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.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

How to End the Year Correctly

The cat, I believe, is now totally out of the bag.

I have been at home on Long Island since December 6th. I announced my return home to no one, save my buddy Lou who was kind enough to pick me up at the airport early that morning. I rang the bell of my childhood home in the morning twilight as the sun cast a golden hue over the skeletons of bare trees and houses I've known since I was born.

The air was crisp and cold - something I hadn't felt in almost 2 years.

The door opened, and I saw standing on the other side of it, my old man, dressed to the tee in his grey pajamas, his hair matted from the nite's sleep before, and a look of absolute surprise and joy covering his face. My mom came slinking down the stairs soon after - still half-asleep, wrapped up in her fluffy pink robe, and smiling a dreary smile that conveyed her sense of happiness and exhaustion all at once.

We had waffles that morning.

Being home thus far has been as one could expect it to be...

1- Good
2- Weird
3- Kind of boring
4- Strange
5- Homey
6- Familiar

There are a number of reasons my planned itinerary (South Africa -> Mozambique -> South Africa -> Italy -> Switzerland -> Sweden -> Italy -> USA) did not come to fruition. I won't get into the reasons why here. I had a number of pretty obvious signs from the Universe that it was time to pack up and go straight home.

I've learned to listen to the Universe when it speaks.

I'm happy I came home when I did. It allowed me to go see (and surprise) many of my friends from home and college before the holiday crush, and I was able to see pretty much my entire family for the actual holiday of Christmas.

Cousins!!! - Luke, Mal, Claire, Gramps, me

More cousins!! - Matt, me, Derek

Christmas was strange this year, mainly for the fact that my brother wasn't here. He's prancing around Europe, pretending he's Italian or French or a mountain Yeti. I'm a little bit jealous.

Andrew missed out on Aunt Maria's baked pasta, venison meatballs, and the next nite, venison spiedina. Sucks to be him. Not really.

To state the obvious, it was great to see my whole extended family, and just BE together. By far, the coolest thing since being home, has been visiting my two youngest cousins, Sean, now 2 1/2 years, and Ryan, only 3 months old. I love getting new members of the family.

The cool thing about it, besides the obvious fact that there is a new baby where there previously was none, was to see how much Sean had grown since I left.

EVEN MORE COUSINS!! - Me, Brian, and Sean

Sean now speaks mostly coherent English, runs around pretending he's Spider Man, names all his super heroes flawlessly, remembers peoples' names, sings the words to Beatles and Genesis tunes, and now, unlike before, he actually looks human. The last time I saw him, he was still more or less a lump of baby-ness - as all young children seem to be before the age of 2. To me, that is the biggest reminder of how long it has been since I've been home. I've gotten to spend some time with him the past few weeks, and I love that kid to no end.

This past year, 2008, was one of the toughest ones I've ever lived through. Last year, 2007, comes in a very very close second. After all the shite I've gone thru the last 12 months, I realized that this is the only way I would want to end this past year - with family, in familiar settings, eating massive amounts of delicious food, and feeling connected to something bigger, once again.

I hope 2009 takes us all to the sky. I'm trying again to learn how to fly.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

When Finally Set Free...

Copeland - When Finally Set Free

I've always liked this song. It seems especially meaningful and important to me now.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Rain Shower

When we looked back behind us, the western sky had turned into a towering wall of cobalt blue and grey. All around us it seemed as if the cloud ceiling was getting lower and lower. But we weren't very concerned. Home base was at most a 10 minute walk from where we were. A little bit of rain wouldn't be a big deal, especially after the intense heat of the past few days.

Two fellow PCVs, Susie and Ben were taking me around the eastern part of their village of Abbots Poort, or Majadibodu. We were at the high school, and Ben was showing me the shells of classrooms that still semi-existed there. I could see the disappointment on his face as he strolled aimlessly around the empty room - walking amongst disassembled plastic chairs, moving wooden desks that had been broken in half, and side-stepping the goat droppings that littered the floor. The wind blowing in from the half dozen broken windows moved the garbage in circles at his feet.

"The weird thing," he said, "is that, when the kids write graffiti on the walls of classrooms, it almost always has positive message..."

He pointed out some writings near the front of the class - "Stay in School!" or "Education is the key to your future!"

I wondered if the kids who wrote it really knew what they were writing, or if they just copied phrases they had seen written in an old torn apart textbook they came across once. The graffiti messages certainly seemed antithetical to the reality of the situation all around us in that room.

We left the high school and headed back towards the tar road, the whole time observing the massive wall of thunder clouds in the distance. They were threatening, but seemed to be moving south, so we weren't too hopeful for rain.

Still, the clouds were mesmerizing. We looked upon these vibrant grey clouds (if there is such a colour as vibrant grey, this was it) with nothing less than a sense of true awe. They stretched on for miles upon miles from north to south, and were separated rather cleanly by a curving line-break, formed due to what I could only assume was a strange pressure difference among them. (I'll admit, my knowledge of weather and what causes anything related to it is virtually zero.)

The clean, curving separation in the sky left a dark grey ceiling of clouds above us, and in front of us, a monstrous tidal wave of an imposing nature that looked like it would come crashing down on us at any minute. I might have liked to surf it, if I only knew how to surf, if it were made out of actual water, and if I had any balls.

We stopped at the post office to try and pick up some parcels that relatives had sent Susie and Ben, and as they were working that out, I sat out front near the road, watching streaks of lightning flash down from the sky in the not too far off distance.

I took out my camera, and tested out my reaction time, hitting the shutter button as soon as I saw a flash of light in the sky. I don't know if it was luck or if I'm just that awesome, (probably the latter), but I caught some really nice lightning strikes. This guess and check method is not the preferred way to take pictures of lightning, but it is more rewarding.

Susie and Ben waited patiently behind me as I was trying to capture one or two last strikes. After missing about 8 times in a row, we felt the wind suddenly change direction, and the storm started blowing directly towards us.

I packed up my camera and we started the walk to their humble abode, a quaint two room structure adjacent to their host family's house. A herd of goats scurried frantically past us, losing their footing, stumbling and crashing into each other as they tried to escape some unseen force coming from behind them. An older woman waddled behind them, holding her head scarf in place as she gently threatened them with a makeshift walking stick.

The first drops of rain came.

They were small and cold, but consistent. We were 50 yards from the door at this point, and upon entering Susie and Ben's place, we were considerably wet. Thirty seconds later, it sounded like a drum line had perched on the tin roof of the house and was pounding away at a Big 10 football game at half-time. We looked out the windows to see that visibility had been cut down to only 20 yards or so. Everything was grey, the wind was howling, and their were flashes of lightning and booming thunder every so often.

At that point in time, I hadn't officially bathed in about a week, due to my travel schedule, the lack of showers in rural South Africa, and my utter disdain for bucket baths. As I looked outside at the downpour, I dreamily said aloud, "I wish I could shower in that."

Ben and Susie turned to me and responded with a resounding "Yea!!! Go for it! We've done it before, and it's awesome!"

I wasn't surprised to hear this from them. I mean, for anyone who knows even a little bit about Ben and Susie, this made perfect sense. They are outdoorsy, carefree, grab-life-by-the-horns type of people. Of course they would have showered in the rain before. At home, and in Africa.

The wonderful thing about the rain storms that blow in here is that when the rain falls, it falls HARD. It's difficult to keep your eyes open when caught outside in those type of storms.

Encouraged by my raucous supporters, I grabbed my green bar of soap and little travel shampoo bottle that smells like vanilla, stripped off my clothes, ditched my shoes, slipped into my bathing suit (I still have some sense of decency it seems), and ran out into the storm.

Oh boy was the rain cold.

But it was such a refreshing and energizing cold! The kind of cold rain that stimulates your senses as each drop hits every inch of your body. It was the type of cold rain where you would force your body to shiver and let out gasps of nonsensical mumblings until your skin adjusted to the temperature and after a while it felt like a full body aqua-massage conducted by mother nature herself.

I hopped over to the corner of the family's house, where the rain gutter spilled out onto the stone patio. I stepped into a shin-deep rain collection bucket that was now constantly overflowing, and let the water from the gutter pound my body with the force of a small waterfall.

I took out my soap, washed my face, arms, chest, back, unmentionables, legs and feet, and decided I didn't feel clean enough (it had been a week after all), so I did it again. After that, I squeezed out some fragrant but cheap vanilla shampoo and attempted to wash my hair. Three times I did so just because it felt so good.

I took forever to rinse off, mainly because I didn't want my rain shower to end. As I tilted my head sideways to rinse out some more shampoo, I felt the sudden and uncomfortable feeling of 100 gallons worth of water instantly flooding my right ear. Not a fun feeling. I stepped away from the gutter, back into the rain, and began the necessary process of hopping up and down on one leg with my right ear facing the ground to try and release some water from my imploding ear drum. It got clear eventually and I was happy for it.

