wind. Maybe tomorrow?

In other news, where have I been? Pretoria. What for? The conclusion of a trial. For what crime? Theft, almost a year ago, from my home during training, by a friend of the family. How did it go? As well as can be expected. Who was there? Me, the safety and security coordinators for both South Africa and the entire region (an American! Stop the presses!) and a PCV friend who accompanied me for moral support (thanks L, you were great). What happened? I testified for about 30 seconds as to who I am, what I do and, oh yeah, the events of the actual crime. What was the sentence? A few thousand rand, probation... What did you do after the trial? Ate! Saw movies! In a theater! Ate some more! Picked up some books from the library at the Peace Corps office, as well as a bunch of electronic resources submitted by other volunteers on various educational topics. Said goodbye to some SA-18 volunteers who are leaving South Africa and moving back to the States as RPCVs. I know that the day will come for me eventually, but it sure doesn't feel like it now.

In other news, I visited a doctor once again and have now started two courses of antibiotics as well as some allergy medicine. Will it work? Who knows? I feel like the white doctors in town hear the word "village" and reach for antibiotics on autopilot. Oh yeah, and since when was I allergic to anything?

The World Cup is over, but "Waka Waka" is still the most popular song in South Africa. I'm not sure if the village kids have quite got the lyrics yet...

Coming up in future posts: reflections on 1-year in Africa, erm, stuff, things, what I end up doing with the can of viennas that I found in my grocery bag, whether a dozen eggs ever survive the taxi trip home without cracking, and assorted nonsense...

Currently reading: Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Random Bits and Pieces

It's still cold here, but my fingers are reasonably thawed. Nothing gets the blood pumping like functional relationships!

First order of business: the rest of vacation.

We left New Bethesda in the early afternoon and drove north to Kestell. Apparently it's a very beautiful area but we arrived in darkness and left early the following day. The backpackers was lovely, and provided hot water bottles. I was to glad to not be the only person who had never used one before. Strange, but effective little buggers.

The reason we scampered away so fast was so that we could get to Pretoria in time to catch the U.S.-Algeria game. First we had to locate our accomodations. Finding a place with space for five during the World Cup should have been impossible, but thanks to a particularly lovely guesthouse owner we all wound up sharing a "cottage". This particular cottage had three bedrooms, a laundry room, a kitchen with granite countertops, two bathrooms, a patio and private garden, and so much more. On every bed was a bathrobe! Best of all was the Peace Corps discount. Second best was breakfast (huge, delicious).

Anyway, we checked in. Two of us dragged ourselves off to the game (played at a rugby stadium) while everyone else relaxed in the lap of luxury.

The game was great. We won by one goal in overtime. I suppose it would have been even more fun if we hadn't found ourselves surrounded by Algerians, but that was a cultural experience in itself.

The following day, one traveled to Mpumalanga and another of our little party flew back to the States. The remaining three, the ladies, did a little shopping. We decided to extend our rental car for a few more days. This meant that we could transport large items back to our sites. Large items like ovens! I have been baking up a storm ever since.

Ovens and people crammed back into the Toyota we took off for G's site, near Rustenburg. As we got closer, she informed us to just follow the signs for the Borakalalo Game Park. Suddenly we were faced with a choice: stick to the plan and drive all the way back to the Northern Cape, or stop and stay awhile at a game park? We stopped. We saw giraffes, wildebeest, zebras and plenty of birds. In fact, we spent so much time there we barely made it out before the gates closed.

Back at G's, we baked bread and watched movies before collapsing into the kind of deep sleep only brought on by extreme cold.

When morning came, we said "Sayonara" to Gabi and hit the road towards my site. It was a long, exhausting drive in which we managed to puncture a tire. We had it fixed in Kuruman and set out for Loopeng around sunset. While J did the overwhelming majority of the driving, I did some too! She was an excellent, excellent teacher.

I only spent a few days in Loopeng before J and I popped back in our rental car and went back to Pretoria, en route to an IT workshop held at another volunteer's site outside the city.

The volunteers (a married couple) live at a Catholic mission. As a result, the accomodations provided for the female workshop participants were located in a convent, which we shared with the Sisters of Mercy.

The sisters were so sweet and tons of fun. I think everyone enjoyed them. I especially, because I was sick. They brought me tea, took me to the clinic, and generally kept me company.

I recovered shortly, and it was time to go back to Loopeng. Vacation was over and work was calling.

Work continues to call. I'm back in class, teaching math, fixing things, trying desperately to get a materials donation from a local hardware store. The usual. Next week I'll be in Pretoria, eating cheeseburgers and pizza. For now I'm very lucky to have bread, tinned fish and tomatoes. (It's lunchtime, can you tell?)

