Friday, October 18, 2013

Road Tripping Southern Africa Part Four: Pretoria and Cape Town

The tail end of my COS travel was back in my second home of South Africa. I spent a few days with a family in Pretoria recuperating after my travels and just relaxing. We went to a Blue Bulls Rugby game at Loftus Versfeld Stadium (big deal) and watched the game from a box - it was so much fun! I really enjoyed my time with the Bester family (who I had the pleasure of getting to know through Eugene who had been in charge of redoing the Ikhwezi Offices on behalf of Coca-Cola). Eugene was always saying that when I was in Pretoria I had to stop by and stay with his family. I was so grateful for them because not only did they let me stay with them before I started all my travels, but for three weeks they allowed me to keep my two monstrous suitcases with them. They were a true blessing! I had such a great time getting to know Sharon and their son better – it was a really fun few days.


I got on a bus for the last time in South Africa (fingers crossed) and headed to Cape Town. I had been to Cape Town two times before this, and had a great time. I did so many things that I'd wanted to do each time before and had ran out of time to do. Here are the highlights:

Robben Island

Nelson Mandela spent 18 out of his 27 years in prison on Robben Island as a political prisoner. We got to tour the island and the prison seeing where the political prisoners were kept, and even seeing Nelson Mandela's cell. It was a really interesting tour - and an amazing thing they do is have the tours led by people who were at one time prisoners on the Island. Our tour guide was from Port Elizabeth and was there as a political prisoner for five years. It was truly fascinating to hear about his own experiences in the very places we were walking through.

Table Mountain

Table Mountain sits in the heart of Cape Town and makes it one of the most enchanting and unique city skylines I've ever seen. There are several different routes to hike up to the top of the mountain and we took what I was told after is considered one of the "easy" ones. While we were able to complete the hike in about half the time they listed it should take it was not "easy". It was basically a mile or more of climbing stairs. The vertical climb was totally worth it though because the views at the top were amazing! You're able to see all of the city from the top and also look along the coast for miles. We took the cable car down the Mountain which was a fun ride!

Stand-up Paddle Boarding

Bright and early we got to stand up paddle board the canals at the V&A Waterfront. I was positive I was going to fall off into the water (which would have been FREEZING) but I didn't - yay! It was so much fun, and surprisingly easy, although I think it gets a lot more difficult when you introduce waves into the mix...

Tour of Cape Town

My friends Michelle and Neil were nice enough to take us on a tour all around Cape Town! We went down the coast one side, stopped at different places to take pictures, or grab something small to eat and just see what was around. It was a lot of fun to see the coast line of Cape Town from BOTH sides! We drove around on the other side of Table Mountain back around to the coast. It was such an awesome day! It was so fun to get to see a lot of the Cape Town coastline!

Enjoying Cape Town

From Long Street - one of my favorite places to go shopping, to eating out at all of the delicious restaurants I had a fantastic time hanging out with old friends and seeing new ones! It was great to get to introduce one of my best South African friends Michelle (who graciously let me stay with her) to one of my best Peace Corps friends - Sam (who was living two blocks from Michelle!). Cape Town is such an amazing city for so many reasons. It is larger than Chicago population wise, but it seems so much smaller (probably because it doesn't have millions of other people in the suburbs surrounding it...). It's a big city, with a small town feel to it, with a gorgeous backdrop of ocean and mountain. Long story short: I love Cape Town!

Justin Bieber Concert

BELIEVE TOUR CAPE TOWN! It was awesome! We had horrible seats, Justin was just a tiny speck on the stage but it was so much fun! His tour had a great message and his music is really fun - how could you hate? It totally made me a BelieBer! This was so funny to me because it was my last night living in Africa, and I was voted by our SA 23 group "Most likely to go to a Justin Bieber concert” in our SA 23 yearbook. Lived out my superlative. It was great.


Road Tripping Southern Africa Part Three: The Train to Victoria Falls

Traveling in Southern Africa was eye opening to me in terms of how great we had it in South Africa public transportation wise. There were many times throughout our "road trip" where I was honestly worried for my life, and miserable. The thing about the travel was that the actual travel was crazy - but the amazing destinations made up for it.

The TAZARA Railway

Since we needed to travel on the cheap though (and airfare in Southern Africa is anything but cheap) we decided to go with what seemed the most reasonable, safe, and direct route - the train! Safe, direct, and reasonable is pretty questionable when describing the train through Tanzania but it was an unforgettable experience.

The train didn't leave on time (which we anticipated) and only left several hours after it was scheduled to (which was nothing new to us, we're used to waiting). We were in the first class section which had four beds that came with a sheet, blanket, and pillow. The first night on the train there was Sami, another Tanzanian girl, and me in our cabin. We checked out the lounge car where you could buy drinks which were cold the first day and got slowly warmer as the trip went on. There was no temperature control on the train, but we had our car window open to get a nice breeze (it was so hot in Dar!). Our first cabin-mate got off the train in Mbeya on day two of the travels. During the day on day two we got another roommate who was a business woman from Kenya who owned a business in Zambia. She was transporting two computers on the train in order to sell them in her shop. 
The rest of the trip was a bit of a blur. It was four days and three nights on a train so one day of playing cards seemed exactly like the next day of playing cards and eating the same. This was our general schedule.

