Friday, January 28, 2011

Moshaweng International Airport

Several months ago, I hosted a community meeting to inquire first-hand into the needs of local residents. I was mildly surprised to hear overwhelming support for a casino-resort complex over additional clinic facilities and improved sports and recreational areas, but I was genuinely shocked to learn of a burning desire for more direct flights along the Loopeng to London route. OR Tambo is just too far, the people complained. I listened.

I applied for, and was granted, funding for the construction of Moshaweng International Airport! Construction wrapped up this week. The airport, which boasts four terminals, two McDonald's and a Starbucks, hosts daily flights between Loopeng and major cities throughout the world, including: New York, Shanghai, Paris and Helsinki.

The people really love it. Students at Moshaweng High School particularly enjoyed a field trip to Athens to visit the Acropolis. "It looks just the chicken coop my gogo built, except way bigger," enthused one grade 10 learner. Residents are also pleased to visit family in far-flung regions of the world, such as Barrow and Cabo.

Now I feel as though my work here is done. I've achieved something that I can really be proud of. Moshaweng International will stand in testament to the united efforts of the Loopeng community for generations to come. Therefore, when the next 747 departs for Dublin, I will be on it. Goodbye, SA!

Okay, okay, where did I lose you? The Finnish capital? The Acropolis? I knew Machu Pichu would be more credible...

As you are no doubt aware, the vast majority of the above is not true. (The suggestion of a noveau Sun City is actually not entirely false. It came up during a discussion of how to lure local Kurumanites to the area to spend their money. Everything else is a blatant lie. Forgive me.)

The existence of MIA is a long-recurring fantasy. One of my personal obstacles to ending my service early is the sheer difficulty of traveling from my site to Pretoria to process tons of paperwork. Early termination isn't terribly hard, but it definitely requires more effort than just boarding a plane. I have never wanted to leave SA so much that I was willing to put in all that effort, but many times I have thought if a plane landed right on the main road, or on the playing field next to school, I would be on it faster than any of you figured out my community meeting above was an imaginary absurdity.

This past week has been chock-full of such moments. School is a pit of exhausting work and endless frustration. Our teaching staff is reduced, but enrollment is up. My classes have nearly sixty learners in them, all crowded around broken tables, sharing chairs, pencils and stationary. The time table is a wreck. Often, educators are expected to be in several classrooms at once. To deal with this, I've taught combined classes, and even spent a few hours running two different classes simultaneously. It's the beginning of the school year, so I expect things will settle down eventually, but for the time being hectic is an understatement in regards to my worklife.

Back at the ranch, a problem has arisen between my hosts and the beast we all know and love as Shaka. The family is attempting to grow mealies (corn). The dog wishes to protect the family from the very real and present danger of donkey carts by growling in their direction through the fence. To achieve this, he sprints through the mealie field, supposedly leaving Apocalyptic-destruction in his 10 kg wake. I don't see it. Sure, there are occassional prints, but no holes filled with plant material he uprooted. In fact, nothing's been uprooted at all. Of course, the extent of the purported damage is not my decision to make. Seeing how distraught my family was over Shaka prancing through their field, I was more than ready to do whatever they asked to make up for it.

Did they ask for payment for damages? No.

Did they ask that the dog be tied up, a practice I stopped as the dog's rope was continually split in half to be used for other purposes by my host family? No.

What did they want?

The dog to be sold.

So, does anyone want to buy a dog?

No? Good. My solution was to buy a length of chain and keep the dog under either constant supervision or firmly secured in a safe area, far from the mealie field. The matter has not been discussed for several days. I hope this is the end of it. Shaka has adjusted well to his lack of freedom. Have no fear, dog-lovers, he's only imprisoned during hours when he spends most of his time asleep in the shade. He still gets plenty of exercise, companionship and clean water.

However, the dog has not been the primary source of my domestic discontent this week. My lack of electricity has been, by far, the greatest annoyance. The power supply in the village was fine. My host family's power was fine. It was only my tiny, one-room hovel that went without. I spoke to my hosts to absolutely no effect on a daily basis, beginning when it first went out on Monday. Thursday I demanded action and got it, in the form of a learner from school who took about 30 seconds to figure out the problem and fix it. I guess the staff was tired of me charging my phone at school. While I am thrilled to be back in the boiling and chilling water business, I am less thrilled that I was forced to spend an incredibly hot work week without. Thank goodness for tuck shops and Coca-Cola. Open happiness, indeed.