Well, that's all for now folks.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Frozen Stiff

As you've all probably noticed, my blogging has slowed, my e-mails and Facebook messages have become shorter. It's not because I don't want to keep up with you all, it's because temperatures here have plummeted. My fingers are frozen stiff. When it warms up a bit, I'll get back to you with a little more enthusiasm. In the mean time, I'll be huddled under flannel and fleece.

In other news, off to Pretoria next week for trial, part III. I hope you're all looking forward to it as much as I am!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

More Vacation Adventures

I forgot to mention in my last post the meaning of the title. "Ke nako" basically means "It's here" but more literally "It's time". It's part of the barrage of FIFA/World Cup advertising/propaganda inflicted upon South Africans prior to as well as during the event, along with "Feel it! It's here!" and the institution of Football Fridays (like casual Friday, but everyone wears soccer jerseys).

Anyways, back to where I was when I left off yesterday.

The five of us arrive in Port Elizabeth with plenty of time to check into the backpackers and catch the start of the game at 2:30. We wander. Take our time. Kick back. Relax. Miss the start of the game at 1:30. Lesson learned: read your tickets.

We finally make it into Nelson Mandela Bay stadium (because no South African city can have just one name) and take our seats. Knowing that you are attending a game for an itsy-bitsy fraction of the cost of those around you is a delicious feeling. Poor suckers. Maybe they should volunteer more. In any case, Germany is obviously the better team, but they've all got a big blind spot when it comes to the goal. So many shots, all so far off. Serbia takes advantage of the situation. They win. Everyone, particularly the German fans, are a little shocked and surprised. Nonetheless, it's the World Cup. It's awesome and we must celebrate accordingly. According to us, the only fitting celebration is going to a pub to watch the USA game and ordering every, single appetizer on the menu. The food was great, watching the US get robbed AGAIN? Not so much.

The next day we hit the beach. It was my first visit to the Indian Ocean, and even in winter it was quite nice. There were tidal pools to play in, sand to sink your feet into, and downtown but within walking distance, plenty of old buildings to feast your eyes on (including a lighthouse with spectacular views, well worth the climb). I've heard some pretty negative things about Port Elizabeth, but I couldn't disagree more. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Ferris wheel on the water at sunset? What's not to love about that? The pizza we had for dinner was also a highlight. PCVs love pizza!

We were all up early the following day for a big adventure, a visit to the Addo Elephant Park. After nearly a year in Africa, this was my very first game park experience. It was awesome. Our first animal was a warthog. We ooohed and aaaahed for ages. The next dozen animals were kudu (like deer, but cooler). We oohed and aaaahed again. After a while though, we were all sick and tired of kudu. A couple ostriches off in the distance couldn't even rouse us from our kudu-induced funk. G began to voice our frustrations aloud. That's when we first saw them. Elephants. Tons of elephants. In front of us. Behind us. Right. Left. Everywhere! Unfortunately, soon enough we fell into an elephant-induced funk, but there was one thing left to excite us: dung beetles! These are endangered and signs at Addo warn you to look out for them. Justin, our driver, was doing admirably, slowing down and stopping appropriately (sidenote: when we first began our game drive and we all wanted him to slow down so we could look around/take pictures, his response was, "But people are passing us!" Game driving is an adjustment). So, anyhow, we are driving along when someone spots a dung beetle crossing the road. "Where?" Just shy of panicked, Justin slams on the brakes (not very dramatic when you're only moving at 10 m.p.h). The dung beetle is straight ahead, crossing the road. We all breathe a sigh of relief and wait for it to complete its passage. Whoosh! A car comes speeding around the bend in front of us. Crack! Goes the beetle. Gasp! All of us, simultaneously. And the rest was silence.

It was a long moment before we started moving again (destination: picnic site).

After our picnic came a long afternoon of nothing. Perhaps to even out our kudu/elephant high of the morning, we suffered through several hours of pure nothingness. This is a side of game drives that you rarely hear about. The animals are wild and quite often choose to stay away from you and your noisy vehicle. It's not fun or exciting. It's boring. Exceptionally. Things looked up for a moment with a cute warthog family, but the occassional kudu was still a snore. Then we came across a row of cars parked along a hillside. We scanned the hill. Lions. In the wild. On this hill. It definitely made up for the long hours of nothing (both those past and still to come). A few more elephants, a couple more kudu and we'd had our fill. We drove back to Port Elizabeth, our appetites for wildlife fully sated (except for Justin, who probably still harbors lingering desires to ride an elephant).

The next day was our second World Cup game. We had intended to spend the morning being productive tourists, but instead ate Indian food and cupcakes. Lots of cupcakes. The game was Chile versus Switzerland and I remember very little except the cold. There was quite a chill in the air. Oh, and Switzerland fans dressed up as cows. That was cute.