Wake up, eat breakfast, get a soda in the lounge car.

Morning hours: play cards or bananagrams or read.

Lunch break!

Afternoon hours: play cards or bananagrams or read.

Dinner break, get a soda in the lounge car (only if we’re feelin’ wild).

Evening hours: play cards or bananagrams or read.

Go to bed as early as we possibly could manage.

The scenery was gorgeous Sami and I spent the majority of day two in the lounge car going back and forth between playing cards, reading our kindles, and socializing with the other tourists on the train. We got to know a German couple and also became friends with a Canadian couple who were doing development work in Malawi. We ended up traveling with these couples for the rest of our trip in Zambia since it was less intimidating to travel in a pack than on our own.

Memories of the train:

-The toilet was a normal looking toilet seat, but it just opened up out onto the tracks. We weren't supposed to use it unless the train was moving. This rule Sami and I both broke. Opps.

-They had a room with two sinks in it that could be used for brushing teeth/washing faces. That was nice.

-There was apparently a shower...we did not attempt to take advantage of this.

-The train would consistently stop for long periods of time, for no apparent reason (which is why we had to break the bathroom rule).

-We had to switch trains at the boarder which was not too fun.

-We rode by overturned train cars (so comforting) and I would routinely wake up in the night TERRIFIED at how fast we were going and how the train felt like it was going to tip over sideways.

-Sami got sick for about two days so that was no good! The only bonus was that she had a bed and a toilet to use whenever she needed (good thing we weren't on a bus!).

-There was the occasional cockroach in our room.

-It was a crazy experience!


After our arrival north of Lusaka, Zambia (where we needed to get a bus to Livingstone) we got a taxi (with other tourists in tow) to get to Lusaka. Once we got to Lusaka we discovered we could take a night bus to Livingstone and arrive quite late (or early depending on how you look at it). We arrived at our backpackers around three in the morning so happy to have arrived at our destination! It was a longggggg time coming but we finally made it!

Zambia reminded me of South Africa in a lot of ways. Partly because a lot of the same businesses that are in South Africa are in the cities in Zambia. The backpackers was the kind we were used to- it was a cool place called Jollyboys, and the people seemed similar to South Africans culturally (whereas in all the other countries we were in there was a very different vibe than in South Africa). We met a lot of Peace Corps Volunteers at Jollyboys who were PC Zambia and it sounds like their sites are MUCH more undeveloped than most of ours (they said no one had electricity or running water at site...which is very different than many of our sites in SA).

I enjoyed our time in Livingstone - it was more relaxed and we got to see Victoria Falls! That was a really cool experience. We knew we were going to get soaking wet because everyone does during the wet season (which also makes it difficult to see the falls because of all the mist but you still see them). When we crossed the bridge we did in fact get completely soaking wet! The massive scale of the waterfall is so huge - when the mist blows away for a moment and you can see how wide the falls are - it's breathtaking! We explored the park surrounding the falls and looked at them from lots of different sides - we saw massive (double) rainbows and got to dodge baboons. We did one of the hikes down to the bottom of the falls where you can watch bungee jumpers and on that walk we had to share the path with many baboons (which in case you didn’t' know, are slightly intimidating). We also went on a sunset cruise along the Zambezi River which was a blast!

The day after our trip to the falls we all flew out of Zambia back to South Africa. Sami and Mallory went to Cape Town and I flew to Pretoria. I had originally planned on traveling by bus, by myself back to South Africa but after lots of careful consideration I decided flying was both more cost effective and about a thousand times safer. I have never regretted that decision.


