Jane of the Jungle

Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

I’m dripping in sweat, antsy from bumping along the dusty Botswana countryside for hours, and then a short burst of energy. The vehicle jolts to a stop, pulls aside and our guide points out two elephants grazing lazily on the side of the road. We spring into action, phones clicking for that perfect instagram shot and then we pull back onto the road strewn with potholes for another 15 minutes. As we pull of the road into the seemingly nondescript Elephant Sands campsite, all I can think about is a quick shower, a ton of mosquito spray, and a good night’s sleep before heading north to Victoria Falls the next morning.

Nothing prepares me for the magic of a campsite replete with a watering hole at its center and dozens of male elephants slurping up water and slathering themselves in mud. We draw chairs up on the deck, not more than three or four meters from the nearest cluster of elephants and stare. As the sky shifts from bright blue to a soft pink one elephant asserts his dominance, continuing to charge, trumpet, and growl at other elephants that infringe upon his space. (Me too dude, me too.)

IMG_4091After a magical night complete with one of the best steaks I’ve ever eaten (a close second to Buenos Aires), I arise at 3 AM, stumble out of the tent under a brilliant diamond-studded sky, lock eyes with an elephant, and hop into the vehicle, determined to snag a few more hours of sleep before reaching the Zimbabwean border. As we drive north, the landscape shifts from semi-arid to increasingly lush. With the border crossing being as easy as could be hoped, we head to Victoria Falls town for two days at one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

Impressive doesn’t even begin to cover Victoria Falls. The roar of the falls greets me long before I catch sight of them, a thundering that can be heard at the campsite 2 km away. Once inside the park, we navigate the slippery pathways staring wide-eyed at the seemingly endless sets of falls and the rainbows cast inside the gorges all the while laughing at the constant mist pouring down on us.

IMG_4127On Saturday we cross the border to Zambia prepared to engage in a day of high ropes adventure (or so we thought). Upon arriving, we pull up to the edge of the Batoka Gorge, a coppery toned cliff side that opens up on a green-carpeted forest floor. The guides hook us up to numerous cable and harnesses, have us practice for our fall on the Gorge Swing, and walk us to the edge. I shuffle my toes until they peek over and as my heart races, I manage to hear the guide count down 3, 2, 1 and I step into the abyss. An involuntary shriek wrenches itself from me as I free fall for what feels like forever, falling the nearly 100 meters into the canyon until the harness finally catches me and swings me breathtakingly as my toes kiss the treetops. This time, a shout of bliss and achievement escapes me.IMG_4146

Sunday morning we head back to Botswana and enter Chobe National Park situated on the Botswana/Namibia border at Sedudu. We embark on a sunset safari cruise and watch a hungry crocodile stalk a herd of elephants and subsequently on failure, a family of monkeys. We watch a mama hippo prod her young underwater for protection and see a buffalo charge at another boat. The evening fades from fiery sunset to starlit night and as we roast marshmallows over a fire in the middle of the bush we watch 2017 fade into memory gracefully (and if I might add, with a lot of gratitude… that it happened, that it’s over).

IMG_4205The curtains open on 2018 with a riveting safari in Chobe, putting us two meters from a pride of lions (cubs included!), too close for comfort from an adolescent elephant who angry at our presence throws dirt and leaves on me, and up close and personal with baby baboons clambering aboard their parents’ backs.

One trip, four countries, and dozens of adventures not even touched on here, this trip was undoubtedly the best possible way to close out 2017 and kick off the New Year. If this trip taught me anything it’s that 1. Traveling solo as a female is unbelievably empowering and 2. That sometimes we need to step off the edge of a canyon and let a free fall rip the utter joy out of us.

The Year of Magic and Meh

Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

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The new Playpump set up at school on a rainy December day.

If you had asked me a few months ago, I undoubtedly would have told you that 2017 had been the absolute worst year of my life. Although plenty of good things had taken place, the dark clouds of the bumpy realities of Peace Corps life overwhelmed them. Fairly enough, my focus remained on events that caused me anxiety, that brought me fear and frustration and that left me feeling weak.