The original plan was to spend that night in PE, but New Bethesda was calling us back and back we went that very night. The historic town of Graff Reinet was on our way, and I for one attempted to take in the sights on our way through it. Perhaps it is most famous for the Dutch Reformed Church that stands at its center, but that night the most obvious attraction in town was the fully-lit taxidermist's. All the game we missed the day before, we saw while stopped at a sign in Graff Reinet.

By the time we arrived in New Bethesda, it was much later than the first time we'd arrived. Still, the pub was open and we went straight for it. After some dog-petting and excellent conversation, we hit the hay ready to explore New Bethesda the next day.

New Bethesda happens to be the home of the late Helen Martins and the site of her Owl House. Being good little tourists, we went. It was more disturbing than anything else. Google it for details. Afterwards was a more light-hearted tour of the town by donkey-cart. Our lovely tour guide pointed out points of interests like the homes of famous artists, the recreation center and community theater. This town has no gas station, no ATM, no grocery store, but a plethora of artistic outlets and community iniatives.

Sadly our time in New Bethesda came to an end. Around noon we started the long drive north.

Once again, my thumbs are tired. More later.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Ke Nako: Vacation 2010

I have degreased my fingers and the pan of cupcakes has been relocated to my family's care. They will delightedly consume all the cupcakes and likely even was the pan for me. What nice people.

Anyway, shortly after school let out for the winter break in the beginning of June, I packed my bag and got the hell out of Dodge, by which I mean I crawled out of bed at 6 am and stood by the side of the road in darkness and waited for a ride out of Loopeng to Vryburg. It light out, but still freezing, when I reached Vryburg. Vryburg is the nearest white town to the east of me and a locus of inter-city transportation. Usually from there I attempt to head straight to Pretoria, but this time I was going to start my vacation at another volunteer's site. This meant a shorter trip, but many more taxis. Go figure.

Usually taxis take ages to fill up. Literally. Ages. I swear I've seen my hair grow. But thanks to the school holiday, World Cup, and who knows what else, taxis to my destination, Rustenburg, were filling up like, well, like the denizens of the North-West actually had somewhere to go and wanted to get there before Kingdom Come. That is to say I was on the road again in no time.

The scenery of this region is gorgeous, but I've seen it enough that it no longer thrills me. It was a long, cramped, boring ride to Rusty. Once in Rusty, however, things perked up. This was my first trip to the Rustenburg taxi rank, and, boy, was I shell-shocked. Rustenburg is home to some of the largest platinum mines in the world, and thus imports tons of laborers from all over. The rank was an impressive reflection of that. It's huge, sprawling, noisy, almost like a carnival but with hawkers selling socks and produce while the only rides available are taxis. Tons of taxis. I bought a Coke and begged the seller for guidance. She obliged and led me directly to my next taxi. I climbed aboard and gazed around. I never do too much sight-seeing while wandering around a taxi rank. I'm usually too busy guarding my possessions and fending off shady characters. Once safely ensconced in a taxi, however, I usually take a breather and soak it all in. In any case, the Rustenburg rank was carefully labelled with the destinations of its taxis, places like Brits (a nearby town), Pretoria (a nearby city) and Botswana (a nearby country). Yes, one can travel internationally BY TAXI. Good to know.

Sooner or later, my taxi leaves. I meet up with friends at the next stop and we all proceed to G's site where we watch movies, eat chocolate and generally act like the ridiculous, poorly socialized fools that months of alone-time in impoverished villages will turn anyone into.

The next day we're up and off to Pretoria! Again I discovered evidence of an inverse correlation between distance and number of taxis needed to traverse said distance. It only took a couple of hours, but we used 4 taxis! Once in Pretoria we boarded a local bound for the favorite of Peace Corps haunts: Hatfield. There's a movie theater and a McDonald's. What more can I say? This particular taxi got a flat tire halfway there. It could have been disasterous, but it was fixed fairly quickly and we were on our way again, speeding towards chicken nuggets and cheeseburgers. Also waiting for us at the McDonald's was a friend of mine from college, come to join us on our World Cup roadtrip.

We finally all met up, in cold, windy Hatfield and began awaiting the rest of our little party who were off procuring our rental car. They showed up, but if you think that means we hit the road, you are sorely mistaken.

I was sick, once again, and insisted that we all swing by the Peace Corps office so that I could pick up as many anti-biotics, parasitics, and what-not as I could get my grubby little paws on. Naturally, this took infintely longer than anyone intended. It was early evening by the time the five of us were all uncomfortably wedged into the Toyota Corolla and weaving through commuter traffic outside South Africa's largest cities.

Now at this point in the narrative it is important to share a few small details. One, we did not have a map. Good highway maps are difficult, if not impossible, to find here. Two, we had a GPS... that its owner had never used, but still it was something.