Road Tripping Southern Africa Part Two: Tanzania and Zanzibar

Getting to Zanzibar
While Anise, Sami, and I crossed the border from Malawi to Tanzania a "taxi driver" who looked like he was going into Malawi turned around to offer us a ride to where the rest of the taxis were that we needed to take from the border town in Tanzania to Mbeya - the first stop on our way to Zanzibar. He was very persuasive and also recommended we use his guy to exchange our Malawian kwacha to Tanzanian shillings. 
Long story short: Anise ended up getting scammed when a guy walked off with a big chunk of her kwacha "to find someone for change" (not the guy the taxi driver recommended). She got into a fight with the hoard of excessively pushy OTHER guys trying to get us to exchange our money with them. Our taxi driver was annoyed, we were annoyed, Anise was angry - it was not good. The situation escalated when she finally yelled in frustration "you're all in cahoots!" (and some swears). Then our taxi driver was angry because we didn't use his exchange guy, and sort of caused a scene. He took us the extremely short distance (which we could have easily walked) and then refused to open the trunk to give us our things until we had paid him the price that he tripled due to our fight. He had originally said 3,000 shillings for a tiny distance and then decided to charge us EACH 3,000 shillings which made us even angrier. The whole thing was a huge debacle. Then we had to get on a mini bus taxi, where I kid you not the floor was SO HOT it was actually painful. And we couldn't put our feet up because we had our luggage on our laps, of course. 
We thought this was the final bus to Mbeya but without explanation we stopped at another location where everyone started to exit our mini bus and get onto a DIFFERENT bus. No one said anything to us though, and we had no idea if we were supposed to get on this bus, pay again, or WHAT was going on. So we transfer to the already full bus. For a row made for four people there were NINE. People were still trying to get on, but couldn't get through the front door so they were literally climbing through the windows to get onto the bus. However, they were climbing into a full bus so Sami had a man STANDING ON HER KNEES in this bus. When I retell it now it makes me laugh but it was the farthest thing from funny. The front of the bus (aka the aisle) was standing room only and so full that's why no one else could get on the bus. When we stopped at other points before Mbeya people in the back of the bus had to EXIT THE BUS THREW THE WINDOWS. It was like something out of a movie – we were all like “is this real life?” 
By the time we got to Mbeya it was around 10pm. We had no idea of what kind of options were available in terms of accommodation for the night so we got in a taxi and asked them to take us to a hotel (SPLURGE!). We arrived at the hotel and we are pretty positive we were the only people staying there. It was clean, and secure so that was what mattered. We got advice from the front desk person on which "luxury" bus companies were the most reputable and safest. It was a stressful process because the second you got to the rank where the taxis and buses were you were bombarded with people all trying to sell you tickets and scams are more than commonplace. We went with what we could determine was the best choice and most legitimate to get us on the Princess (incorrectly spelled on the bus as "Princes") Muro bus. The Princess Muro bus took us to Dar es Salaam over the course of 19 hours. At one point we saw an overturned bus on the side of the road which was a less-than-encouraging sign. Also, the reason these buses are "luxury" is because they restrict the passengers to one per seat (novel idea in Tanzania). This is also where I experienced my first squat toilets (where the toilet hole is level with the ground so you squat…if that wasn’t self-explanatory). Not what I would describe as a pleasant experience, they are not my favorite…
On our arrival in Dar it was already after dark (typical) so we got a taxi that instead of taking us to the place we wanted to go, tried to take us to the ferry and drop us off there. What turned out to be a common theme here was people pretending they knew what we were talking about when really they had zero idea. After us refusing to get out of the taxi until we were at a hotel he finally understood the name of another place where we had heard Peace Corps Volunteers from Tanzania stayed. It was like a backpackers/hotel and worked out great. The next morning we got up early so we could make it to the ferry to Zanzibar (yay)!
After three days of travel we FINALLY had arrived in Zanzibar! Our first few nights we stayed in Stone Town which is the big city in Zanzibar. It's the only city like it that I've ever been to, the streets are completely winding, and impossible not to get lost in. Which is fine because everything is so cool to look at! Unique architecture and beautiful old doors around every corner make it a city you WANT to get lost in. I loved Stone Town and would have spent more time there if we had the chance. It was a cool place to be! In Stone Town Sami's friend Mallory met up with us and she was our travel buddy for the rest of the trip.
While in Stone Town we signed ourselves up for some tours we had heard were not to miss and arranged our transport conveniently to take us where we needed to go in addition to the tours. Zanzibar is a tiny place so going from one side of the island to the other doesn't take long, but it was nice to have our transport arranged.

Our first tour was the Blue Safari which was absolutely amazing! We got to a boat that took us out to a coral reef where we got to snorkel and see seriously beautiful and amazing fish and reefs. There were also jellyfish which WOULD sting you and DID sting us. You'd be swimming and suddenly see all these little transparent things that looked like mini balloons and frantically swim backwards to get away from them, but a few stings were unavoidable. It was so fun though! After our snorkeling we were brought over to a deserted island where we got to drink fresh coconut milk straight from the source. It was amazing being on a tiny white sand beach surrounded by crystal clear turquoise water. Absolutely beautiful. As if this wasn't enough we were taken to another island where we got to climb on a massive baobab tree and had a free seafood lunch. It was as much as you wanted to eat fresh lobster, shrimp, fish, and octopus stew with coconut rice -it was DELICIOUS. We sailed around local tiny islands, took in the beautiful views, and got to swim a bit more. When we were all tired of swimming we headed back to the main island. It was one of the coolest things I've ever done! 

We spent two nights after that in an area on the East side of the island that was very quiet since it was off season. We were in Jambiani at a resort that was really beautiful right on the beach. It was a nice secluded get away - almost no one else was there! We went for a long walk on the beach and just enjoyed a relaxing time. On our way from Jambiani to our next destination we went on a spice tour which was so much fun! We got to taste and identify spices in their plant/root form. The guys who gave us the tour were so much fun, and such characters. We had a blast and it was neat to see all the different spices that are grown on Zanzibar.
After Jambiani we headed to Kendwa Beach on the North side of the island which was where all of the people were! We stayed at a resort that was right on the beach, next to a place called Kendwa Rocks that had amazing food! It was a really fun atmosphere at Kendwa Rocks so we spent two days on the beach hanging out! We went to a reggae party one night and swam in the crystal clear ocean at midnight to cool off after all our dancing. It was an absolutely amazing experience. We made friends with some South Africans we met there, and had a blast with them. We also met up with our Peace Corps friend Kristina and her friend (they had travelled separately from us in Malawi/Tanzania/Zanzibar up to that point). It was fun to be able to have a Peace Corps South Africa reunion in Zanzibar!