But life has a way of reminding you of your power, of opening the door to sunshine and if you’re lucky, a little bit of magic. Term four, though exhausting and full of tedious examinations, coincided with several successful activities. I began a partnership with a local HIV/AIDS organization and created a working relationship with a drop-in center. I procured two new book donations for my learners and further developed my co-teaching partnership in preparation for co-teaching grades 4 and 7 next school year. Most exciting of all, I procured a Playpump for my school’s borehole to allow us access to water and to provide kids somewhere designed for climbing and playing on.

I reclaimed my strength in term four. When my counterpart told me she was leaving the school next year, I cried, but I was genuinely thrilled for her decision to put herself first. Her constant support this past year has enabled me to stand on my own two feet at school and has made me a kinder and more empathetic person.

And then there is the realization of the immense magic that fills my life, from the everyday variety that comes in wildflowers and “shahps” with toddlers to drinking in the vast turquoise ocean spilling out of Table Bay or embracing a group of scrambling lemurs. My life is replete with joy. Not every day, week, or even month is easy, but the slumps eventually “unslump” themselves with victories big and small, and a whole lot of compassion.

While I continue to be excited for a fresh start in January, I also recognize that 2017 was far from a complete loss. 2017 was a year intended to test my sense of self, my dedication to future goals, the depth of my perseverance. The culmination of 11 months of an emotional roller coaster brought the gift of returning to my favorite city in the world and sharing my bliss as my sister and brother-in-law visited the Mother City.

I am Privileged

Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

“ ‘Equity’ means both holding people of differing needs to a single expectation and giving them what they need to achieve it.”

I am privileged. Distinctly so. As much as I identify with minority groups as a Latina and a Jew, my appearance and upbringing often suggest otherwise thus supplying me with a level of privilege not afforded many of my counterparts. I look white, which is all that is needed to glean the benefits of a society built to favor white people. I grew up in a family that was more or less socioeconomically stable, and even during the tough times where my parents struggled to maintain a home over our heads, I remained blissfully oblivious, able to continue expensive cheer teams and piano lessons.

I am incredibly grateful for my upbringing, for the opportunities to travel, take on unpaid internships, and volunteer in my free time rather than working a minimum wage job to support my family- and grateful that when I did start working, I was able to save the money for my future endeavors due to the support of my family. Buy I recognize that the pathways to these opportunities are not entirely due to my family working harder than any other, but to a racial system that boosts us and enables us take advantage of all that America has to offer.

Here in South Africa, I constantly struggle with being a deeply privileged person living in a distinctly unprivileged segment of society. When I engage with people from outside the village bubble I find echoes of the American battle with white superiority. In South Africa, as in America, “segregation enables avoidance, which enables denial, which creates the illusion that white privilege doesn’t exist” (Irving, 74). White Americans tend to hold people of color at arm’s length, rarely befriending or engaging them except as a token friendship to disprove shouts of racism. This separation replicates itself in South Africa, as white and black people move in entirely different circles- living across provincial lines, in cities versus townships, on farms instead of villages. As we all want the best for our children, white people who have grown up comfortable, confident, and with all the skills needed to navigate the systems are capable of fighting for their children, families, and neighborhoods- thus ensuring that the best remains with them, further entrenching racist institutions, all while black people who grew up with little to no education or fearful of a state designed to beat them into submission opt to avoid painful conflict which could quickly erase any semblance of progress.

As we observe one another as outsiders peering in, white people blithely unaware of the realities the others live reach out to serve the “underprivileged”, “less-fortunate”, or “inner-city” dwellers. Without understanding the systematic oppression that has led to necessitate assistance, we address problems in a way that “disempowers and ‘fixes’ it by aggravating a wound and infantilizing” (Irving, 125) those served.

As white people, it is crucial to develop the cultural competency skills people of color develop daily. It is crucial that we recognize that white is not neutral; something against which we judge everything else, nor do good intentions erase impactful microagressions.

Continuing my work in South Africa, I strive to empower the voices around me. Rather than needing to be the leader or most outspoken, I seek to listen, contribute where appropriate, and step back to let the magic unfold in a culturally appropriate means.

 

Quotes come from: Waking up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by: Debby Irving

Lo a Rasa

Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

Or maybe not. Don’t be quiet, don’t close your mouth.

One of my enduring goals for my service is to instill a sense of pride in my learners. On a daily basis, these kids are yelled at to “shut up!” and “stop making noise”, but if I’ve learned anything, it’s that they have valuable things to say when we give them a chance. As much as I am guilty of getting frustrated when trying to create some semblance of silence in my classroom so I can deliver my lesson, I also recognize that many of my students are never told that they matter.