If my fantasy airport did exist, pets would be welcome aboard all aircraft, the water supply would be endless and I would have been en route anytime during the last few days. Alas, MIA remains a fantasy and I've got big plans for exploring the now flooded Moshaweng River with my trusty sidekick, Shaka. Airfield construction is, again, put on indefinite hold.

Landscaping Loopeng

Somedays I step outside and I'm instantly transported to medieval, rural Japan. I open my door and BAM! I'm standing in the middle of an enormous Zen garden, complete with rakes and miscellaneous, dilapidated scupture (old pit toilets, rusted cars and unused firewood). The entire yard of my host family's home is marked by the distinctive scrape of rakes through very fine sand, sometimes in what appear to be intricate patterns. I am the little figurine that lives in the miniature Zen garden on your coffee table.

While the sculptural elements of Loopeng's version of Zen gardens are an unintended consequence of poverty (no running water, certainly no recycling center or waste management authority in Loopeng), the raked sand is what a well-kept "lawn" in Loopeng looks like. Forget your fancy grasses, we have sand! Do we have plain sand because nothing will grow in it? Oh no, people here work at keeping their yards completely and totally devoid of greenery.

Lately, thanks to a load of recent rain, green shoots of plant life have been creeping out of every corner of the earth and the good citizens of Loopeng have their hands full destroying every living thing that attempts to enliven their yards. Every evening my entire family gathers in a selected corner of the yard to de-weed. Shovels are used to rip the plants out of the earth, and rakes collect them into neat little piles that are then wheeled far, far away to disturb someone else. The ground is re-raked post-disposal, just for good measure I suppose.

Of course, there are reasons for this sort of landscaping. Most prominent, in my experience, is that grass/weeds/green stuff provides a haven for snakes, and frankly, who wants a highly poisonous snake to make its home in their yard? No one I know, or wish to know. Snakes are scary. I'm glad to see people take precautions.

However, as terrified as I am of snakes, a really windy day here in Loopeng can make me curse whoever first gave the Batswana a rake. The slighest breeze easily turns into a veritable sandstorm, and hence I live perpetually covered in a thin film of grainy sand. Sure, it's a natural exfoliator, but I've had enough to last a lifetime. If only there was some kind of snake-repelling ground cover...

I may have just discovered my calling. Developing plants for people who dislike nature!

Anyway, I do not wish to do a disservice to the few, the proud, the gardeners of Loopeng. While most residents choose bare earth as their landscape architecture of choice, there a few truly lovely gardens here. Some are just pretty arrangements of potted plants, others are elaborately edged flower beds. A few people even have patches of grass, complete with plastic bottle irrigation systems. It's inspiring to see how people have managed to create little havens of Eden in such a difficult, desert environment, and their gardens are an asset to the village. Of course, no one's garden is 100% lawn and rose bushes. Everyone owns a rake, and it seems the people are powerless against their compulsion to use it.

So it goes that every resident of Loopeng inhabits their own life-size Zen garden, including myself.

Sayonara from South Africa,

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Long Journey by Train

Welcome new readers (hi Gwendolyn)! Just one quick reminder before we get started here. I write all these posts on my tiny, tiny Blackberry. There is no editing and no revision and hence, uncorrected errors abound. I'm sorry, but such is the life of a Blackberry blogger.

And now, our featured presentation...

The last day my mom and I spent in Cape Town (leg one) was spent at the V&A Waterfront and Robben Island. On my first trip to Robben Island, last year, the journey was made on an old boat that had orginally transported prisoners to the island. It was small, cold and windy but historic and atmospheric. It has now been replaced by quite a fancy boat with a much larger capacity. I was disappointed with the change until we encountered rough seas on the way back to the city. It was hardly fun on the big boat, it would have quite unfun on the old, tiny boat.

Anyway, the tour of Robben Island itself is always interesting. It's not just a tour of the prison for which it is famous, but also the World War I-era town, the old buildings from the former leper colony and a few other sights dating from the earliest settlers through the World Wars and apartheid. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon. Also, there were more penguins, lots of birds and a few seals. Fun fact: Robben is Afrikaans for seal. There, my blog is entertaining AND educational.