Sami and I were continuing to Zambia by train (to meet Mallory - who had flown) to Livingstone so we could see Victoria Falls. It wasn't easy leaving Zanzibar - a truly unique paradise but it had to be done. 
Here are some things I loved or noticed about Zanzibar that made it special:
-Stone Town's amazing architecture and buildings - you felt like you were stepping back in time!
-Muslim influence -for a hot island everyone (girls/women) are covered head to foot due to their cultural or religious practices.
-It's stunningly beautiful - beaches, water, sea life, everything! So exotic!
-Amazing food - nom nom nom.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Road Tripping Southern Africa Part One: Safari to Malawi

Upon finishing Peace Corps service my friends and I had arranged some travel to go out with a bang.  For me, this COS trip was the chance to get to see some of the amazing things I'd missed in South Africa, and also to get to see other Southern African countries.  It was such an adventure, filled with equal parts amazing and scary. 

Safari at Kruger National Park

The first stop was somewhere I had wanted to see since arrival in South Africa.  While I got to see a lot of cool animals at Addo Elephant Park in the Eastern Cape, I had never been on a proper safari (in the open air vehicle, with a guide, all that jazz).  It was a blast!  We saw tons of really cool animals (even glimpsed the top of a lion’s head).  Seeing a rhino in the wild was my favorite because they are so rare, massive, and crazy looking. They look like dinosaurs - it's unbelievable!  I also loved seeing the hippos for the same reason.  Both are just really huge and bizarre looking animals, it’s pretty amazing to see them in the wild.


With my PC friend Sam and her two friends visiting from Seattle we left Kruger and headed to Mozambique to check out the famous beaches.  Maputo was our first stop and a starting point before our final destination of Tofo.  Maputo honestly didn't leave me with a very good impression.  It was a pretty dirty city, with lots and lots of massive potholes on the streets and the sidewalks (which I had the pleasure of trying to avoid in our rental car). 

The trip to Tofo took us through the countryside of Mozambique where seeing plastic bags of cashews hanging from branches on the side of the road was typical (and so was someone practically running in front of your car to try and sell you them!).  We had a few run-ins with the local Moz police while driving.  Luckily none of them fined us, and despite all the warnings and horror stories we didn't have to bribe anyone.  Tofo is a TINY little beach village with some pretty amazing spots.  The tacos at one restaurant/diving shop were incredible!  The market was really cool, and the place we stayed was pretty awesome too.  It was quite a ways down the beach so we had it to ourselves since it was "off" season.  This place is so off the beaten path it's pretty amazing that they get as many tourists as they do - but it was definitely worth it!  So beautiful! 

Our trip in Moz was cut a day short due to a flat tire on our car rental, which we got patched by two sixteen year old boys who spoke not a word of English (but did a great patch job!).  We ended our trip with a visit to my friend Sam's Peace Corps site in Kwa-Zulu Natal.  She had the opportunity to visit my site when she came to help me with my Camp GLOW and I had always wanted to see hers.  It was great to be able to put faces to names and see where she spent her two years! 


Next on our trip list was Malawi.  For this portion of the travel I was with my friend Sami (not to be confused with Sam).  We had purchased our 36 hour bus tickets up to Lilongwe and met in Joburg the night before we took off.  Talk about an interesting bus ride.  First, we were the only white people (which we were totally used to, but I'm pretty sure they all thought we were crazy).  Second, we had the least luggage out of everyone and literally a semi-truck sized trailer was being pulled by our bus to accommodate all of the "luggage" everyone was bringing back to their families in Malawi.  Third, for what felt like the entire 36 hours, horrible movies/music videos played.  Some points they blared the music so loud you had no choice but to watch.  My favorite were the music videos like this: 

The bus ride took all day and night Saturday and we had to go through two boarders before Malawi (Zimbabwe and Mozambique).  At the Mozambican boarder we had to pay a ridiculous amount that we are 100% positive they just made up (since no signs were posted saying how much it was, and I had just crossed into Mozambique the week before at a different boarder where the prices WERE posted, and they were less).  They were also incompetent and racist - a great combination.  They refused to help any of the white people who came after us, and we're convinced the only reason they helped us is because our bus attendant talked to them for us.  They also put the wrong name on my friend’s visa - the last person who had gotten a visa before her was apparently named Michael so on her visa that's what it said!  Of course upon exiting the country they didn’t even notice that the name on her visa didn’t match the name on her passport (luckily!).

