Yebo - Joey and the Deltones

In a way, this song kind of represents me at my best. It is a snapshot of me at my most idealistic, dreamy, and hopeful.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Future, Here and Now

The future exists so we can see how we have contributed to changing our world for the better.

Or at least that's the mindset we should have.

Tomorrow is the day. I realize I've been ridiculously occupied and so haven't written much in the past week, while way too much has happened. I posted a blog earlier today below this one that was supposed to go up 6 days ago. Oh well. If you're reading this then that means you get 2 for 1 this time around. Because I think you're lovely. Also, this will probably be the last blog entry for a month or two because access to the internet our first two months abroad will be just about zero. The first two months is strictly program and language training and adjusting to the culture and country. The idea is not to have any distractions such as cell phones or email.

So to start, I think I've lost my mind. I told everyone who asked "How are you feeling?" that I was fine at that point but a day before I would leave I would be a mess. Well, I'm pretty close to that at the moment. Thankfully, I got most of my packing shite together a few days ago, but I still have a decent bit to do before I depart tomorrow. Everything is a wee bit too real. I have to do things I didn't even think of a few months ago.

For example. Tomorrow morning, before I leave, I will shut off my cell phone, and leave it home, and not have it for 2 years. That's fine, but it's just something I didn't even think about. I don't even know if I'll have the same number upon my return - my guess is probably not. Also, the things in my room that are mine. They will not be exactly where they are upon my return in 2 years - unless my mother decides to dust the toy chest I guess. So maybe I should have made things look a little neater. There are books and toys and little things that have been part of my daily life for 23 years that I will temporarily leave behind, but all of which offer some degree of comfort, and sanctuary to me.

It doesn't matter. I did a lot of thinking this weekend. My good friends from college (you know, back in "the day") came up this weekend and spent the nite. We went out on the boat up in Cold Spring Harbor and got back and had delicious pizza and mom's homemade cookies, and on top of that, we helped my dad solve a major dilemma involving a 5 liter bottle of wine. The dilemma in case you haven't guessed it yet, was that he could not finish it by himself. Wine all around, a fire in the backyard, a beautiful nite to veg to - it was all wonderful. I also got to go to the beach on Sunday for a few hours. The beach wasn't too crowded - the water was cold enough so I didn't feel the urge to go in, and the sun was shining brightly. The best part for me was the constant wind blowing off the water. It was cool enough to be refreshing, but warm enough to be tolerable. It filled my nostrils and lungs with the specific smell of the ocean during summertime. I was able to look as far out as I could and see little dots that were boats out in the distance. I got thinking about how physically far away South Africa is. I tried to look down the beach and picture one person flying like a bird to SA. The distance seems impossible. Yet it is anything but. It seems all that much closer not only because of airplanes but because of the ease of communication across continents.

But damn. I sure couldn't see South Africa from where I was.

As I started feeling the knots in my stomach and as I got noticeably quiet around my friends (something I try not to do, but seem not to be able to overcome it when something big is looming) I had somewhat of an epiphany. Well.... ok, maybe an epiphany. More like a grand realization. Whatever it was, it happened.

I get this anxious, nervous, freaking out feeling the day before I do any big traveling because in the back of my mind, I'm thinking only about what I'm leaving behind when I step out the door. The grand realization I had was that that was stupid.

Of course I will always be thinking about what I'm leaving behind, but the point is I have to change the way I think about it. I can't think about how much I will miss this or that or how much I wish I could take X, Y or Z with me. I have to think about how everything from home and my past will benefit me and my work in the future. I have to focus on the incredible adventure I am about to undertake. I have to get into the mindset that allows me to focus on the future - the next two years - in Africa - volunteering - meeting countless people - learning new languages - eating new foods - laying my eyes upon the beauty of the world. This is what I've been looking forward to for years now. I will miss everything here very much. But I can't dwell on the comforts of home anymore. It's not good for my morale or for my stomach. What I will take from home is the strength that everyone of my friends and family has given me, and the love that has been shown to me. I will share that with South Africa.