Anyway, the next day we said a sad goodbye to Cape Town and dragged ourselves to the train station. We hopped on our train and were soon ensconced in the dining car, drinking champagne and watching the Castle pass by and Table Mountain fade in the distance.

Off we went!

The suburbs went on for a long time, but then we hit wine country and were shocked by how it seemed to stretch on and on forever. Neither of us had any idea of the scale of South African wine production. Trust me, it's not just Paarl, Franshoek and Stellenbosch, it appeared to be most of the Cape.

So there we were, on a train, alternating between our car and the lovely lounge car, passing through mountains and valleys and fields and all kinds of South African scenery that most people would never associate with Africa. There were no lions, no elephants, and just one lousy springbok in the Karoo. Apparently trains aren't great for game viewing, but the scenery was spectacular.

One conversation that kept replaying itself was, "Hey, look!"

"What? Where?"

"Oh, it was ... but we've past it now."


My favorite region was the Hex Valley which we reached around lunchtime. There's a short tunnel before you enter it and then the train follows a small river through it. The tracks are elevated on one side of the valley, so you can look down on the farms and flowers and whathaveyou. It was a far cry from the Northern Cape.

Straight after the valley was an enormous tunnel that seemed to take forever to get through and it looked like a whole other planet once we did. It was the Karoo. An endless plain of dry, desert, nothing. Well, almost nothing, every once in a while the train would whoosh past some cute little town in the middle of nowhere, like Matjiesfontein. Matjiesfontein was some kind of Victorian spa getaway and, from the windows of a train, it looks very much the same today as it probably did then. I'd love to wander back there at some point.

At Beaufort West, the train stopped. We hopped off to wander a bit and take a series of photos that could only exist in South Africa. Every 10 or 20 feet along the station platform was a sign that said "Beaufort West" except that not one single sign actually said that. Every single one of them was grossly mispelled or missing important letters. We caught most on camera before we re-boarded . As the train pulled away we spotted one sign that had the town name spelled properly. One out of a few dozen isn't too bad, right?

Later in the evening the train stopped again. The engine needed to be replaced. The whole operation came to a dead halt in the Karoo while we waited for a new engine to arrive. Ahh, Africa...

The sun went down and we settled into bed, but not before I did something I hadd never considered before. I took a shower. On a moving train. It was a surprisingly nice set-up, not cramped at all. There was also a nifty window. You know, in case you wanted your cleansing with a side of star-gazing.

The next morning we crossed into Gauteng. The scenery was much greener and more agricultural than the Karoo, but it quickly turned to towns and townships as we got closer to South Africa's major cities. Traveling by train was interesting in urban areas because the tracks essentially crossed through people's backyards, where ordinary tourists fear to tread.

After all the time we spent on the train, our legs were a bit shaky back on solid ground and glad as I was to be able to walk about freely, I was sad to say goodbye to the train. It was a great way to see so much of South Africa's scenery and out-of-the-way places in a short period of time. The food was fabulous too, though Mom balked at the biltong. I'd love to travel more via train in Africa. I love the views and the faintly colonial vibe, but I'll probably have to shelve future trips until I'm practically swimming in gold. Shame.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

House-Hunting with Penguins

In preparation for a lengthy train journey later on in our trip, my mother and I took a much shorter journery via train from Cape Town to Simon's Town to see the African penguins at Boulders Beach.

We were lucky to visit on an uncrowded day, and we got plenty of penguin close-ups. They sure are ugly birds when they're molting! Otherwise, they are a joy to watch. One was voguing for the cameras, while many others lay napping under the boardwalk. It was interesting to see the birds in an almost tropical environment. I wouldn't ordinarily associate a turquoise sea with penguins, but there they were.

The penguins are quite a walk out of town, and you can only stare at a vast expanse of blue for so long, so on our way back we turned our attention to the buildings.

Strange as it may seem, the Soeth family pasttime is house-hunting. Property guides are our gossip rags and open houses our afternoon matinees. I remember being taken out of school for an orthodontist appointment and stopping at an open house on the way. Sunday afternoon drives inevitably lead to a few house tours. As luck would have it, we hit Simon's Town on a Sunday.