Once we arrived in Malawi we only had a bit further to go before we got to our destination, Lilongwe.  We ended up getting onto a mini bus taxi though and ditching our big bus for the last part of the trip because at the boarder we were stopped and the authorities were going to look through all of the cargo (remember the semi-truck sized trailer we had at the back?).  It had to be emptied and it was all gone through - it was going to take literally hours.  A German lady we met who was traveling back on our bus (she got on in Zimbabwe) told us she always just leaves the bus here and takes a mini bus to Lilongwe.  So we joined her in the hopes of getting to Lilongwe before dark.  Long story short: we arrived after dark, Sami got into a physical altercation because a man was trying to pick pocket from my backpack in the overly crowded taxi rank area, we arrived at the backpackers our friend had made a reservation at a few weeks before to find it closed (permanently), and had to find a new place to stay - in the dark, in a city we had never been to before.  Luckily many Malawians speak English so it wasn't a huge problem and our taxi driver got us to a different backpackers.  Crisis averted (kind of).

 The next day Sami and I spent the morning visiting the Peace Corps office in Lilongwe to attempt to get me a yellow fever card (the WHO International Travel card which is generally yellow - which you need with proof that you've had the yellow fever shot to cross certain boarders - like getting back into SA).  I HAD the yellow fever shot (you need it for South Africa) but I had lost my card at the Mozambican boarder the first time I crossed it.  Of course.  So the whole morning we're at the medical office of PC Malawi and they are trying to contact PC South Africa for my records.  They were apparently busy that morning in SA because it took them hours to let them know that they had already sent all my records to DC.  GAHHHHHH.  The thing we got out of it though was a ride with PC to another point in Malawi that would get us closer to Nkhata Bay (our destination which was supposedly only four hours away by car, but which PCVs assured us would take us all day to get to – they were right). 

They had told us that we should hitch hike to the city Mzuzu, which is the largest city close to Nkhata Bay.  So the travel was: Lilongwe to Mzuzu to Nkhata Bay.  Long story short: hitch hiking didn't work out, AWESOME Peace Corps Malawi staff went out of their way to help us, and without them we would have been stranded in the middle of no-where Malawi, and we ended up on a bus to Mzuzu.  We arrived in Mzuzu several hours later after dark at which point we got a taxi.  We had been talking to our friend Anise who was already in Nkhata Bay with her friend Jorgen waiting for us to arrive.  We had originally arranged a taxi to come from there to get us, but decided there would be plenty at the taxi rank by the buses and it would be cheaper for a ride just one way (this little detail is important to the rest of the story).

We get in the taxi and pay him part of the total amount so he can fill up petrol before we go.  We are a good thirty minutes into our drive (now remember it's night and this is middle of no-where Malawi so it is PITCH BLACK outside).  We're driving through these winding roads in what appears to be the middle of a jungle but since we can't see anything, we have no idea.  All of a sudden Freddy's headlights go off, which is bizarre because it's PITCH BLACK OUTSIDE.  I notice this and say "Hey Freddy, how come the lights are out?" - silence.  I ask again.  Silence.  One more time...the reply is a soft laugh.  At this point my thoughts are: I'm going to die, this was a setup, and he’s going to kill us on this road in Malawi.  Sami and I are looking at each other like...ummmmm WHAT is going on?!  After a few minutes the car just slowly comes to a stop.  Freddy STILL has yet to explain what's happening and I'm getting more panicked by the second but I’m trying to stay calm.  He gets out and pops the hood. 

After him going back and forth from trying to get the car started and going out to the engine silently he finally says "battery problem".  He then tries to jump start it by rolling the car, but the hill is behind us, and he of course doesn't explain what he's about to do so we start rolling backwards into the dark - we're honestly thinking we're going to go off a cliff into oblivion.  Sami and I are holding hands terrified and when the rolling start doesn't work we know we're in trouble.  We called Anise to let her know what was going on (and spoke loudly and clearly so that he knew we had a friend waiting for us at our destination).  Of course at this critical moment we run out of airtime so can't communicate from our side with Anise anymore.  We were able to arrange to have a taxi come and meet us on the road though so we knew someone was on their way to get us.  We ended up making it safely to Nkhata Bay but not without being a bit traumatized.  I really was terrified.  To defend the taxi driver - he felt ashamed because his car broke down, and he was embarrassed which is why he wasn't explaining anything.  Also it has been my experience that Africans tend to not explain ANYTHING, especially if it's an uncomfortable or disagreeable thing (like - oh shoot - my car battery is dying!).  Instead, they avoid and remain silent.  Not a good thing when you're a scared tourist and all you what to know is what's going on! 

The good news in all of the craziness was we made to Mayoka Village (the backpackers) and it was AMAZING.  Seriously - amazing.  Mayoka Village is on Lake Malawi, and is one of those rare places that is so cool, you never want to leave.  Their food was AMAZING, the views were AMAZING, and the chalet we stayed in was - AMAZING!  Everything about it was so cool.  They were socially and environmentally conscious and the place is community owned and operated.  They have free excursions you can take - like going cliff jumping into the lake (which we did - so much fun!).  We were able to walk into town, see the markets and shops, and get to experience the "Warm Heart of Africa" (how Malawi is known).  We really did find Malawians to be incredibly friendly and helpful.  They would go out of their way to help us with things, which compared to other places is pretty unique. 