I remained standing in the still pouring rain for another 10 minutes. As the rain continued to pepper me with it's big, numbing droplets, I looked up and noticed a bright white break in the dark clouds to the west.

The sun didn't quite come out, but the bright spot shone white as angel stone, and it gave the world I was living in an unearthly and beautiful glow. I didn't want to dry off, so I continued to stand in the retreating rain, staring skyward at this revelatory and inspiring view.

I had this fleeting and unfortunately uncommon feeling of pride, joy, and contentment that I was truly in AFRICA - a place where you can experience natural beauty, wonder and joys that are unfamiliar or non-existent at home in every day life. Like a bus load of kids running up to you flashing their bright white smiles, wanting only to give you a high five; like being given a ride to a distant destination by someone interested in you and your story, not accepting payment, but only wanted good conversation; or like showering in the rain in a small village near the Botswana border, with not a care in the world.

I stood outside until the rain ceased completely, and let myself air-dry in the cool, moist air. My nipples certainly felt the chill - they got to that "could cut diamonds" stature, so I had to cover them up with my hands like a beauty queen whose top accidentally falls off during the swimsuit part of the competition.

Looking like a damp, shy, flat-chested school girl, I turned to Ben and Susie, who were watching the sky open up from their window and I tried to express to them how magnificent I felt.

It was the best shower I've ever had.

Two days later we had another powerful rainstorm. The wind was much more fierce this time around, and the whole lightning situation maybe slightly less stable. I had wanted to repeat the experience of two days before, but I had already committed myself to the notion of getting my hair braided by a friend of Ben and Susie's - a local 9th grade girl named Happy. She did a fabulous job (I paid her R10 for her tireless efforts too), though the whole time, I really did desire to be frolicking outside in the rain and mud like a kid with the world at his fingertips.

As my hair appointment was coming to a close in the candlelit kitchen space of Ben and Susie's, the rain stopped, and again, the clouds broke open in the west. It was much later when the rain stopped that second day, and the sun had already began to set. All of us taking shelter at Susie and Ben's walked outside to behold the endlessly colourful artist's canvas of an African Sunset. Pictures of these events are ok, but they will never do justice to the magnificence of what seems to never be anything less than a "perfect" sunset here.

Not only did the westward sky leave us breathless, but when we looked east to watch the storm moving on, we were treated to the most spectacular lightning show we had ever seen in our lives. The flash of light would start low in the sky and then the streak would splinter and crawl out in a million different directions directly above us, ending with booming thunder that we felt in our chests more than we heard with our ears. The entire evening sky left me in staring endlessly in awe at the beauty all around us, feeling overwhelmed and completely content.

I wrote a brief description of the sky in my journal after that second rain storm:

"Crimson red and orange lava-like coals from an ancient bonfire settled on the horizon, giving way to golden hues like angels' hair. Blue as bright as a child's eyes and as deep as the ocean trenches hovered just above. Purple clouds as black as nite covered the eastern sky with flashes of lightning spreading like electric spiderwebs across the entire magnificent sky."

These are two storms I will never forget, and hope I experience again, someday.

If not, I hope to always be able to paint a picture in my mind.

Oh also, we killed a scorpion that day that was hanging out right next to my head where I was sleeping.


Saturday, November 8, 2008

Living in a Tsotsi Paradise

Tsotsi (noun) TSO-tsee
1- Thug or criminal
2- Oscar winning 2005 film directed by Gavin Hood
3- Asshole South African who violates your space and security with his asshole friends by using threats of violence against you and takes your possessions because they like being assholes to people
4- Really, they're just huge assholes

Maybe this isn't the current accepted definition of what a "Tsotsi" is, but I've put a request into Merriam-Webster to get my definition included in the 2009 updated dictionary. Because I think my definition is way more accurate.

I suppose it was bound to happen sooner or later. And now that it did, I feel officially initiated into life in South Africa.

About 3 weeks ago, while en route to Pretoria for medical appointments and then to meet my parents for vacation, I was mugged by some fellow South Africans who it seems had nothing better to do than to seriously inconvenience me by taking shit that did not belong to them.

The story is as follows...

I hopped on a taxi from Tzaneen to Pretoria early-ish in the day, around 9:30 am or so. The ride was typically uncomfortable for a plethora of reasons: I had no leg room, it was hot and humid like the jungle of a fat guy's armpit, people were sweaty and smelly (myself included), and the chubby guy next to me obviously had something wrong with him because the whole ride, he wouldn't stop jiggling in his seat, bobbing his head around in circles, talking aloud to himself in siPedi, and spreading his fat legs out as wide as possible, thus eliminating the minimal seat space I had for my small ass to begin with.

I managed to sort-of fall asleep after the break in the ride (on a 4-hour ride to Pretoria, taxi's take a short bathroom and food break about 2 hours in), but I was woken up from the feeling of warm, greasy beef broth being dribbled on my leg, courtesy of Fat Bobby next to me. During the break he had decided to get a dish of pap, beef and gravy which he couldn't eat during the break, so he took the plate on the taxi with him to eat on the ride. Because of the bumpy nature of the ride and the obvious dim-wittedness and completely uncoordinated nature of my seat mate, about half the gravy ended up on my leg - an event which caused my friend to simply look at me and smile a dumb smile, just before he decided to throw the entire meal, pap, beef, plate and all, out the taxi's open window, splashing the remains on the glass of the taxi doors so the people in the seats behind us could enjoy the greasy streaks they left upon the clear surface.

Upon arriving in Pretoria, tired, anxious, angry and more than frustrated, I noticed that the taxi was pulling into a part of town that I hadn't been before. I had recognized it as being in the vicinity of the taxi rank I usually go to, but not quite where I'd end up normally. As the door opened, I asked a man outside if there were taxis going to Hatfield, my destination.

"Hatfield, yes. Follow me my friend."

I got out of the taxi clutching my duffel bag and day pack in either hand, the bags hanging low, and my Canon 10D DSLR camera backpack on my back. I expected to follow the guy to one of the taxis just on the side of the road in front of me, but I saw he turned the corner and was leading me down another block.

As I picked up my pace, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a short, stumpy looking black South African in a dirty green jacket abruptly turn around and start following me with an obvious purpose in his step.

Instantly, a warning light went off in my head. Something wasn't right. I could feel it.

The man I was following to the Hatfield taxi was about 5 or 6 paces ahead of me, and the sidewalk was crowded enough with people so that I couldn't catch up to him as quickly as I would have liked. There was a solid wall to my right, garbage, parked cars and people selling things on my left, and two ladies walking very slowly in front of me. Though I felt something wasn't right, I tried to tell myself I was just being paranoid and that things were probably completely normal.

Still, I picked up my pace as best I could, and I kept glancing behind me to see if I was putting any distance between myself and the man in the green jacket.

I wasn't.

I decided that things were actually not at all normal, and that I should quickly make a move to get the hell out of the situation.

I was about to start jogging ahead, but the instant I was about to take my first step, my heart stopped as I felt an arm come from behind me, swing around my neck, and I felt something blunt pushing against my lower back.

"GIVE! GIVE!" was all the man said.

I stood like a scarecrow, my arms out to the side, not moving, saying "Take what you want. Just take it..."

It was then that I felt 3 pairs of hands going thru all my pockets, and I heard the sound of the zippers on my bags being opened and the contents searched. I knew they'd take my phone. I knew they'd take my wallet, and I knew they'd take my small Pentax camera, because I always kept it in my pocket. Having people go thru your pockets makes you feel violated in such an awkward way. It's a hard feeling to describe. It isn't the worst thing in the world, but it just feels so wrong.

As they were searching me, I decided I could be ok with all that being taken, but I was absolutely terrified that they would take my Canon DSLR camera.

I began panicking slightly at the thought of them taking it, and so I started trying to plead with them to not take "it" without mentioning the item directly.

I thought to myself, "Don't take my nice camera" probably isn't the best thing to say to a group of criminals searching you, if you indeed want to keep your camera. I don't remember exactly what was coming out of my mouth, but I quickly realized it was useless and stupid. They weren't going to listen to me. They probably didn't even understand me.

I felt like I was being held for minutes on end while they searched me, in broad daylight, with people all around, watching the event go down.

At some point I looked ahead to the guy taking me to the taxi. He was looking at me with a desperate and apologetic face, his arms held out in an "I don't know what to say or do" manner, and he was shaking his head. I was mouthing the word "Help" to him, and then I actually began saying it aloud quite loudly as I saw more and more people pass by, look at me, then continue walking.

"Help?!?" I was practically shouting to the people who passed by. I said it in a disbelieving manner, like, "Is anyone going to do ANYTHING? Are you really just going to keep walking away? I'm getting mugged here jackass!"