My vision may not be that of a hawk, but I have a keen awareness of for-sale signs. Approaching a large, blue, Dutch-colonial style home, I instantly zeroed in on the for-sale sign planted in the lawn. I gestured towards it, "Hey, we could live there!" Mom glanced over and stopped dead in her tracks.

"It's open."

We ran across the street. A realtor promptly greeted us at the door, with a pair of adorable dogs. I will spare you the details of the guided tour, but it was a highlight of the whole trip for me.

Well, to be honest, I actually liked the second house better. That's right, we went on multiple house tours with the end result being that we had to rush to catch the bus back to Fish Hoek and then the train back to Cape Town (and by rush, I mean run).

Overall, I thought Simon's Town was a lovely little place with great shops, restaurants, museums and public spaces. If I ever find myself with a few million rand to spare, I very well might buy a summer home in Simon's Town! *I've got numbers for realtors if anyone's interested.*

Christmas Vacation: In the Beginning

I know how many of you are just dying to read about how truly fantastic my "winter" vacation was while you shoveled snow off your car, so here you are!

I took the Intercape bus down to Cape Town. My mom was flying in that night. Upon arrival in the city, my mission was two-fold: check-in, arrange transport for my mother. Hiring a taxi to fetch my mom was easy enough, checking in was a beast.

The bus trip from Kuruman to Cape Town hovers around 18 hours. Counting the trip from my village to town, my travel time was over a 24-hour period. All I wanted when I arrived at the hotel was a shower and a bed. Initially, I got neither. My mother paid the deposit with her credit card. They could not verify my identity as her daughter and so would not allow me to check in. Fine. I groused. I grumbled. I plotted. I planned. Whining got me nowhere. Getting another room was impossible. But then, I stumbled across an e-mail from my mother mentioning the name of the hotel. I showed it to the receptionist, she handed me the room key. Grateful as I was to plop down on a big, comfy couch I couldn't help but laugh. I could have faked that e-mail in under 30 seconds. High security at that hotel.

I then set about waiting for my mom. I was too excited to rest, so I walked about the city center for a bit. Showered. Ate. Watched the National Geograhic channel. And fell asleep. I was awakened past 1 am by the room phone ringing. I picked up and heard "We have your mother."

Naturally, I thought she'd been kidnapped. Wiping sleep from my eyes, I began to consider my options. I didn't get very far when there was a knock at the door. Kidnappers? Or worse?

Of course it was neither. It was my mom! Yay!

We settled on the couch for an all-night gab fest, and when I say all night I mean ALL NIGHT. Around five am we decided to hit the hay, but when we saw how light it was outside and realized how soon breakfast would be served we got up, got dressed and went out. Who needs sleep anyway?

Our first stop was the Company Gardens, which is home to not only very beautiful plantings but highly social squirrels as well. We hit the crypt at St. George's cathedral for some sustenance in the form of Coke and cake, and then moved on the Iziko Slave Lodge museum. About halfway through exhaustion hit us like a tidal wave. I'm not even sure how we got back to the hotel.

The next thing I remember is waking up to a hotel staff member wandering through the door. He looked at me, I looked at him, he left. I was awake. I woke up Mom. It was a clear evening, so we decided a trip up Table Mountain was in order.

Exhaustion and a total lack of any level of fitness or time, prevented us from trekking up to the top with our own two feet. Instead we took the cable car. We stepped on in fair weather and stepped off to a bone-chilling wind. After walking about 10 feet, we stopped and huddled for warmth. The bush in front of us rustled. We inspected. Mere inches from where we were standing was a rock hyrax enjoying his dinner. I was too cold to take pictures, but Mom got a few.

After a while of alternating enjoying the view with trying desperately not to freeze to death, we caved and headed into the restaurant, which was packed with fellow tourists-turned-to-ice-cubes. We had just settled into a table with a sunset view with out hot chocolate when Mom remarked that, more than anything, the experience reminded her of being at an Alpine ski resort. Great, my mother traveled all the way to Africa and I took her to the one place that looked and felt nothing like it. Nevertheless, we had an enjoyable evening at the Table Mountain Alpine Ski Resort, sending off postcards and shopping for Christmas gifts.