We went snorkeling in the Lake which was so clear and blue - you could see all the fish and plants perfectly.  We did a lot of hanging out at the restaurant within Mayoka and ate there every night because the food was so delicious we didn't want to go anywhere else.  It was fun to explore town and see how the Malawians live.  For anyone traveling to Malawi - Nkhata Bay is a great place to stay and you should stay at Mayoka Village.  For some reason their online presence is non-existent but it is where you want to be.  Anise and Jorgen stayed for two nights at Big Blue Star (or whatever it's called) which is the only place I found online) and it was BAD.  What we discovered in Malawi is that you can't plan ahead, and you can't trust anything you found out online (also true for Tanzania).  Playing it by ear and being flexible is necessary to travel though these places! 

We were really sad to leave Mayoka - we could have stayed there for a full week and wanted to stay longer!  We had to move on though so we left for Tanzania.  

 It was hard to say goodbye to Malawi - it had been such a great experience but we were so excited for the next leg of our trip - Zanzibar!  We headed out to the boarder by private taxi (it was quite the "splurge" but still ridiculously cheap...LOVE Malawi) and ended up getting to Tanzania right before it started to get dark (after of course one of our taxi's tires blew out on the highway and we had to stop and put on the spare...).  Each time we went to a new destination on this trip it took us AT LEAST two full days to get there and generally multiple things went array on the way.  Once we arrived at the Tanzanian boarder we were greeted by very eager people, ready to take advantage of us.  But that's a whole different story... 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The End of An Adventure

SA 23 Community HIV/AIDS Outreach Project Volunteers 2011-2013
As I write this my countdown on my calendar tells me I have 19 days left in Alexandria.  As my time winds down I’m struck at how complicated my feelings are towards leaving.  Some days I think with joy and relief: only 19 days to go!  Other days the number makes me panic and wish I had another two years.  Usually I get both of these feelings within the same day, even within minutes of each other.  I’ve been thinking about all the things I will miss and all the things I won’t and wanted to share them with you. 
I’ll start with the things I’m not going to miss once I leave South Africa.  I will not miss…
  • Children harassing me (which is happening right now as I write this: “Zoleka, do you have sweeties?”), cockroaches, bathing in a bucket, hand washing clothes, line drying clothes, burglar bars, not going out after dark, marriage proposals, electric fences, no air-conditioning, no central heating, bad internet, not understanding 50% of what is said at any given moment around me, and trash everywhere. 
  • The following things I have had experiences with in South Africa and even though I know these issues exist in the United States I will not miss: blatant racism, violence against women, child abuse, animal abuse, and living in poverty.      
Things I will miss… 
  • My host family.  My host sister Phakama and her little boy Qhama who recently turned five.  Qhama just started kindergarten this year and his English is getting better.  I’m going to miss him coming home from school and saying shyly “Look Alana!” as he shows me his school work. 
  • My friends and South African “families”.  I’ve made some amazing friends here in South Africa and I’m so sad to be leaving them.  I can’t imagine not seeing my friend Noxolo weekly for our Girls Club and catch up session where we share things going on in our lives.  She’s been an amazing support to me and I’m going to miss her dearly.  Most of my friends here are people who I’ve worked with on projects and they know me the best – it will be hard to say goodbye to them.  I have two families that have “adopted” me since I’ve been here.  Both are going to be heartbreaking to leave.  My South African moms have taken care of me like their own daughters.  Feeding me dinner, buying me medicine when I was sick, sharing South African life with me and allowing me to become part of their lives.  I’ve gone from having no sisters to being the “American sister” of six of them!  I hope that one day I can show them the same kindnesses they showed me and some of them can come visit me in the States!  
  • My Ikhwezi co-workers.  Despite them occasionally driving me crazy, they all have good, kind hearts.  They make me laugh daily and I’ll miss them terribly. 
  • The youth I work with.  The disabled learners, my girls from Camp GLOW and GLOW clubs, the orphans and vulnerable children that come to my organization, the neighborhood kids, SKILLZ participants, and my students.  I can’t even remember what it’s like to not interact with these amazing young people daily.  I wish I could grant wishes, and make all of theirs come true.  I wish I could solve their problems, and protect them, and see that they all reach their goals.  I know that they were fine before me, and they will survive on their own without me, but I’ll be thinking of them and sending them love for the rest of my life.  I will worry about them, and hope that they continue to believe in themselves no matter what. 
  • South Africa.  The people.  South African’s are so quick to laugh and make friends.  They welcome you with open arms, are amazingly generous, and support you like you’re family the instant they meet you.  I’ll miss the name Zoleka and being greeted by everyone I see on the street with a smile and “Molo, MyZo!”  The beauty of this country.  The ocean, rolling green hills, the brightly colored houses that line the streets.  The beautiful trees and flowers that bloom all year round.  The long summer days. And the sky that’s the bluest blue you could imagine. 
  • My Peace Corps friends.  I wouldn’t have been able to get through the last two years without the friendship of my amazing fellow Peace Corps Volunteers.  When you’re questioning your sanity, or just need to complain to someone about how a massive cockroach just woke you up in your sleep, the only people to turn to are other PCVs.  They are the only other people who understand exactly what you mean without having to go into a long explanation. 
  • The little things: Nando’s Peri Peri sauce, my little room, Hungry Eye’s delicious chips, being a local celebrity, biltong, children harassing me, milk tart, walking everywhere, my street, Algoa FM, my neighbors, South African slang, and probably a million other things I’ll only realize once they aren’t a part of my life anymore.