No one did anything. No one acted as if anything was wrong. Everyone just went about as if it was part of the daily routine. And I suppose in that part of town, it really is part of the daily routine.

Eventually, after what felt like 15 minutes but was probably more like 15 seconds, the 5 or 6 men let me go, gave me a small shove, and began slowly walking the other way down the street.

I was overwhelmed, pissed off, and panicked that all my shit was gone.

I was quite surprised when I turned around and noticed that my duffel bag and day pack had not had anything taken out of them, and I was about to check if my Canon camera was gone until I thought to myself, "PSST! GET THE HELL AWAY FROM WHERE YOU ARE. IF YOUR CAMERA WASN'T TAKEN, DON'T TAKE IT OUT TO SHOW THEM THEY MISSED SOMETHING."

I ran up the block to where the taxi was waiting and started yelling at the guy who was leading me there.

"Why wouldn't you do anything?!? Why doesn't ANYONE do anything? That's the problem with this damn country. Everyone is too scared to stand up for anyone else. Everyone looks after themselves and who the hell cares if someone else is a victim? What the hell man?!"

The guy didn't argue. He agreed with everything I said.

"Yes. You're right! I don't do anything because they all had knives. They would kill me if I did anything. That is why I don't do anything."

I was still pissed at him, and also for a brief moment thought he might have been in on the whole thing, but after some thought, that didn't seem justifiable. I put myself in his shoes. If I saw someone getting mugged by 6 men with knives, would I do anything? Could I do anything?

I probably could if I wanted to get stabbed.

It's a fucked up situation, but the rules you follow as a potential victim or onlooker are generally the same: Don't resist, don't intervene. If the situation is non-violent, let them take what they want and they'll be on their way. Stuff can be replaced. That's really the best and only thing you can do.

When I was being held there, I had thoughts of "Ok... If I was Jackie Chan, how would I get out of this?"

My mind was racing, but I came to the conclusion that even Jackie Chan couldn't have done anything. I was in a vulnerable position, off balance, and outnumbered 6 to 1 by guys with sharp objects intended to cause pretty severe bodily harm.

I decided that if I was Jackie Chan, I would have to have waited for the incident to be over with. Then when the assholes turned around to leave, I would have drop kicked their sorry asses all the way to the Indian Ocean, tied them up, pierced their ears and noses with big hoop rings, hang them over the side of a rickety boat, tied to the boat only by thin fishing line I attached to their newly pierced appendages, and make them apologize to me repeatedly while dangling their testicles just above the Great White shark infested waters.

But alas, I am not Jackie Chan, or any variation thereof.

I got on the taxi to Hatfield, accepted the expressions of "Oh, shame." from the people riding with me, and inspected my belongings.

The only things missing were my phone, my Pentax camera, 150 rand, a few random items not important enough to remember, and my polarizing lens for my camera.

I felt a bulge in my pocket and realized that they had even given me back my wallet after they took the cash out. All my bank cards and IDs were still in there.

What the hell?

I was extremely lucky. These guys must have been professionals. Amateurs would have been much more uncoordinated and possibly much more violent. These guys knew what they were after, and knew the most efficient way to get it.

The biggest relief was to find that the assholes didn't even touch my Canon. Upon visual inspection, I realized that to the untrained eye, you can't even tell there is a zipper or a separate compartment to my backpack where my camera sits in rest. The compartment was flanked by two full water bottles as well, and those weren't touched, so I knew they had no clue that there was something of much more value in my possession than a crappy cell phone and 2 year old digital camera.

The fact that I did not lose my Canon took so much weight off of my shoulders that it made the whole incident seem petty. Still, I had a bit of trouble staying asleep the next few nites.

I really don't know how I ended up being so lucky. I realize that the whole situation could have been infinitely worse.

I've replaced my phone already, and 150 rand isn't a huge deal to lose, considering the circumstances. I'm pissed I don't have my small camera anymore though. I always have it on me, for pictures, videos, or even recording sound clips for song ideas. I'll wait a while until I get a new one. I didn't like that one so much anymore anyway.

Other stories from volunteers are more hair-raising than mine, and some have ended up much worse. It's a frustrating thing to deal with in this country. Crimes like this happen in the middle of the day, in broad daylight, with hundreds of people around to witness it. Most of them happen in the cities, though some in the more rural areas. Generally at our sites, volunteers feel safe. Elsewhere, volunteers are obvious targets, and they can't always avoid areas of town where the crime rate is high. Sometimes it's just bad luck that makes us end up there, and shit luck if something happens. We are all very wary of our surroundings, but there will always be times where you just can't do anything.

I found myself in that situation and am so thankful that nothing worse happened.

I just wish there was more of a desire to stop these guys. The police are useless. One of my friends, upon reporting a mugging to the local police station was told by the policemen that they wouldn't pursue the case. Why? Their reason:

"If we go after these guys, then they come after us and our families."

I'm sorry... what? Where I come from, [the majority of] cops sign up to be a cop because they want to make a difference and want to make our streets safer. Where I come from, it's the cops who call the shots and who willingly put themselves in the face of danger to keep others safe. Where I come from it's the cops who are to be feared by the criminals. Not the other way around.

But I guess I'm not living in NY now.

Here in South Africa, criminals truly do live in a "Tsotsi Paradise". It seems that for most of the policemen I've come across since being here, being a cop means nothing more than getting a paycheck and laying low if any real shite goes down.

Thankfully, I didn't need them. I hope I never do.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

For Some Visual Stimulation...

I'm just about to go on vacation for a few weeks with my mom and pops, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to share some of these. I came across them recently, and had a good laugh at a bunch. Here are some of my favourites...

My absentee ballot is in.
Please don't forget to vote on November 4.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Yes, Barack Obama

Since the Democratic Convention in 2004, I couldn't wait for the day that Barack Obama would run for president. I think like many other people, I didn't expect that day to come so swiftly.

However, I'm glad it has come now. You won't find the reasons why, in this entry. I am trying to curb any actions that would have this blog become one with a political bent. For reasons why, we can talk separately.


I describe myself as a "progressive", and it's no secret my views fall left of the political center. During the past presidential election however, I realized I was a little too far left, which tended to cloud any clear thought processes (as any sort of extreme does) and made me pretty obnoxious from an objective standpoint... Kinda like the people who stand on the street corner and tell you you're going to Hell if you don't accept Jesus.

Nobody likes those people.

Ayway, after the huge slap in the face that was W's re-election, I stepped away from politics for a long while. During that time away, I developed a bigger picture view of much of life, and realized that while politics still plays a significant role in our lives, the partisan back and forth nonsense does nothing to better anyone.

I could expand on this entry to explain how I came about my mental transformation, but again, I feel it's something better to be conversed about, rather than described in this format. Also, I don't have a lot of time on my hands at the moment, and I have to pack my bag to go start a self-imposed 5 day photo assignment.

The point of this entry is simply to state my support, faith and belief in Barack Obama. I've been inspired by him ever since I first saw him speak, and I strongly believe he will be an excellent president.

Most importantly, I truly believe he will not purposely divide our country (or the rest of the world) into "with us or against us" groups, but he will attempt to make us once again feel we are indeed the "United" States of America.

It takes a true leader to do that. I believe Barack Obama is that leader.

I guess we'll just have to wait and see...

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Kids... and Me... and sometimes their moms.

"Yes, it's true. I am signing up for an online dating service. Thousands of people have done it, and I am going to do it. I need a user name. And... Ah. I have a great one. "LittleKidLover". That way, people will know exactly where my priorities are at."


No. Not seriously.

People barely use the internet here. It wouldn't be worth my time.

Kudos to you "Office" fans who caught the first paragraph above. That show always makes me laugh.

I am not signing up for a dating service, and even if I did, the baggage that comes with a name like "LittleKidLover" is, I think, pretty obvious. However, clueless as Michael Scott may be to the duality of such a username, one can understand his true intentions are not pedophilic of any sort. Kids are just great company to be around. Ask anyone who has volunteered at camps, who has little cousins running around or anyone who has spent any time in the company of a few curious young souls exploring the world around them.

They're like adorable 3 month old puppies, but with a more expansive vocabulary.

Myself, I've always loved working and playing with kids. They seem to react very positively to me (most of the time - especially I'm not their older cousin) and I get along with them extremely well. I could speculate on the reasons for this, but I won't.

No, I lied, I will speculate. It's probably because, not only am I pretty awesome in general, but I don't think I ever truly grew up or grew out of that "kid" mindset. The things that make them laugh, make me laugh. The things that make them sad, make me sad. (Even if it is something as seemingly insignificant as someone putting the wrong type of jelly on your PB 'n' J sandwich)

Since growing older (but not up), I've tried to surround myself with people of a similar nature.