As a child, I bonded with adults who acknowledged my value, who engaged with me as they would another adult and who made me feel seen and important. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I strive daily to provide this space for my learners- reminding them not to be shy when speaking to me, even if their English isn’t perfect, and leaving my door open for kids who need me.

Part of this journey is combatting cultural norms that contribute to immense shyness particularly among girls. Girls are often shy to look adults in the eyes when they speak, they cover their mouths when they talk, and urge their friends to speak for them so they can stay more hidden. These rituals drive me crazy- that 10-year-old girls have been taught that they should filter their desires and be fearful of an adult’s response is tragic.

I strive to build in fun ways for kids to gain public speaking skills and small spaces for them to hang out with me and confide if they so choose. Last week, I taught my learners how to play Miss Mary Mack and then allowed kids to demonstrate for the class how quickly they could perform the rhyme and hand claps. It was a huge hit with some of the shyest learners stepping forward to prove their skills.

My open door policy has yielded kids stopping by to chat about their favorite books (Hansel and Gretl and the Three Little Pigs are very popular), singing songs, and kids shyly confiding their secrets and concerns.

It’s hard to feel important when you’re constantly told otherwise, but I sincerely hope that by providing a safe space for kids to talk and be taken seriously I can fight the loneliness and insignificance just a little bit.

So in class, we lift our chins, take a deep breath, and bua ko go dimo (speak up) because what we have to say matters.

 

The Emotional Journey

Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

Edging in on 13 months of service, it’s not difficult to feel the full-blown force of the dreaded Mid-Service Crisis. That point in time when PCVs question the slightly insane logic behind their decision to be volunteers and wonder whether the seemingly inconsequential gains they are making at sight truly outweigh the icky feelings of loneliness, inadequacy, and general frustration. It comes in waves- one moment I’m tossing a Frisbee and playing netball, the next I’m overcome with sadness and anxiety- reevaluating my every move and pushing myself to snuggle deeper into my sleeping bag as I binge on yet another episode of Grey’s Anatomy.

Some days it’s fleeting, a brief moment of overwhelming emotion washing over me, and sometimes it’s a full 24 hours where I need to stop, reach out to a friend, and embrace some serious self-care.

This past week I hosted trainees at my site. Their fresh eyes, eager to embark upon their own journey, demonstrated the depth of my emotional growth since last July. One year ago self-care was a phrase I threw around because Peace Corps constantly made me consider my coping mechanisms. I made the lists of self-care activities: yoga, coloring books, reading, (sleeping)- not yet fully aware of the level of importance these activities would take on and the immense difficulty it might take to bring myself to partake in them.

When my hair is gritty and greasy, unwashed after a week because there is no water in my village, simply washing it is both strenuous and an act of self-care. Exercising when all I want to do is crawl back into bed is an act of compassion for myself- though so is allowing myself to chill out and watch that extra episode when the reality is that that is all I can bring myself to do. When I can’t name the emotions coursing through my veins or the reasons for the sudden influx of emotions, calling or texting a friend grounds me- reminds me to breathe, to sit quietly with myself, and to bring my focus inwards until I can once again manage to consider the world outside of me, through a podcast or a shy knock on my door from a learner asking to borrow my basketball.

Wading through the muck of service is painful.

But I sit and remind myself to embrace it all, this too. This pain, this anger, this confusion, this joy, this bliss, this anxiety, this immense love… this too. All of these experiences combine to build my unique experience of service and are integral aspects of the often-nicknamed 4th goal of service- personal growth.

Though I look forward to overcoming the slump of Mid-Service Crisis, each phase of service presents its own emotional challenges. And in each moment, I must continue to be accepting and gentle with myself because, as I know all to well, this too shall pass.

Until the Cows Come Home

Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

Almost one year ago, when I first arrived in South Africa, the cows scared me. Not just like a minor freak out, rather a desire to walk a completely different path going way out of the way to where I was going in order to avoid the cow kind of a big deal. Growing up in the suburbs my limited experiences with cows extended to the times that my mom called animal control as cows streamed down our street after escaping from a local farm with a broken fence. So upon arrival I really didn’t know what to make of these guys, they’re loud, large, and horned- a combination that doesn’t typically bode well. One year later, I barely give the free roaming cows almost any thoughts, except that as they pass by their cowbells contribute beautiful chimes to the background rumble of the village.