As I explained above the weirdest thing about ending Peace Corps service is the daily contradictory waves of emotions you get.  I’m incredibly sad to be leaving.  I’m beyond excited to come back to the United States.  I don’t want to leave my new families and friends.  There is nothing more I want than to see my family and friends after two years.  I can’t imagine not living here anymore yet I think about the United States and all the things I want to do there on a daily basis.  It’s the most pure and true experience of bittersweet that I’ve ever had.  I am satisfied and proud of my service, and I know it’s time to move onto the next chapter but now that the time has actually come, it feels impossible to leave. 

After I leave Alexandria I head up to Pretoria to finalize the end of my service along with several other volunteers from our group.  Some people from SA 23 have already gone back to the States, others are staying in South Africa longer.  I’m ending my service on the day we always knew we would – and there are a lot of us who didn’t change the plans.  It will be good to get the opportunity to work through all this with my fellow SA 23s.  After March 22nd – my last day as a Peace Corps Volunteer – my friends and I will begin our travels around Southern Africa for the month of April.  I am really looking forward to this, but it’s on the back of my mind as I get ready to say goodbye to my community. 

“There will come a time when you believe everything is finished.  That will be the beginning.”
- Louis L'Amour

This post is dedicated to Aya – my friend.  We will always miss you.   

Teaching English

When I thought about my last three months in the Peace Corps I imagined they would be full of stress free work: transferring my remaining project responsibilities from myself to my South African counterparts, and taking my time to wrap up and say goodbye.  I imagined it would be relaxed.  In true Peace Corps fashion the unexpected came along and I’m busier than I’ve been in possibly my whole service.  I am currently volunteering as a full time English teacher at one of the two high schools in my town - Alexandria High School. 

The situation came about because since the beginning of the new school year in January, Alexandria High has been short ten teachers (in which is an already understaffed school).  The Department of Education has some internal issues which have resulted in schools across the Eastern Cape not receiving the number of teachers they are supposed to have.  Therefore schools like Alexandria High find themselves in desperate situations with children coming to school and no one to teach them various subjects.  The children come to school and go to class if they have a teacher.  If they don’t, they go to sit in the school hall for that period.  Most classes are sitting in the hall for multiple periods a day. 

A few weeks into the school year I met with the Principle and offered to help if I could.  They asked if I could teach English and I agreed.  A month into the school year the students hadn’t had a single English class.  I began right away and started with six different classes grades 8-11.  Most of the students take English as their “First Additional Language”, and their “Home Language” is Afrikaans.  They couldn’t believe that I can’t speak or understand Afrikaans and it’s quite a departure for some of them, especially the younger students, to be expected to speak English all the time. 

In the last few weeks my students and I dove in head first as we try to accomplish as many required “tasks” as possible for all the classes so they can have grades for the first term.  I am enjoying teaching, the challenge, and getting the chance to spend time with some of the community youth I didn’t know before.  On the first day of class I explained how I’m from the United States and allowed questions.  The best questions were: do I have Rick Ross’s phone number, am I friends with Demi Lovato, and in the United States do I drive a Bugatti.  To their disappointment the answers to all of those questions was no.    

Being back in a high school classroom everyday has me thinking a lot about my own experiences and noticing the things that are similar and different.  It makes me appreciate my education and the opportunities I had more than ever.  The challenges the school, teachers, and learners face can feel overwhelming to me but they push through and do the best they can with what they have.  Some differences between Alex High and its learners from my own experiences in high school are: required uniforms, no lunch periods or cafeteria, no passing periods or lockers, and no gym class.  They don’t have regular use of technology in their classes no teachers have computers or TVs in their classrooms.  The support staff is very small with two administrative staff, a few grounds and cleaning staff, and a part time “Learner Support Agent” who deals with counseling.  The extracurricular activity options are really limited which is the opposite of how it was at my high school.    

The similarities are numerous but have more to do with the teachers and learners than anything else.  The students love participating in sports, the big ones here are rugby, soccer, and netball which is a no-dribble version of basketball that’s considered a “girls sport.”  The students remind me of high school students anywhere in the world.  They are trying to figure out who they are and in that process can show many different sides.  They can be overly confident, insecure, quiet, talkative, shy, outgoing, inquisitive, and unsure but mostly they are funny.  They love to laugh and tell jokes, and as long as it doesn’t take up too much time I don’t mind.  Some are eager to learn, others aren’t.  Some are very well behaved, others…not so much.  They are high school students and they are fun.        

On Valentine’s Day there was a school dance and I volunteered to be a monitor.  It was so fun to see what a school dance is like in a small town in Africa!  The grade eleven students were responsible for running it.  They had to bring food and refreshments for the tables they decorated, and help clean up afterwards.  Before the dance a group of students who weren’t actually attending had come to the school and were sitting outside.  When I asked them if they were going to go in they said they had just come to see the different dresses – it was like they were there to see celebrities! 