During my now 14 months in South Africa, I've had numerous encounters with those of a tinier stature who are age-ly challenged. Each time I spend time with kids here, whether they speak anything from Zulu, to Afrikaans or English, I'm reminded quite forcefully of why I enjoy being around them so much, and most of the reason why I got involved in this line of work in the first place.

Take my time at the farm (my first site) with Cassandra and Amanda. Both are now 5 years old. One is the third child from an Afrikaans family, the other is a Swati orphan. They have grown up together, and have been inseparable for as long as anyone can remember. They speak both Afrikaans and Swati. They have learned the languages from each other, piecing bits together here and there as the months move on. They do everything together every day. They even end their todays and begin their tomorrows together by sharing the same bed.

Cassandra and Amanda with the teddy bears I gave them

Their friendship is something truly remarkable and special.

One otherwise typically uneventful day at the farm, I was sitting against a wall, wondering with frustration how the days could possibly pass by as slowly as they were, when I overheard someone ask young Cassandra a question.

"Cassandra, what colour is Amanda?"

Despite the fact that apartheid has been officially ended since 1994, the concept of peoples' race and colour is still quite prominent. Conclusions are made immediately upon sight of another person based on whether they are "black, white, indian or coloured". Though it may frequently be the case, is is not always meant to carry negative connotations. It seems so ingrained into people's minds in this society that it is accepted as normal. I find myself falling into that mindset at times as well. If someone's telling a story about an encounter with another person, in order to get some immediate background information, I want to interrupt and ask, "Are they black or white?"

I catch myself all the time doing this, and I can't stand it. I imagine this tendency of mine partly existed before I came over to South Africa due to the racial issues that still exist in the US, but they are not nearly as prominent in every day life as they are here. Being here has exacerbated those tendencies of mine, and I've only been here a little over a year. I can only imagine what it's like to have grown up in this type of environment.

To bring all this back to the story, in response to the question "What colour is Amanda?", one could be forgiven for expecting Cassandra to simply answer, "Black". But she didn't respond with that.

After some though and a brief pause, Cassandra answered, "Pink."

I could tell the person asking the question was about as shocked as I was, if not more so.

"Why do you say she is pink?"

"Because she is pink. Everything about her is pink. That's her favourite colour."

I want to be clear that Cassandra did in fact understand the question. She knew she wasn't being asked what Amanda's favourite colour was. The question that was posed to her was simply perceived differently than we many, if not all of us may have interpreted it.

The whole rest of the day, I wore a huge smile on my face. It was amazing to me to have a glimpse into the way Cassandra viewed her best friend in the world. She didn't see Amanda as being of a specific race or colour. She was simply her best friend. As close as a sister.

One could quite possibly write a book about the brilliance of the friendship between Cassandra and Amanda, about how perplexingly strange and entirely normal it is at the same time. What made it so amazing for me to be with them, was to remember again how care free, honest, and non-judgmental kids are. They don't see the world in black and white, and they don't settle for seeing it with shades of grey. They view their world in an explosion of bright and beautiful colours, without ever being constrained by the symbolic uses the adult world has put them to. Kids aren't bothered by trivial issues like race or class. They view each other and everyone else as human, above and beyond anything else.

I wonder when that outlook is lost amongst so many?

I have made very close connections with so many kids in South Africa. As it turns out, I also have frightened many kids to the point of tears.

Some say it's my appearance. I say it's talent.

This was particularly true when I had my beard growing in full force on my face. I found that some kids didn't mind my beard - some actually really liked it and wanted to touch it and run their fingers thru it. But many kids viewed me as (what I imagine in their minds to be) some sort of mountain Yeti, unkempt, insane, and ready to bite their fingers and toes off at the drop of a hat.

To be fair, I have been known to bite, but I would never remove any bodily appendages with my teeth.

I think it wasn't only the beard that frightened the kids, but it was also the fact that I was the first and only white person that some of them had ever seen. I know I just said that I don't believe that kids see things like race, but I view this situation as a bit different.

I equate them seeing me, this funny-looking, bearded, skinny white guy speaking a strange language in their presence, with any of us coming across a massive, green-skinned Flordic speaking individual with long teeth sprouting up and down his arms, legs and chest. It's something we've never seen before, but if we knew they existed, and had even met a few ourselves, we wouldn't be quite as wary of them.

What the hell was my point?

I'm not asking rhetorically, I actually forgot.

Ah right. Me scaring kids.

Back in May, I had gotten used to the idea that I was a scary sight to some youngins. However, I always did my best to make a good first impression whenever kids were around I didn't know.

In this type of scenario, a little magic goes a long way. :-)

In May, I was at the backpackers in Pretoria awaiting my sight change. The second day I was there, I was writing in my journal, when I saw three young girls com running out to the lawn near where I was sitting, and they started talking to each other in an Afrikaans/English mix, and started doing splits, hand-stands, and back handsprings.

I didn't know the circus was in town, but if it was, I was sure they were worried sick about the whereabouts of their acrobatic midgets.

One of the girls - a short haired blonde with an excess of energy - saw me observing them doing their... well, whatever it was they were doing, and skipped over to where I was lounging. She began to speak to me in a sort of, out of breath, South African-English accent, and unable to keep her small self still, she put her hands on my knee and began hopping up and down.

"What are you writing?"

"Umm... I'm writing in my journal."

"A journal? ...Is that like a diary?"

"It is like a diary. What are you girls doing?"

"We're just practicing for... our, um... gymnastics camp."

And with that she was gone.

Story of my life.

Anyway, later that evening, I saw the girls sitting down at the outside table, playing Uno. I sat just down the bench from them, half doing brain teasers from a book and half laughing hysterically to myself at the conversation the girls were having.

Girl 1: "You can't put that card there!"
Girl 2: "Yes I can, we switched directions!"
Girl 3: "We did change directions."
Girl 1: "Oh... where's my juice?"
Girl 3 to Girl 2: "She's out to lunch..."

When their game was done, I asked them if they wanted to see a card trick. They answered in a sort of explosive jumble of words - a manner usually reserved for the floor of the NY stock exchange.

"You do magic??"
"Let me see! Let me see!"
"I loooooove magic!"

I sat across the table from them and they immediately stuck their heads as close to the cards and my hands as possible, causing two of them to bump their heads.

"Owww! Sam!"
"It's not my fault!"

I asked the girls some basic questions while I shuffled the cards.

Turns out the three of them were only part of a larger group of school age gymnasts from Namibia who had come to South Africa to attend a training camp.

There was Samantha, age 9, Manuela, age 12, and Tanita, age 9. They said to call them Sam, Manu, and T. So I did.

I showed the girls a few magic tricks, and they invited me to keep playing Uno with them. We played Uno for 2 hours until they had to go to bed. Before they left, they made me promise to show them more magic the next day, and they wanted to be sure I would play more card games with them. That was a really nice thing to hear.

Sam and T


For the next few days, when I was around the backpackers, the girls would actively seek me out to talk and play cards and board games. They loved the magic tricks I did for them, they always offered me bits and pieces of their dinners (a sure way to win my heart), and they kept me entertained for hours with the things they would say.

I asked them what some of their fears are, or what they're afraid of. T was quick to point out that Sam was afraid of sleeping alone, so she sleeps with her mom. To which Sam took a pause, made a slight face, and said gravely:

"Too much information..."

Another time, after they had gotten back from gymnastics practice, Sam came run-skipping over to where I was hanging out and said:

"Hi Joey... My mom thinks you're cute."

Oh moms.

It seems to be a strange running theme in my life... Throughout my young adult life, mostly as a busboy or innocent bystander, I've had a lot of middle aged women pull me aside and tell me I'm cute and ask me if I had a girlfriend. This would often alarm me until they made it clear that they had a daughter they wanted to hook me up with. None of them ever did follow thru unfortunately. Still I can't help but wonder if I wasn't born 20 - 30 years late. If I was born earlier on in the 1960s, I feel like during my young adult life, I would have a whole bus load of young women (now middle aged, married and with single daughters) around who thought I was a catch. I'm gonna have to bring this up with the big man upstairs in due time.

Middle-aged crushes aside, one of the nicest exchanges I had with the girls was during their second to last day in Pretoria. I was curious to know why they hadn't been frightened of me when they first saw me and met me.

Me: "Weren't you even just a little bit frightened of me because of my giant beard?"

The girls, in unison: "Nooooo."

Me: "No? I think I scare a lot of people away."

T: "Not for us."

Me: "Why not? Why weren't you scared?"

Sam: "Because you were nice."

Me: "I was nice?"

T: "You were nice to us the first time and then we know you're a good guy."

Me: "How did you know I was nice?"

Sam: "Because.... you were nice."

T: "We just saw you... and we asked you to play with, and..... you were nice!"