I've been put in a position that allows me to contribute to changing the world. Many of you have told me that I can in fact change the world. Truth is, anyone and everyone can, if they want it enough. My promise to you is to do my part, and prove you right.

I'll be back in two months.

Sala Sentle. (Setswana - Stay well)
Sala Kahle. (Zulu - Stay well)


Great Expectations - not the movie

Bottom line. I don't really know what to expect. I've already decided to just let things happen.

Now that I've come to my conclusion, I'll try to figure out how I got there.

I talked to my brother the other nite about some of what was going thru my mind. Andrew had paid me a surprise visit at home - something unexpected - I thought he was stuck out in Colorado taking classes all summer with no more than a few days off. Turns out, I was wrong. Not only was I wrong, but I was blatantly uninformed. It's amazing the length a secret can go without being divulged to the party it's designed to be kept from. Usually someone blows it all up with an absent-minded comment, or maybe they just didn't know that person A was the person who as supposed to be left in the dark, and so tells person A, said secret. Well, that didn't happen, and everyone from my cousins from upstate, to my neighbors, to friends who were living in different states at the time kept mum. It was a wonderful surprise.

But. Back to my thought process. Andrew (my brother, for those of you playing the home game) and I took a ride to Jones Beach late on Monday nite to just spit a bit about everything we hadn't really had the chance to do. He got me talking about Peace Corps after a lengthy conversation about our own thoughts on "the afterlife" or the lack thereof, depending on the party. I realize reading that back that it sounds like something fourth graders also might have a conversation about... "Do you think there's really a heaven?" "Definitely." "How do you know?" "My sister's best friend has a brother who knows a guy who goes there on vacation in the summer." "No he doesn't." "Yea, he does. I saw him there." Well, maybe not, but I found myself answering questions or at least trying to answer questions I had never tried to put into words before.

It got me thinking about religion and what role that will play during my time overseas. South Africans are a rather religious people and often people will ask you to come to their church on Sundays. I realized I may be in situations where it is expected that I share my religious beliefs, or ideas about God. I'm very comfortable in my own mind with my beliefs, but expressing them coherently to another person proved to be very difficult, as my conversation with Andrew illustrated. What those beliefs are is not necessarily the point at this time, but rather how to express them so others may understand them. It would be easy if they fit into a schematic of an established religious faith, but for myself, it's not that simple. Anyway, that's a conversation to be had with myself at another time.

All this led to expectations from the Peace Corps. Someone had been talking to my brother a few days earlier and had asked him something along the lines of, "What's Joey going to do after he gets back from the Peace Corps? Has he thought about a real job yet?"


This brought up two issues.

#1 - It seems that some people don't fully understand the scope or reach of the Peace Corps, or anything that it actually does. This is not their fault at all - but the above example illustrates the problem of unawareness. I'll be honest - I have no idea of the scope or reach of the PC myself, but I would certainly stop short of belittling it by indicating one must move on to a "real job" afterwards. It's not just a two year vacation, as some may imagine it resembles.

#2 - I have no freaking clue what I'm going to do after Peace Corps, and to be honest, it's more or less the last thing on my mind right now. I have to get started before I think about wrapping everything up and moving on. It's like walking into a restaurant and having the obviously attractive hostess ask you if you've thought about dessert yet, or what your breakfast plans are for tomorrow. You don't have an answer yet, and you shouldn't be expected to. Although, a little word of advice - if an attractive hostess ever asks you what your breakfast plans are for the next morning, especially if she does it before seating you, you had better think of a witty answer rather quickly, and pray that you have a pen on you to get her number.

After Peace Corps... Already? Well, I've always had the idea that Peace Corps would be the key that would unlock countless doors, leading down many paths for the future. Peace Corps will highlight what I'm good at, where my strengths and weaknesses are, will hopefully help me realize where my passions are, and allow me to network with countless individuals - most likely all with similar goals and life plans as my own. At this point, I don't plan on staying around in South Africa for too much longer than my service allows. I expect to come back to the US, maybe go to grad school for XXXXXXXX. That's not meant to indicate my entry into adult entertainment, but rather just something to be filled in at a later date. I expect that my experiences will be something I can bring back with me to an academic environment, and continue learning from them, and share stories with others in school. Sustainable development, global health issues, international development and relations, poverty issues - all are possibilities for a grad school focus, but the list is by no means exclusive.