A DJ from the community was brought in and played the most popular current dance songs - mostly “house music” by different African DJs.  One of my favorite moments was at the end of the dance when they played Gangnam Style and everyone got on the dance floor and did the moves.  It made me laugh, and I imagined the same thing happening at high school dances all over the world.  Not even tiny Alexandria, South Africa can escape the phenomena Gangnam Style.
I don’t know what’s going to happen when I leave in a few weeks if the school hasn’t found another volunteer or been approved to hire the ten teachers that they desperately need.  In the meantime I’ll try and teach them as much about English as I can and hope that my brief time with them has helped a little! 

Random story:
Even though my time here is almost done, I still have new experiences happening!  The other day there was a larger than normal group of kids standing outside my room watching me boil water for my bath (HOW they can possibly think staring at me while I do these completely normal tasks is interesting is still beyond me).  I needed to brush my hair so I did and then cleaned out my brush of the broken hairs.  As I dropped the tangle of hairs into my yard a gust of wind blew my hair into the air at which point all I heard was “MLUNGU HAIR!!!!!” (white hair!) and a race ensued to grab my discarded hairs.

Once they got them, they proceeded to sniff (I mean, really, really sniff) them, rub them on their faces, and put them on top of their own heads.  It was both slightly disturbing, and hilarious all rolled into one “is this happening?” moment.  I’m going to miss this place.      

Friday, January 18, 2013

Fun Times at Tyhilulwazi

Being back in Alexandria and back at site means back to my normal routine.  One of my favorite things is my Tuesday and Thursday mornings spent with the learners of the Tyhilulwazi (Tee-lu-waz-ee) Disabled Center (TDC).  Working with these learners has been a highlight of my service, and something I look forward to each week. 

The Tyhilulwazi Disabled Center is for the disabled people of Alexandria to come and learn basic skills, some education, and have a space safe to be themselves.  According to South African law all children regardless of ability have the right to attend school.  Unfortunately in reality this isn’t happening.  There are absolutely zero tools for the schools in Alexandria to deal with disabled learners.  They have no special education teachers, classrooms, or training to deal with disabilities.  If a child is severely disabled they will not attend school of any kind.  For the learners with less obvious disabilities they might be enrolled in school and it won’t be until they fail a low grade repeatedly that they are removed from school with nowhere to go. 

Luckily for the disabled people of Alexandria they have the TDC.  The TDC is run by a kind Mama named Mrs. Bloko.  Mrs. Bloko founded the center and she has one other regular volunteer, but other than that they are on their own.  They deal with all ranges of disabilities from physical to mental.  The spectrum of disabilities at the TDC is surprising and a challenge to deal with when attempting to create a curriculum or do any sort of basic skills or educational lessons.  They have some learners who are non-verbal and wheelchair bound, others who have no physical disabilities but cannot write their name - and everything else in between.   

Mrs. Bloko has no educational background in special education or formal training for working with disabilities.  What surprised me was that there is no record of the disabilities that her learners have.  I’ve seen that one learner has down syndrome, and two are deaf.  Other than those which I happen to know myself, I couldn’t tell you a single other disability that anyone has.  This makes it extremely challenging to properly create effective programs for these learners but like many things in South Africa – it’s just the way it is.  Despite what I see as a major challenge and problem – I can say that at least they have somewhere to go and receive some kind of support.  It’s not ideal, but it is certainly better than nothing.   

The work that I do with the learners could be described as physical education.  Every Tuesday and Thursday all those that are physically able make the short trek from the TDC to the sports center.  Our favorite game to play is “rounders” which is kick ball.  It’s more sort-of-kick ball because rules aren’t really followed.  Most people never touch a base and run in any direction possible to not get “out”.  Sometimes we have free days and then the boys usually play soccer, with the girls preferring netball (a no-dribble version of basketball).  Other activities we’ve done are relay races, stretches, basic workouts, and cricket.  We always end up back at rounders though!  I love it because it provides an opportunity for everyone to participate regardless of ability.  Everyone gets the chance to come up, kick the ball, and run around the bases (or near them). 

It’s been so fun to see some of the learners really show their skills in sports and excel!  We have some great athletes and I wish there was an outlet for them to regularly build on these skills.  On the other side of the spectrum we have some learners who still need to be prompted after they kick the ball.  Aviwe is my favorite.  She will stop the ball after it’s pitched to her, place it where she wants it, kick it, and then needs directions.  “Baleka, Aviwe! Baleka!” (Run, Aviwe! run!) can be heard every Tuesday and Thursday from the sports center.

I’m really going to miss my TDC buddies – they keep a smile on my face the whole time I’m with them.  We can’t really verbally communicate since none of them can speak English and my Xhosa is extremely limited, but we don’t need words for all the fun we’re having.  They know I care about them, and they care about me too.  I can tell when I’m half a block away from the center and I can hear them shouting “Zolekas coming!”  Makes me smile every time.