Sam: "I wouldn't know because I was in the shower."

T: "And then you did the magic!"

So, the exchange may have been lacking in details, but I think they may be unnecessary. Regardless, it felt good to know that kids can often see past another's (read: my own) appearance and look to find out who that person really is.

My favourite exchange was with Sam, only a few minutes after the above conversation took place. We had moved on from playing Uno to a game called "Donkey", which I have no recollection of whatsoever.

There was a slight lull in the conversation, and Sam says to me:

Sam: "Where's your toothbrush?"

An odd question, I thought.

Me: "In my tent... why? Are my teeth dirty?"

Sam: "No. Your breath stinks."

Damn kids.

I was actually pretty sad to see them have to leave after a few days. They gave me some great laughs though, and I'm happier to have been able to spend time with them.

I hope they don't grow up too much as they get older.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Bad News: Death isn't Fair

It's a well known fact that life is not fair.

We all have our own stories and examples to illustrate this universal trait.

In the past few months in particular, what I've come to realize is that death, like life, is just as unfair, if not more so.

Death is as impartial, unbiased, unprejudiced, unjust, inconsiderate and infuriating as anything on this earth. And recently, it has stepped on one of my few remaining nerves, igniting an anger inside me that makes me want to pummel death back to life. I am unable to truly put into words how much the "unfairness" of death has affected me. I suppose it's something we all have to get used to, but just because we all have to do it, doesn't make it any easier to deal with.

The back story...

I don't keep in touch with many people from Vorova, but I still maintain contact with a few friends who I felt very close to. As is the case in many small rural villages, many people within a community are members of only a few extended families. From what I could gather, there were only about 2 or 3 groups of families in Vorova. My good friend, Jealous, is part of the rather large Mhlongo family. Jealous is in his 30s, has three children and a wife. They are a close-knit nuclear family - the closest I had met in the entire village. Jealous has had a job as a farm manager at a nearby farm for the past 10 years, but despite his length of time on the job, the 10 to 12 hour days he works, and the number of responsibilities and skills he has acquired, he still gets paid less than 900 rand per month (about $120). That is not very good even by rural South African standards.

Jealous had always struck me as a family man. Don't let his uncommon name fool you (I think it's actually a variation on "Julius"). He is a gentle, mellow soul, and a man of intelligence, even though he only finished school up to 5th grade. He is reasonable, good-natured and kind hearted. He is proud of his achievements, frustrated at the system he lives in, but very optimistic for his childrens' future.


I left Jealous a message about a month and a half ago. I wanted to see how he was doing and how life was being lived in Vorova. Two weeks ago, he sent me a text message back. While it was good to hear from him, he had sad news to report. His text read:

"Hi joey igreatyou,ihaverecive yourmessage.W e are still alivebutnot allofus.Surprise,died onthe 20.06.2008.So weburriedhim isthat all by .Jealous"

The message, though somewhat cryptic, left me speechless and feeling like I had been shocked by an electric fence. There was confusion and doubt at first, then all of a sudden, a stinging pain coming from somewhere inside of me. I understood the message loud and clear, and it hurt me to do so.

Surprise, not yet 3 years old, was the youngest member of the Mhlongo family. He was Jealous' nephew, and brother to my closest companion in the village, Selby, who is 12.


Selby and Surprise lost both of their parents 2 years ago (the assumption is that they died of AIDS, but virtually no one talks about it the disease openly, so I could never get the full story). The two brothers were being raised by their aging grandparents and older aunts and uncles who live nearby. Selby stood out from most of the other young boys in the village in my eyes, because he was more reserved, a bit shy, but most of all, was the most respectful of them all. It's hard to really describe why one may become attached to one kid over another in this type of situation, but there are reasons for it, even if they can't be explained or justified. Selby was that kid for me. I felt like he was the much younger brother I never had. (My actual younger brother is only two years younger than me, which isn't that much younger, but he's stronger than me and could very likely beat me up, so it's not quite the same. Shout out to him now: Love you Brother)

It was pretty obvious by his behaviour and demeanor that Selby had been strongly affected by the loss of both his parents, and he was probably in the same mental state as any 12 year old would be who had gone thru such an ordeal. In our time together, Selby reminded me a lot of myself when I was younger (or what I think I was like back then - Mom and Dad would have to verify). He was a smart kid, but made silly mistakes, and didn't seem to have the same level of street smarts as the other boys. Selby wasn't the strongest kid, and he didn't take being made fun of by the other boys very well. He looked up to me a lot and was the only kid who respected what I had asked of the group of boys.

Often times I would have a group of boys over to where I was staying, and they would help me water my garden or I'd show them some magic tricks or let them play my guitar. Being 12 year old boys, they would often get rowdy and would begin doing things they weren't supposed to do - things like fighting over insignificant objects, hitting each other, handling my breakable possessions as if they were designed to play tug-of-war with, etc. I would always ask them nicely to change their behaviour and to essentially "chill out". They didn't always listen to me. When it came down to it, Selby would see that I was getting annoyed and angry with the boys, and he would tell them in siSwati that it was time to go because they were being disrespectful and I was getting fed up with them... all without me saying anything. Selby was very conscious of me and my frame of mind. He could read me very well.

Selby and I (being awesome)

Selby understood and spoke very little English, which was the same for me with regards to siSwati. Although we were able to verbally communicate effectively only about 40% of the time, we were able to communicate on a different, non-verbal level. I tried not to play favourites with the young boys, and I succeeded outwardly in that regard I suppose, but Selby was always different from the rest, and he always will be. I want so badly for him to break out of the cycle of poverty and hopelessness that surrounds him. I don't want you to think I'm heartless - I want that for all the young boys, obviously - but I didn't see the desire for that to happen within them like I did in Selby.

Another thing I noticed about Selby was that he cared deeply for his younger brother, Surprise. I didn't get to know Surprise very well - he was extremely shy, uncomfortable, and seemed very untrusting of anyone who didn't live within the makeshift mud and reed gates and walls that made up his world. What always struck me most about Surprise though, was the perpetual sadness that emanated from his small dark eyes. I rarely saw him playing with other kids, and I only saw him smile once in the 8 months I knew him. I never saw or heard him laugh. I would talk to him in siSwati with Selby next to me, but he always turned away. When I would greet him and try to give him a high-five or shake his hand, he let me take his hand but made no effort to comply with the gesture. He just looked at me with a skeptical and disinterested gaze.

Side note: Surprise also rarely ever wore pants.

I called Jealous after I received his message because I was curious to know what had happened.

Why had Surprise died?

It turns out that there had been an outbreak of cholera in Revolver Creek. Jealous told me that Surprise had died soon after he got sick, as did 3 older people in the village. A number of other people had contracted the disease, but had not died. I don't know if Surprise was HIV positive. But it wouldn't really have mattered if he was or wasn't. Almost any child under the age of 5 wouldn't stand much of a chance in a fight against cholera.

I tried asking Jealous how Surprise had contracted the disease. He didn't know how it happened, and he was rightly skeptical of the shady reasoning given to them by the Dept. of Health, whose explanation was that "people from the mines brought it in". Whatever that means. No one works in the mines in Vorova. To my limited yet constantly increasing knowledge base, cholera is transmitted most often thru contaminated water. I checked up on the disease on Wikipedia and got schooled on just how vicious the disease is. An excerpt on how it's transmitted...

"Cholera is transmitted from person to person through ingestion of water contaminated with the cholera bacterium, usually from feces or other effluent. The source of the contamination is typically other cholera patients when their untreated diarrhoea discharge is allowed to get into waterways or into groundwater or drinking water supply. Any infected water and any foods washed in the water, can cause an infection."

No one was sure how exactly how the disease spread thru the village. Cholera used to be a common problem in the area that resurfaced frequently before the neighbouring farm allowed the community to take water from the taps on its property. But it had been years since the last outbreak.

My thoughts went immediately to the canal water that runs thru the Vorova. I believe it most likely had originated there. I had been trying to get the people of Revolver Creek access to clean water for months because the situation was so dire. I would have been furious if the cause of the outbreak was the canal.

As was told in my previous blog post, Vorova had a functional water system at the time of this outbreak. That's encouraging, but... the canal was still there, and it's not going anywhere in the future. Maybe people were still washing their pots and pans and food with the canal water. I imagine that old habits die hard, even in desperate circumstances. I can only speculate that the combination of the canal water and overall poor hygienic conditions in the village lead to an outbreak that claimed the lives of those whose bodies were too weak to fight it. I don't know what else to think. I can't help but have my mind wander and wonder.

The good news of the clean water system was for the time being, overshadowed immensely by Surprise's death.