I guess I'll head back to Long Island for a while when I return to get my bearings straight. I'm sure I'll be in the mindset to get my own place - but I don't think I will be able to jump right into it, being that the readjustment allowance the PC gives to returning volunteers is currently under $7G. Maybe by that point some of my friends will have become rather well off, and will let me stay in their pool house, so long as I don't hog the courvoisier (does anyone actually drink that stuff?), or set the place on fire with an overabundance of Tiki torches that I set up for ambience, or scare the neighbors with my affinity for magic.

I'll need a job. Maybe a job doing research for a development organization, or working with HIV/AIDS issues domestically. Maybe bartending or painting houses for a few months. I'd be a great babysitter because I adore kids - even if I think they look funny. But I don't think many people would hire a 25 year-old long haired, bearded, Setswana speaking babysitter. At least, no one that I've come across. Ah - I guess that means I expect my beard and hair to grow long... That is, if I have much hair left by the time I get back. Yea, the hair gene in my family is not so strong, so I expect to lose a good bit of it. I've always been rather vain about my hair in my younger days, and I guess I still kind of am, but I promise, no hair pieces. Only combovers and spraypainted hair.

What about immediate expectations? Expectations of my service? To understand somewhat what it is I expect, you must understand that my whole life I've had a rather optimistic view of the world and the challenges it faces. I do express my fair share of disappointment and go thru periods where I think everything has gone to shite, but overall, it is my mindset that any problem can be addressed and dealt with as long as there is the dedication to solve it. Not just a "We should do something about this because it's the right thing to do." But rather, "We can do this because there's no reason we can't. You say there is a reason we can't? Well, we'll start there."

I'm not sure how informative this entry was overall about my expectations, but I'm sure I'll be posting more in the future here and there about what it is I will expect. For now, it's difficult. As I said at the beginning of this entry:

Bottom line, I don't really know what to expect. I've decided to just let things happen.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Events That Have Led Me Here

It's amazing I'm less than two weeks away from departing for South Africa with the Peace Corps. I suppose somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew I'd end up here at some point. I just didn't know when. Because I've been waiting so long, and all of a sudden it's here, it kinda feels at random times like I'm being punched in the face.

I'm going to take some time to reflect back on how I came to this point, and then maybe talk a bit about where I may end up. Maybe mull over some possible goals for myself. I have them in my head, though nothing concrete yet. Anyway. Let's go back to the beginning.

Sophomore Year. It's March or April of 2004, and some friends of mine had just returned from South Africa, where they spent a month doing service work at the Mohau AIDS orphange. An hour of story telling and pictures flowing by on a projector screen had mesmerized me. My friends were up there speaking to a couple fellow students, a handful of faculty, and maybe one or two higher ups in the ranks of the University of Delaware system about the specific jobs they had done, ranging from administering medicine to young children, changing dipers, assisting with record keeping in the offices, or pushing kids on the swingset outside. The goal was to convince the University to establish a service trip as the main proponent of future study abroad trips to South Africa. I don't know who else they sold on the idea that day, but I knew I was in.

There have been times in my young life where I had determined "I will do X" and in fact I do X. Up to that point in my life, "X" may have been anything from eating a cookie, to finishing that paper that is actually due in four hours, to commiting myself to exercise for longer than a half hour. "X" as you may have inferred, almost always referred to small goals of mine.

So imagine my surprise when I heard myself telling my friends "I am doing this trip next year, no matter what it takes." It could have just been bullshit coming out of a very emotionally charged Joey, and I can see why some people would think that. Hell, I thought it at first. But then as I repeated the statement over and over again to different friends of mine, I felt the strangest thing... I knew deep down that I was fully committed to what I was saying. No matter what it would cost, no matter what I had to do, I knew I was going to do this.