I think you can tell a lot about a person by what they think when presented with a giant rectangle of cloth. At the Shop at the Top there was a rectangular cloth edged in elephants, I decided it was a scarf, Mom thought table cloth and the tag said sarong. It takes all kinds.

Back at the hotel, we finally collapsed for a real night of sleep. Lord knows we would need it. Vacations with me aren't for the faint-hearted.

Feel It, It's Here: Longtom Marathon 2011

It's that time of year again! Time for me to strap on my running shoes in 100-degree heat and start training to walk/run the Longtom Marathon in support of the Kgwale Le Mollo Foundation.

The annual Longtom Marathon is a 56 kilometre race through the Longtom pass in the mountains of Mpumalanga. I will be participating in the half-marathon, same as last year. Yup, that's right, I'm preparing to spend the better part of 3 hours panting under the African sun... again. As tiring as it was, the marathon filled with quirks that I look forward to experiencing once more. Last year, I wound up spending a few kilometres behind a woman who was not only smoking during the race, but carrying a monkey in her backpack. Only in Africa. I'm more than willing to crawl out of bed at 4 am to see that again. Longtom is also the only event organized by PCVs that brings together volunteers from different cohorts, so the social aspect is a big draw as well. Most importantly though, is that the money we raise goes to Kgwale Le Mollo.

All the books, computers and textbooks in the world would hardly improve many of the schools in South Africa. Too many of them are just pits of dysfunction, and learners, no matter how smart and ambitious, are lost before they even get started. KLM plucks these students from failing schools and provides them with scholarships to Uplands College, one of the best prepatory schools in South Africa. At Uplands, students not only receive quality instruction in the core subjects of the South African curriculum, but are also provided with various enrichment activities including sports, music, chess and community service. I have never visited Uplands, but other volunteers have and their reports are nothing short of glowing regarding both the school and the current scholarship recipients.

I would love to make the argument that taking the best students out of public schools is a disservice to the students left behind. I would love to be able to say that the resources of KLM would be better spent improving state-sponsored education. But I can't. Because neither of those things are true. I wish they were. I wish that improving the education system here was as easy as throwing in a handful of exemplary students and building a library, but it's not. The bright students are too often hindered by their overburdened instructors, and books alone won't teach anyone to read. For the time being, shifting the smart kids to an environment where success is all but guaranteed is the best that we can do for them.

There are two ways to donate.

Method 1: Online
1. Visit the KLM website at
2. Click the donate photo in the upper left corner
3. Follow instructions (please make sure to put my name in the Longtom Marathon field)

Method 2: Snail Mail
1. Make a check out to Kgwale Le Mollo
2. Add a post-it stating that the volunteer you are supporting is Kelsey Soeth
3. Mail to:
KLM Foundation
c/o Bowen Hsu
461 So. Bonita Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91107

We raised nearly four hundred dollars last year which was absolutely awesome. Let's try to do it again this year.

Thank you!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Ode to an Ex

It's been a while since we had any contact. I know you are unable to respond to this post, but I feel compelled to write it.

This morning, as I stood in the far corner of the yard dumping out the sloggy mess that results from an overdue hairwashing, I glanced in your direction. Let's be frank, you were never much of a looker, but you've reached a new low.

When we first met, I almost cried at the sight of you. Again, let's be honest, you were a real step down for me. We were flung together anyhow, and I learned to get along. Sure, you were too hot to handle in the heat of an African midday son. You weren't always as hygenic as I might have wished, but all that crouching turned out to be pretty stellar exercise. You always stood straight and tall, a beacon of refuge when parasites and bacteria threatened to squeeze from my very pores. In short, we learned to get along. I settled down. You were my one and only. No Prince Charming, but it seemed like we would have a long and happy life together.

Then, disaster struck. The rains came and try as you might, you could not fight the shifting sands. You slid, you shuddered and finally, you fell. Your tin walls remain standing, as a testament to your former glory perhaps, but they are tilted like an Okoboji funhouse. The gaping pit has been exposed, a depthless pool of darkness. You lean away, in fear, or in shame. You are a shadow of your former self.

While you lie, defeated, in your corner. I now trek to the neighbor's. It is a journey I abhor. Whatever our troubles may have been, I apologise. I took you for granted. Now that it's over between us, I miss you. My only hope is to replace you, dear former pit toilet, with a genuine flush toilet in just a few months. I can hardly wait.