The way events have played out over the past few months has been a hard thing for me to come to peace with. I am thrilled that there is a clean water system in place now, and I do celebrate this success. However, a larger picture emerges from recent events. Despite the fact that there was a functional water system in the village, there was still an outbreak of a water borne disease. This shows that although clean water is a huge step in the right direction in terms of development, it is not a silver bullet in terms of solving the plethora of problems faced by poverty stricken communities every day. Sanitation and hygiene issues must also be emphasized when working in community development.

People will be happy to have access to pit toilets as opposed to having to shit in the bush, but germs and disease will still spread if people don't think to wash their hands after using the latrine. Infrastructure is not the only thing that must be developed - people must be educated about how to maintain healthy lives for themselves and their children.

At the risk of sounding preachy, please allow me to ascend onto my temporary soap box...

I am much more angry than sad at the thought of Surprise's early death. There is nothing normal or natural about a 3 year old child dying... at least it shouldn't be considered normal. And it's not - in the first world at least. The maddening thing is that it is accepted as a fact of life in the developing world. The death of children in the third world is so widespread that you have no choice but to numb yourself to the idea that these kids never got a chance at living their lives.

Even more maddening is the fact that the way in which the majority of children in developing countries around the world meet their premature end, is due to completely preventable problems, such as a lack of access to clean water, malnutrition, poor hygienic conditions, and locally unavailable inoculations and vaccinations - some that cost less than 10 cents to administer.

As I mentioned before, I wasn't very close to Surprise. However, I was [and still am, in my heart] very close to Selby. How would I have reacted if I heard that it was Selby who fell ill and died in this fashion? I don't like to ponder that thought. I fear for him and all the other kids in similar living situations throughout Africa and the world. There is so much that needs to be done to try and offer them a fair shot at life. But where does one even begin? Selby is now the only person left in his nuclear family. He lost both his parents, and his younger brother, all within a time span of 2 years. How does one expect him to cope? Who will be there for him to support him emotionally as he grows up? Will he ever have a chance to come to peace with all that has happened around him?

Selby is one of many in this situation. I can't be there for all the kids in his situation. No one can be there for everyone. Hell, I can't even be there for him for more than a few months of his young life.

But what I can do, is be there for him when I am nearby. I can let him know that there are still people in the world who care about him, who love and support him, no matter how far away they live. I'd like to think that I've let him know that already, since before I left.

Being in Peace Corps and/or working in development in any regard is so much more than helping people to help themselves, to lift themselves up... it's so much more than advancing social causes and organizations, improving education systems, etc.

At the core of all the work we do and the lives we live both abroad and at home, is a passion and motivation that cannot be accurately portrayed in words. It can only be felt. That motivation and passion, as best I can try and explain it, is what is most precious to all of us - it is that sense of connection - pure human connection that is at the foundation of all the emotions we are capable of feeling. It is this connection that transcends every other reason and detail of why we do what we do.

Gontse and I - January 2005

When people ask me if I ever regret coming here and doing what I'm doing, given my less than stellar experience over the past year, at times I am tempted to say "maybe a little bit". But I never do. All I do is think about Selby, and Rafilwe, and Gontse, and about all the other kids that have touched my life so deeply, and it doesn't take long for me to answer the question with a resounding and whole-hearted "No."

The bad news hurts and the effect still lingers. And I'm sure that there will be more bad news to come in the future as well. Some things we cannot fix right away. But there is light and hope that shines thru here too. There will always be good news to counter the bad, if we want it badly enough and work to see it thru.

I don't regret any of this. How could I? Just look at all the beautiful people who have changed me and my life forever...

I only hope that I can do the same for them in return.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Good News

I'm pregnant.

Ha! Just kidding. Or am I?

No, I am. I think.

Kidding, that is.

I wanted to take this opportunity to share with any readers who still read this, a relatively big success story for me.

As many of you may or may not know, my focus over the past 8 months has been getting communities access to clean water. I started down this path after witnessing the desperate conditions in the community near my first site in Mpumalanga called, Revolver Creek.

Revolver Creek was [and still is] to put it lightly, extremely poor. The people living there are on the bottom rung of the ladder of development, and yet only 40 km in any direction, there are affluent suburbs and growing cities - people are living no less comfortably there than many do back in upper and middle class American towns.

The village of Revolver Creek (called Vorova by those who live there) consists of approximately 60 households, home to about 250 people. The houses are made of dried reeds and mud, usually topped off with scavenged pieces of corrugated tin. Despite the very basic structure and architecture, the houses are very weatherproof. I can attest to this fact after my experience when I took shelter in one during a freak rainstorm back in January. The humble abode that kept me and 12 others dry, had two beds inside - one full size, one twin - a small counter top and a plethora of milk crates which served as seats, storage, tables, step stools and even as cat traps if there was a mischievous boy in the house. It is dark in the houses because there are no windows. Ventilation is poor, but for nothing more than mud and sticks, it is a reliable shelter.

A view of Vorova

As could be expected, there is no running water and no electricity in Vorova. This description sounds like a cliche of much of the third world, but the meaning and significance of "no running water" and "no electricity" varies greatly from one place to the next. It is one thing to live without these luxuries if you live in a climate zone where the rain comes often and the temperature never becomes uncomfortably or unbearably cold. It is a completely different story if you live where the rain is seasonal, sporadic and unpredictable, and during winters the nites can drop to almost freezing. Vorova falls into the latter category.

Unemployment is not just high, but it is accepted as a fact of life. There is very little work around, and the work that is available can be dangerous and doesn't pay very well - such as working at the nearby timbermill, chemical yard, or neighbouring farms picking tomatoes and other fruits. Money is tight, resources are scarce and most people don't have space to even grow a garden for themselves.

I could go on about the problems that plague Vorova and other small villages just like it nearby, but this post is meant to share the latest good news from the village.

I'm getting to it, I promise.

Back in January, I noticed that many kids in Vorova had developed some really nasty looking sores on their arms and legs. It looked like a mosquito had bitten them - but it looked like the mosquito was the size of a small hawk and had a proboscus the size of a 1/4 inch drill bit. There was something not quite right about the bites...

After doing some light research, I found out that what had been happening, was that the kids would scratch the mosquito bites so much that they would open up. Then, when they would play or bathe in the filthy canal water running thru the village, the water would get into the open wounds and the wounds would get infected.

Seeing this condition spread so rapidly lead me to really think hard about the myriad of problems that face communities throughout Africa and the rest of the developing world. It made me rethink my "assignment" of HIV/AIDS education, and question what it was I wanted to and what I could actually focus on during my time here.

The more I talked to people, the more I began to realize that very few people actually cared about HIV/AIDS. Yes, it's a problem, and a number of people were even infected in Vorova (though no one talked about it). But the reason no one cared about HIV/AIDS was because everyone was [and still is] more concerned about what they were going to eat that nite and the day after.

When people live in conditions of extreme poverty, everyone lives in survival mode. They think in terms of day to day, not month to month, and very few people seem to have dreams for their long term future, which is completely opposite from the mindset we have at home in the US.

Besides food issues, the other main problem facing Vorova and other communities nearby is the relatively obvious lack of access to clean water. The only water source close by is the dirty, polluted and bacteria infested canal water, which is by no means safe to drink, and as illustrated by the example above, isn't really safe to wash with or play in either.

With all this in mind, I set my mind to finding a way to get the people of Vorova access to clean and safe drinking water.

The next 4 months at site were fraught with extreme frustration, dead ends, chasing down government officials, no one returning emails or phone calls, and seemingly nothing getting done, despite my best efforts.

In the weeks before I left my first site, I decided I no longer had much to lose, and decided to step up my efforts to get someone to recognize the water situation out in Revolver Creek. I went into town and walked directly into the Municipal Manager's office in the Barberton Municipality and made my case for bringing clean water to Revolver Creek. The man I spoke to had only had his position for a few months, and told me he was aware there were a number of villages in my area that needed clean water, but that they didn't fall into the municipality lines. Essentially, they were someone else's responsibility.

I knew this wasn't the case, but I didn't think this man was being dishonest. He obviously just didn't know he was wrong. So I stood up and punched him in the face.

I'm just kidding.

I would never do that. Besides, this guy seemed like a genuinely decent person.

I stood up and walked over to the big municipal map hanging on his office wall with all the borders precisely laid out, and pointed to Revolver Creek and all the small villages in that area. They clearly fell within the municipal borders, though they were close to the edge.

With this new insight, the man promised me he would make a personal to the site the next week.

Now, no matter how genuine a person is, I never take them at their word when they make an appointment to meet. True to form, my man didn't make it out the next week, but he did make it out the week after, which happened to be my last week at site. He brought a high ranking counselor with him to survey the area. They were an hour and a half late meeting me, which I normally wouldn't be happy about, but this time, it was excusable because during that hour and a half, they were visiting all the small villages buried in the landscape behind Vorova, which were even more isolated, but affected by the same issues.