At this point I would like to thank my mom and dad outright for supporting me and actually paying for my trip. They certainly made the process a billion times easier.

South Africa captivated me from the moment I stepped out of the mini-bus taxi that had taken us to our home base the day we arrived. As I stepped out of the car, I breathed in slightly and my lungs were instantly saturated with a richness they had never felt before. There was something about the air quality in Waterkloof Ridge that snagged me at the first possible instant. My experience only got better from that point on.

The month of January 2005 was spent traveling around the Gauteng province and just beyond, volunteering in one of three places. The Mohau AIDS Orphange in Atteridgeville, Motheong Primary School also in Atteridgeville, and the Tumelong Project, which for us was a day care center and primary school in one for children in the Wintervedt region of South Africa. We also spent a good amount of time visiting local sites such as the Apartheid Museum, Lesedi Cultural Village, a Cheetah Reserve, and the Madikwe Game Reserve on the Botswana border, which also happens to be the place where a handful of us had a VERY close encounter with a bull elephant while on safari. It was a very exciting and fulfilling month.

Despite everything we were involved with, very few instances stand out in my mind as life changing, and I think that's a good thing. It's good to recognize stand out moments when you are overwhelmed with new experiences, because the stand out moments put everything else in perspective. For example, while at Mohau, I had interacted with every single one of the children who were healthy enough to be with. I felt I had made somewhat of a connection with a few of them, and of the few, some stronger than the others. I felt needed by many children in the respect that they needed me to push them on the swings, or they needed me to reach a toy they weren't supposed to have that was on a high shelf somewhere, or they needed me to turn on the tv that was up too high for them. They were using me for my size and strength!!!! Well, who wouldn't?

One of my "Whoa" moments came about a week into my volunteer service. A young girl, Rafilwe, had been sick the last few days and was just now starting to reintegrate with the rest of the kids, but she was still not well. She cried all the time and would stop only when she came to me, and grabbed my shirt or beard as she sat down on my lap. For some reason, she didn't want to go to anyone else but me, and for a few hours, I was the only one who could comfort her. I felt needed, but in a whole different respect. I was only needed temporarily, yes, and she eventually would have been fine even if I wasn't there at all, but that's not the point. I realized that my presence could comfort a lonely child halfway across the world, despite having nothing in common, not even a language.

The other child who changed my life immeasurably is Gontse. Gontse was three years old when I met him for the first time. He spoke very little English, and for the first few days, we communicated via his best friend, Given, who seemed to be the head honcho and communicator amongst the younger children. My relationship with Gontse began innocently on the swingset, we moved on to the point where he was able to climb up my legs and into my arms, and eventually developed to the point where he seemed to be my own personal sidekick, my right hand man - thought mostly he wanted to be carried everywhere. From the moment I walked in at 8 am, until the moment I left at 4 pm, he was with me. His favourite thing to do was put his arms up (indicating "pick me up") and once he was in my arms, he would bend over backwards, wanting to be hung upside down and walked around the yard, viewing the world from a completely inverted perspective. I only grew tired of this after the 117th time in a row, but even then I couldn't help but keep doing it.

I'm not sure how this will sound, but it doesn't matter. I felt like a father figure to Gontse for the entire time I was there. It made me realize on a limited level, the feelings one must have from starting a family, and having children of one's own. What destroyed me inside was the knowledge that I would only be part of Gontse's life for three weeks, after which I would return to the States, and he would have a whole host of other volunteers who he could hang off of and have push him on the swings. He was only three years old, I had known him only three weeks, but he changed my life forever. I now had to deal with the feelings I had of him most likely not remembering who I was, despite my never in a million years forgetting him.

A third major "Whoa" event happened unexpectedly on our day off. To understand the scope of this day, I must first do my best to explain the company I kept while in South Africa. My four main amigos at the time consisted of:

1- Jordan Leitner - 21 year old singer-songwriter with an open mind and vicious appetite for new experiences and learning about the unknown. Immerses himself in a situation to get the most out of it as humanly possible.