Our destination for the evening was Clarens, a town high in the mountains bordering Lesotho. Judging by the above paragraph, one can imagine the difficulty we had in getting there and also the late hour at which we arrived. Now, being volunteers who work for next to nothing, you can also imagine the sort of accomodation we sprung for. Put this all together: backpackers+winter+mountains+night= a very long night spent in the freezing cold. Clarens, I will fondly remember as the coldest place on Earth. On the bright side, there was plenty of hot water and if there's anything a PCV truly enjoys, it's a hot shower.

The next we spent exploring Clarens. It's beautiful, has great food, fun shops and looks like it would be perfectly lovely at any other time of year. Supposedly it also has the best trout fishing in SA. Anyway, we endured another night in freezing cold, helped along by a nice evening fire in which we made s'mores and around which we practiced our vacation anthem "Don't Stop Believing". The next morning, coffees and hot chocolates in hand, we left, never to return.

After a quick pit stop for a map, not particularly helpful but comforting nonetheless, we started a mind-numbingly lengthy drive south to Nieu Betheseda. Nieu Betheseda does not exist, according to Justin's GPS, but New Betheseda certainly does and they even happen to be in the same place, a fact which we did not figure out until much later. No matter, we flew across the Karoo, climbed into snowy (yes, snowy) mountains and descended back to the plains just as darkness was falling. The entire region looked pretty desolate. No wonder the actual Valley of Desolation was nearby. We knew our destination was nearby, but we were all getting a little worried. There were absolutely no signs of civilization. Finally, there was a sign, a sign that told us to turn down an old, dirt road and keep on until the end. If we were worried before, we were really worried now. It was completely dark. We began to hypothesize what might be at the end of the road. A tin shack? An ax murderer? The end of the world as we know it?

The road went on and on, up and down, curving left and right. If we broke down, or careened off a cliff, no one would ever find us. Ever. Just as we were starting to up hope, there it was. A light, no, two, four, a dozen, glittering beneath us. We rolled into town ecstatic. Searching for the backpackers we found a pub, a shop, a restaurant! The kind lady at the restaurant directed us to the backpackers and gave us a map with which she pointed out important features of the town. A microbrewery! A sculpture studio! It was a lot to take in, in our hungry, exhausted and cramped states. We dropped our bags off at the backpackers (no heat, no hot water, but so cute, so inviting) and made bee-line straight for the pub. Over burgers and local ale (the fact that even I drank it is a testament to how good it was), we congratulated ourselves on a job well-done. We had found a place to rest our heads for the night, and what a place it was.

Over breakfast scones and real coffee the next morning, we discovered much to our chagrin that we had no time to spare in New Betheseda. We had a game to catch that afternoon in Port Elizabth, Germany versus Serbia. So once again, we hopped in our car and sped off. The scenery that we had missed the night before was so breath-taking that we had to stop several times just to take it in (and to enjoy an odd snowball fight).

This post has gone on long enough for now. I'm going to give my thumbs a wee break for now. Check back in later for: PE, game drives, and more!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

It's Been a While (Again)

It's time I come clean and admit it. I am the world's worst blog writer. I'm able to access the internet very nearly 24/7, but I hardly ever manage to update this blog. I apologise. I'd say I'll change, but I probably won't.

Since it's been such a long time, of course I have tons to share. What do you want first: bad news or good news?

Bad news it is!

On November 19th, 2009, I stayed home from school. I wasn't feeling well, but I certainly wasn't sick. I was dealing with an awkward situation in my village, my first puppy had just died under mysterious circumstances and it was the very beginning of my first holiday in a different, and uncomfortably warmer, hemisphere. There was a knock on my door. I opened it, and there was Kagiso, a friend of my host family who, weeks before, had promised to bring me a new puppy. In his arms, there was a tiny, squirming white bundle of adorable puppyness. It was Rusty, my new dog. Rustenburg went from shy, little puppy to ferocious goat herder over the next several months. He followed me everywhere, to the shops, on runs. He waited for taxis with me. He even traveled on taxis with me. He survived puppydom and grew close to full-size. I thought for sure that Rusty would live to adulthood, to a long trip back to America, to meet his American family (Polar and Bi). He did not. While I was at a workshop outside Pretoria, my host family called to let me know that my best friend was found dead. I'm still not sure exactly what happened, but I no longer have a dog scratching at my door to be let in or jumping on my bed to be let out. Rustenburg is gone.

In typical fashion, the people here tell me not to worry, they'll get me a new dog. The concept that pets are not interchangeable is entirely foreign. I can only imagine what the Kuruman vet would think if I brought a third puppy in for a check-up.

To cope with some of my grief, I've been baking. I have orange-chocolate cupcakes in the oven now. They're delicious, but of course, I'd rather have my dog.

Now for the good news: vacation!

I went on an epic roadtrip a couple weeks ago. We saw... Too much for just one post. I'll get back to this later, maybe when my fingers have degreased from all the cupcakes I've been handling.