One year ago my idea of a fabulous Saturday night wasn’t handstands and solo dance parties in my long underwear as a means to keeping warm. One year ago I freaked out about cockroaches, pit latrines, and bucket baths. One year ago I didn’t consider a trip to the grocery store with a friend to be the highlight of my week(end). One year ago, cows scared me.

Last week as I was on my evening walk around the track, listening to NPR’s Invisibilia, a herd of cows moseyed through, splitting my route in half. I paused with a group of girls as we got caught in the midst of this dusty, stomping horde, which could clearly care less about us. And in the middle of this swirling, mooing, clanging chaos, I realized that I’d made it. Two weeks out from beginning my second year in South Africa I’ve banished my fear of cows.

Life’s still tough. Living in a village comes with a certain dose of monotony, bucket bathing will never be fun, and yes roaches definitely suck- but cows, cows now mark the passing of time- a year, a day, a lap around the track.

the volunteer in the zoo cage

Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

There is one experience that most volunteers would consider universal in some fashion or another; the feeling of being a zoo animal trapped for the viewing pleasure, commenting, and ogling of curious onlookers. Today I returned home from a fun weekend away, exhausted and ready to rest and prepare for the week ahead. Instead, I came home to a gaggle of young children chattering and beating on my front door, “Sesi Rea… Tshameka le rona”, a roaring soccer game on the field directly across my house attended by nearly half the village, the villages animals in rare form, and of course the persisting drum beat resonating from a nearby tavern. My peaceful afternoon disappeared in a split second.

As volunteers, we are on and working 24/7, and 90% of the time, living under scrutiny like this is manageable. It pushes me out of the house to learn netball with my neighbors, encourages me to go on walks with crèche learners, and enables me to determine the plethora of ways I could potentially serve my village. By now, most people are used to my presence, recognizing me simply with a standard greeting or wave across the field, but for the days when it seems that preschoolers incessantly pass by shouting “Shahp!” or “Sesi Rea!” and when a flurry of excitement and curiosity burgeons as visitors from neighboring villages stop by, the microscope zooms in, and even a trip out to the pit latrine requires greetings and conversations.

On these occasions, my home is simultaneously my safe haven, providing a space where I can close doors and windows and shield myself from the onslaught of spectators seeking a piece of me, and my cage in which I cower, waiting out the exhaustion that accompanies the wave of enthusiasm and the guilt for ignoring the interest of others.

But here’s the thing: it’s impossible to be on all the time. On most days, I humor the curiosity, allow kids to gently pet my hair, ask questions about America, and greet me at every turn. Monday to Sunday I (somewhat) gracefully handle stares from department officials and insurance salespeople stopping by the school, I engage with the taxi drivers and the array of people gawking as I clamber rather ungracefully onto a full taxi at the rank, and yes, I even greet people as I walk from my home to the toilet.

So maybe today it was just one (or three) stimulant too many calling my attention and fueling a sense of unsettled fatigue. But really, it’s just another reminder that life as a PCV is never simple or calm. And in the end, is a never-ending line of adoring toddler fans and shy smiles from preteens really the worst welcome home?

 

wading through a shit show

Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

Host families are integral to the success of a Peace Corps Volunteer. Your family during training teaches you how to hand wash laundry, take a bucket bath, and live safely in South Africa. Upon moving to site, we build more independent relationships with our host families, but allowing them into our lives and enabling them to support us can make a volunteer’s journey much smoother.

Transitioning back to South Africa has been rough. While in the states, I let myself get accustomed to hot showers, dishwashers, and laundry machines. Returning to ZA, I opened the door to my house only to encounter that mice had overtaken it during my time away. Pounds of mouse droppings littered the floor, and almost every object in my home- from books to jeans to my mosquito net- had been gnawed at if not fully chewed through. This startling find was more than I could bear given my jetlagged and emotionally exhausted state- I broke down. I finally summoned the courage to show my host mother the damage, and she invited my cousin, Tumi, in to help me clean. Tumi began cleaning, sweeping things out, mopping, removing furniture, separating objects turned to trash, and the loads of laundry now requiring attention. Meanwhile, I stood there agape (alternating between shock and overwhelming anxiety), still struggling to come to terms with the implications of this infestation.