Inspecting the old bore hole pump

I took my guests for a short tour of Vorova (the village is only so big), and introduced some of the older members of the community to them. They conversed for a while, and were shown the old broken bore hole that needed to be repaired, and they were shown the canal which people relied on for their water. Upon seeing the canal for the first time, the two government officials both recoiled unintentionally and let out an expression which in one syllable suggested the phrase, "Holy crap this is disgusting. I can't believe people even think to use this water."

Sensing this, I commented, "You can see why I was so pushy to get someone out here. The situation is pretty dire."

"Yes, we see now." was the somewhat sheepish reply.

For a number of months following, I heard nothing more of the situation.

Fast forward (or now, I guess it would be rewind) to three weeks ago. I was notified that since I left back in early May, the municipality had provided Vorova with a functional bore hole, water storage tanks, and even a couple of outdoor toilets.


I don't think I can really express how good this news was to hear, and how important it really is for the people who live there. This news signified a huge success for me personally, and of course, for the people of Vorova as well.

So why didn't I feel any sense of relief? Of accomplishment? Of satisfaction? Why didn't I feel any different?

Why didn't I feel as happy as I thought I should be?

I had worked my ass off for months trying to get to the very end result that ended up happening. That's amazing and wonderful that it actually happened! It's honestly more than I expected to happen. I thought at best, Vorova would get looked at, put on the back burner, and eventually forgotten about. But the municipality went the extra mile and even installed pit latrines in the village. In reality, you can't really ask for more than that. I must applaud the people at the Barberton Municipality for following thru as they did.

I haven't been back myself to see the "new" situation yet. I hope to get there sometime over the next few months. When I do, I'll be sure to include pictures.

The real test will be to see how long the system is operational for. Working with Tsogang, I've heard many stories of government water systems working great for a month or two, then breaking down, and having no one go to fix them for weeks on end. This forces the people of a community to return to their contaminated water source, and it breeds contempt for government systems that are seen as unreliable.

That could be one reason I'm not as happy as I thought I'd be.

Another plausible reason is purely mental.

It's great that there is a functional water system in place. But there's still SO MUCH more that needs to be done. And not just in Vorova, but everywhere across this earth.

I've begun to get past this way of thinking though. It's a demoralizing, depressing, warm vat of spoiled milk and rotten eggs that serves as a breeding ground for pessimism and negativity. It's not a good place to be mentally.

It is my belief that anyone working in development must savour all the successes we rack up, no matter how small. The bigger picture is absolutely daunting - like climbing a mountain where the summit grows just as fast as you ascend. But even though you can't see the top, when you look back, you can marvel at just how far you, and everyone else has come.

The success story in Vorova was more than one step forward - it was a huge leap. Now, instead of worrying all at once about all the other problems that we must face, the focus must be on making sure we don't start slipping backwards from our recently acquired progression forward. The people of Vorova must be provided with the knowledge of how to fix the water system if it breaks down - they must know how to maintain it correctly. Most importantly though, the people of Vorova must feel that they have ownership over the new water system. They must view it as explicitly theirs.

It is at that point that we all can view this project as a true success, and begin tackling the next issue.

So let's keep moving forward.

Some of the kids from Vorova (with tree flowers, of course)

Friday, August 8, 2008

BDTJF: Part 2 - No Lettuce

When Phil didn't show up to collect me on Monday (or Tuesday), I went to go see Tom at his organization, Sekhukhune Educare Project (SEP). Tom was busy doing what he does, and I settled in to help my friend Shadrack order some books on theatre games and improv ideas for the children's drama group at SEP. Lunch time came around, and as is usually the case, I was hungry, and wanted to fill my belly with delicious food stuffs.

The Good Doctor

The good Doctor Tom Barker (he's holds a PhD in Awesome) decided we should go out for a bit, and do a little walkabout of BDTJF, so I could see it as he see's it in all it's glory and magnificence. After a small tour of the town, including houses where previous PCVs had stayed, and the stone patio beer shacks at the crossroads which carry the heavily potent stench of urine to any noses within a 100 meter radius, (we even casually observed an older man who had whipped it out and began relieving himself in plain view of anyone within eyeshot) we stopped at a small corner restaurant that Tom enjoys, expecting a decent lunch of burgers, fries, or something similar. We suspected something wasn't quite right when he noticed that the two usual people behind the counter, who are from Zimbabwe, were no longer there. There was a woman in her mid-20s sitting lazily in a stool who didn't even acknowledge us as we walked up to the counter.

Tom asked aloud for 2 menus, and [correctly] assuming that the girl didn't really understand English, he made the motions of opening up his hands like a book and holding up 2 fingers. Blankly, she reached for a napkin, and Tom said, "No no, 2 menus" and made the hand signals again. I saw this girl wasn't quite getting it, and so I grabbed the corner of what I saw was a menu behind the counter, and held it up. "Can we have one more of these?" I asked, holding up one finger and pointing to the menu. She got the visual reference, and found another one.

Tom and I stayed at the counter and made our lunch choices quickly, not wanting to lose the girl's attention. I ordered a burger with bacon, cheese, and fries on the side. Tom ordered a chicken burger with fries. We both pointed to our choices on our menus to be perfectly clear as to what we desired to ingest that afternoon.

This girl - we'll call her Lazi - half turned around and said something in siPedi to a man standing at the door to the "kitchen" behind her, accentuating our orders in English. The man answered something back and didn't move. Lazi kept her eyes lowered and said "No chicken." Tom reordered a Vienna (which is like a large hot dog) with fries on the side. The man disappeared thru the doorway, and Tom and I sat at a table and began to talk about the advantages of rocket boots over salami sandwiches.

Ok, so I don't really remember exactly what we spoke about initially, but our conversation eventually turned into just the type of venting and bonding session that is often needed between PCVs. And Tom is a great guy to talk to about all that stuff. This is is second time around doing Peace Corps.

About 15 minutes later, Lazi brought Tom's plate of food to the counter. Tom took it and asked for some ketchup. Lazi shook her head and said there was none. "No ketchup? ...Tomato sauce?" (the preferred name for ketchup here). Lazi shook her head again. That didn't make sense. Curious as to what the red plastic bottle standing amongst 3 yellow bottles was, I walked up to the counter, grabbed it, took it back to Tom, who poured some out, tasted it and said, "It's ketchup."

Huh. Go figure.

I understood that getting our food at the same time at a place like this was highly unlikely, so I was prepared to wait a bit longer for my burger. Fifteen minutes after Tom began eating, Lazi reemerged from the kitchen door, laughing at something inside. Tom raised his hands and pointed to the blank spot on the table in front of me. "Where's his food?" he asked.

Lazi stopped dead in her tracks and looked at Tom like he had 6 heads and something growing out of the ears in all of them. "I'm still waiting for my food", I said. Lazi backtracked into the kitchen.

Another fifteen minutes passed with no sign of Lazi. She reemerged in the same fashion as before and didn't acknowledge us until Tom and I repeated our gestures of confusion and inquiry. Again, Lazi froze up and looked as if she had been slapped in the face by a 40 year old hunchback in diapers, and stumbled back into the kitchen, more slowly than I thought was humanly possible.

She came out 5 minutes later and as she sat back down in her stool, without looking at us, she said very matter of factly, and in a conclusive tone,

"No lettuce."


Now, for a few brief seconds, Tom and I were both utterly confused and a bit speechless. Then we seemed to snap out of it at the same time and started half-chuckling half-protesting the insanity of what she had just said. We quickly realized this course of action was not going to work or benefit anyone, so very calmly, I looked at her and said, still somewhat unbelievingly, "You can make a burger without lettuce, right? You can still make it with the beef, the cheese, the bacon, the bun, the fries... right? You don't have to put on any lettuce."

I'm running out of ways to describe the looks that this girl was giving us. It was as if she was saying with her eyes, how dare we come in to the restaurant and make her do the most minimal amount of work required for her to earn the few rands that she gets paid - which would be the same amount as if she was doing nothing at all.

So yea. How dare we.

At our latest request that they still make my burger without the lettuce, Lazi dejectedly walked back to the kitchen with a look of utter disbelief on her face and did what her job entails, which was telling the guy back there what to cook. It was at this point that it dawned on Tom and me that they hadn't even begun to cook my burger.

"Four minutes" Lazi said as she walked back to her stool.

It shouldn't have to be said that there was no way in hell we believed it would be four minutes until my burger was ready. I think Lazi ran out of words and actions (or never had them to begin with) to tell us to get off her back, so she picked the first number that popped into her head and added "minutes" to the end of it.

Another 15 minutes passed and Tom and I made the decision to split. I'd pick up something elsewhere. We stood up, Tom paid his bill, and even left a tip for Lazi despite the complete lack of service. As we were paying, she looked at us with a confused expression and said, "But it's ready."