2- Jeremy Whiteman - 19 year old with a passion for social justice, equality, an open mind and ever-ready sense of humor. Also has ice blue eyes and a huge smile.

3- Kwasi Agbottah - 23 year old transfer student originally from Texas. Actively involved in educational pursuits and examining how race and culture affects his everyday life.

4- Eugene Matusov - Our "professor". Actually is a professor of Education, also has a degree in Physics. (Eugene will have to correct me if I am mistaken) Emigrated from Russia in the 1980s after numerous run-ins with the KGB over such incidents as holding rock concerts in household basements and helping a drunk German man get back on his feet after he somehow crossed the border by train from China. Usually is seen wearing a fanny pack or holding a cup of iced coffee from local coffee shops. Also is the most brilliant man I have met in my life, as well as one of the most innovative and inquisitive. His thirst for knowledge is only outdone by his ability to think up new ways to approach this task.

Our unexpected journey ocurred after Eugene made contact with a friend of his (Lebo - notice Delaware shirt) from Soweto - a collection of black townships near Jo'burg. The plan was to spend the day in Soweto helping Lebo beautify and clean up the park area near his home. The park had had major work done to it after Lebo enlisted the help of community members who turned it into a soccer field for kids to play on when they came home from school. "If the kids don't keep busy, they get in trouble - either with gangs or fooling around with girls." In other words, a simple thing like a soccer field could keep kids busy enough not to get involved with violent activities and keep them away from the temptations sexual activity has to offer your average 12 - 18 year old.

We arrived with a bag of 10 new soccer balls which had been given to us by the folks at Mohau who had no need for them. We spent the first part of the day buying painting materials to whitewash a stone wall on the border of the park. The goal was to paint the wall white to make the park look more appealing, and to give local artists a canvas to exhibit their artwork. Throughout the day, local people would stop by to talk to us - ask us where we were from, why we were here, what were we doing etc. More often than not, after talking for a short while, the passerby would pick up a spare roller and help us paint while we conversed. I'm sure the sight of this many white people in the heart of Soweto is not a common one, and we invited more attention than I ever previously thought we would. It turned out to be an amazing day. People would talk to us simply to practice their English speaking skills, the kids would tear us away from painting to play soccer with them, and more and more people came to help out with painting than we ever expected. By the end of daylight, a six foot square portrait of a young Nelson Mandela had been painted on the wall, we were all covered in white paint, sweat, grass stains, apple pieces, and probably more bugs than we cared to admit. We were beyond happy.

The day didn't end when the sun went down. Lebo and his friends brought over about six or seven different djembes and other shakers and percussion instruments, and within minutes the sounds of a giant drum circle filled the air, complete with whistles and yells and Lebo and kids dancing - swinging their legs over their heads, stomping the ground, clapping their hands. Their was an energy in the air that was so invigorating you literally felt like your feet might leave the ground at any moment.

As the drum circle dwindled, a BBQ feast was being prepared. Sausages, chickens and the staple food - pap, was available to us, the guests, after being cooked over a wood burning grill. This was followed by a generous handing out of giant pineapple slices - so potent and delicious they felt like they burned my tongue as I bit into each piece. This was no small matter. Poverty is an issue in Soweto like many parts of South Africa. So for Lebo and friends to pool together and put together a meal for myself and my friends was an incredible gift. All of us konked out on the ride home - a testament to the energy spent and the fullness of the day.

It was one of the most incredible days of my life - one which will never leave my memory. What we accomplished that day pales in comparison to the friendships we made, and the level of communication we were able to achieve with our new friends. The most important experience of that Friday in Soweto was that of the connection made between strangers, brothers, friends, all ultimately human.

I needed to go back to South Africa. Not solely to see Gontse and Rafilwe and try to replicate the relationships we had, or to try and recreate the atmosphere of that day in Soweto, but to see if the entire experience in South Africa was a wonderful one-time deal, or if the emotions and feelings the country elicited in me could progress even further, and to see if I could make a lasting contribution to the country and the people that had helped shape my life.

Next up will be future predictions and goals. For tonite, I'm spent.

Robala sentle. (Good nite)