"No thanks. We're going somewhere else. It's too long to wait." And with that we left. I got some delicious chicken a few stores away, and it only took literally, 6 minutes to order, pay, and start eating. I recommend Sebs chicken to anyone passing thru the BDTJF area.

The best part about it? It doesn't even come with lettuce.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

BDTJF: Part 1 - Introduction and Nightly Excursions

I recently spent the past 2 1/2 weeks down in what my good friend Tom Barker refers to as "Beautiful Downtown Jane Furse" aka "BDTJF". Jane Furse is a somewhat large rural shopping town in the Sekhukhune district of Limpopo. I unexpectedly ended up in the BDTJF area [temporarily] after being tasked to join one of Tsogang's project managers, Phil, to learn about and take part in some hands on field work. Our work was to be stripping old non-functional hand pumps, and installing new ones in rural villages.

I arrived in BDTJF on July 22. After spending the afternoon out in some rural areas while our team took out an old hand pump, I was dropped off at what would be my humble abode for the next 2 weeks. I was told before coming here to bring mostly everything that I would need to live comfortably. The house I would be living in was extremely bare, I was told. Preparing for the unknown, I brought my sleeping bag, 5 days worth of clothes, some Nat'l Geographic and Outside magazines to catch up on, my laptop, all the food I had stored at my Tzaneen residence, my stovetop/oven, cutlery, my journal and my guitar. I was glad a grabbed a roll of TP before I left as well, because otherwise, I would have been in a very awkward predicament those first few days.

The house I was to stay in was actually a very nice place... or it looked like it would be nice if it was taken care of by someone at some point. There was a big open space living area, red-orange tiles covering the floorspace throughout, a sizable kitchen, 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms. It also had spiderwebs everywhere as I realized when I first entered the door and spent the next minute wiping cobwebs from my face and hair, praying I had no 8-legged critters crawling amongst my cranial area. Though the house looked like it hadn't been lived in in quite sometime, it didn't take too long for me to settle in. There was electricity and running water, but no hot water. It was a step above camping, and I've lived in much dirtier environments, and much worse. My favourite part of the house was the bedroom I chose to stay in - a very small space with a single bed, but it smelled like the upstairs bedrooms in my Grandma's house, which made me feel very at home.

I had no idea until the second day that my living space was in such close proximity to two other PCVs who I hadn't seen since December. Tom and Jami are both NGO volunteers that came over with me last year. I got to check out their digs, see where each of them lived and worked, and began remembering what it was like to socialize with other people again. We even got to share a number of meals (pasta, instant pacakes and egg baked brunch, homemade potato leak soup, homemade Indian food etc.) and watch some DSTV that Tom recently acquired. That was certainly a strange experience. But familiar...?

I had a great time with both Tom and Jami, together and separately, and as a result, I often found myself out well past sundown. This is not ideal in most parts of South Africa, but the "not-idealness" is determined and decided by the individual on a case by case basis. The walk back from Tom's trailer-home-turned-"Love Shack" is about 20 minutes. The path goes up a dark dirt road, past some houses on the left and a primary school on the right. I then turn in to the private high school campus, walk up past Jami's place, and if I'm lucky, walk thru the gate, around the old hospital, down some more dark dirt paths, tripping on rocks and the uneven surface, and continue on to the phosphorescent globe lit grounds of Operation Hunger, whose property I was living on.

This journey "home" took on a new and exciting form each nite, until only a few nites in when I decided I had had enough excitement for a while.

The first nite out, not really knowing the area very well, I walked home with clenched fists and a constantly swiveling head, my ears sharp and my eyes narrowed to pick out any figures lurking in the shadows. There were none. The streets were empty and I realized I had been making myself more scared than necessary. It happens.

The gate behind Jami's residence is a large one, and "if I'm lucky" I walk thru it and go on straight home. However, I was only "lucky", once. When my luck is non-existent, I am forced to climb thru what Jami and I have dubbed the "Rabbit Hole", which is a small hole at the top corner of the fence, no bigger than 2 feet in diameter. The hole is about 6 feet up, and requires minimal strength to climb up to reach, but it requires masterful skill and agility to squeeze thru without getting your clothes (or skin) torn by the barbed wire above and below said hole.

I had seen Jami do it once in the daylight (I must say she surprised me - I didn't peg her as a climber) and had tried it once on my own. It wasn't too bad during the day. At nite it was a different story. There was no moon out the nites I went this route, and maneuvering one's body in the dark thru such a small opening proved a bit more difficult and ensnaring. Most of the times passing thru the Rabbit Hole I escaped unharmed, though I ended up ripping a hole in my jeans near my underside (free show for anyone watching me from behind) and I made a nice deep incision on my hand my last time thru. Stupid barbed wire. Anyway, it felt good to feel like a kid again. It was kinda like playing man-hunt, only I wasn't hiding from anyone and no one was looking for me. So, I guess it was actually only like man-hunt in the sense that it was dark outside.

The second nite going home, it was very chilly out, so I decided to jog up the dark street to cut some time off the trek and to warm my scantily clad body up (I only had a t-shirt and jeans on). I started jogging past the first few houses, with dogs behind fences barking their heads off and charging at me, stopping when the metal mesh prevented them from advancing any further. "Dogs are so silly" I thought to myself. "They know there's a fence there, why do they always run up as if they can get past it?"

It was at this point that I sensed something had gone awry. I looked to my left to watch another viciously barking dog run up to his fence, obviously annoyed at my presence. Only this time, there was no fence between his teeth and my cold bones.

The dog was running so fast that he left a trail of dust rising slowly in the electric light of the homes behind me, his big frame charging me like a dark curving bullet, obviously intent on sinking his teeth into something. Slightly panicked (or very panicked) and with nothing to defend myself against the oncoming attack which was only 3 feet behind me, I did the only thing I could think to do. I turned around and started barking and yelling at the beast in the most vicious tone I could muster up. To my surprise, the dog was caught off guard, put on his brakes and tripped a bit over himself, and backed off momentarily, obviously confused. But then to my dismay, the werewolf-esque black shadow resumed his attack, at which point I instinctively let my foot fly and kicked him in the face. Twice.

Thankfully, instead of shaking it off and pursuing me, tackling me to the ground and devouring my soul, the creature of the night ran off, back to where he came from, like a ghost from the darkness. He probably ran back to tell his friends that they wouldn't believe that a skinny white guy from suburban Long Island just scared the crap out of him and kicked him in the face. Twice.

My heart was beating hard and my lungs hurt from the cold air I was breathing too hard. Dizzy, exhausted, shaken, but relieved I rhetorically asked myself, "Why don't more people have guard cats?"

The last few times I walked home, I had no heart pounding incidents. I did however, have some interesting exchanges with some people I met on the way back, including a security guard who tried to make me pay him to walk thru the campus, and a bunch of students who were busy scarfing down cold french fries and asking me a thousand questions about where I'm from what I'm doing etc. But the most "South African" exchange I had on my way back went as follows:

The fourth or fifth nite, when I was about halfway up the dirt road, I saw two pairs of headlights coming down the lane. I have always been uneasy at the thought of close proximity drivebys due to past experiences in the US involving bottles being thrown at me (more than a few times) and for some reason, getting shot with a paint ball gun (thankfully, only once). I never feel right when a car passes close by - especially not at nite. To my relief, the first one passed by, like most usually do. I was keeping a close eye on the second pair of lights when all of a sudden, the car veered towards me, and as I side stepped getting hit and was about to throw a fist into the open passenger window, I saw it was actually a police car, patrolling the streets.

Jackasses almost ran me over.

The cops spoke English, and seeing that I obviously wasn't from the area, asked where I was from. "New York? Ah, it's too far." they would say.

Thanks for stating the obvious, guys. Next time try not mowing me down.

"What are you doing? Why are you walking alone around here?" they wanted to know.

I explained I was on my way home from a friend's place - walking because I had no other option, and I was alone because I don't have a Siamese twin. They didn't get the Siamese twin joke, and I didn't know the siPedi translation for it. The moment was lost.


All joking aside, I was hoping they would get the hint and maybe give me a ride back to my place when I said, "I don't like walking around here at nite. But I don't have a car, so I have to walk. I wish I had someone to drive me back."

They didn't get the hint, and replied with characteristic cluelessness and carelessness, "Yes. Jane Furse is very very dangerous. You shouldn't be walking at nite." At which point they said goodbye and drove off.

It's no surprise people don't bother calling the cops here when there's a serious problem that needs to be dealt with.

Anyway, I got back safe after my passage thru the Rabbit hole. Shortly thereafter, I decided that enough was enough. No more walking around Jane Furst at nite for me.

Except for maybe next time if I have to. {Shakes head}