Seeking assistance is often considered shameful, and yet, actually reaching out is liberating and transforms a situation from one of crushing panic to something you know you’ll laugh about eventually (but definitely not today, today the mouse infestation is still decidedly not funny). My family opened the doors of their home to me, allowing me to seek refuge in the big house until structural adjustments can be made to my home and poison administered to root out the rodents. They sorted through bedding that I deemed useless, and zealously washed it- saving me from my American need to simply throw out and purchase fresh.

South Africans demonstrate affection differently from Americans. Rather than showering you with praise and hugs (although some do dish those out plentifully), they express love by problem solving and taking action- a quality greatly appreciated in situations such as this. This is true grit- simultaneously handling my emotional breakdown, tackling the problem, and providing a safe place for me to strengthen relationships over a meal of goat, mealie rice, and chakalaka.

no mud, no lotus.

Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

Disclaimer: I initially wrote this post a week ago, but I was waiting for confirmation of my medical clearance to share this with you all. I am overjoyed to be returning to site (like jumping up and down, dancing around the room, singing at the top of my lungs kind of happy). Thanks for bearing with me and allowing me to open up my heart and soul to you!

Read and remember; not all Peace Corps service experiences are the same. True as this is in understanding characteristics unique to each village, province, and nation that a volunteer serves in, it also reflects the journey that a volunteer embarks upon. Upon applying for the Peace Corps and throughout the preparations for departure we tend to sum up an experience which we fail to fully understand in the best way we can, “It’s a 27 month commitment, so I’ll spend the first three months in language and technical training and then the next two years at my permanent site as a volunteer”. This barebones explanation of service that we tend to clutch tightly to throughout Pre-Service Training and the early phases of service fails to create space for the reality of a Peace Corps Service.

Peace Corps service is hard. I’m not complaining, I knew what I signed up for, and I love it, I’m simply stating my truth. It’s hard in ways that you cannot possible prepare for or imagine no matter the extent of your research or training. Regardless of the length of time a volunteer has served for, it is often all too impossible for another volunteer to fully understand and empathize with any other volunteer’s experiences. For every similarity that builds the bonds of the Peace Corps network and develops mutual understanding of the PCV lifestyle, there is a twist, something to differentiate your experience- whether a challenge or a success, your experience is different.

While I can elaborate on the dozens of things that make my service unique, this post will focus on one. Where have I been for the past few months? Silent on the blog, initially because I was swamped with work wrapping up term one, then attending a regional training conference, then on vacation in Mozambique, and finally because I’ve been home in the United States for the past five weeks.

I’m currently on Medevac, a 45-day opportunity for volunteers with various health conditions to return home and recuperate while seeking and receiving treatment. While on Medevac, a volunteer’s sole job is to get better, a tall order considering the short time frame, and the current toxic environment surrounding healthcare in the US. But you press on, meet with the doctor, and focus on activities that bring you joy- again, easier said then done. Because that things that bring you joy may have shifted over the previous 10 months, and if not, following a traumatic event, you may not be physically or mentally able to enjoy them in the same way. But day-by-day, week-by-week, things get easier. At yoga class you don’t shudder when an instructor provides an adjustment, and you can manage to really relax into the vulnerable pose of ultimate relaxation- Savasana. You don’t freak out at being in crowded places or with people swarming right behind you, you start meditating, reading more, studying for the GRE, and begin to rebuild and embrace the abundance that life has to offer.

But then it’s time to go back. Six weeks flew by in the blink of an eye and all the hard work you’ve done feels as though it’s coming to a crashing halt. Fear and anxiety creep in calling you to question your desire to return. And then you remember all the work that has to be done to rebuild a sense of safety and security, work that will require repeating upon returning to your village. But the thought of not returning fills you with an immense sadness and a fear of not reclaiming your life. So you listen to the wise words swarming around you, “one day at a time”, “the choice to go, to leave, to stay, and to change your mind are always yours”, and my new personal mantra, “no mud, no lotus”. The gross, the gritty, the messy, and upsetting are intrinsically connected to the wonderful, abundant, joyous, and calming experiences of life.

So while the thought of my learners and family in South Africa beckons me earnestly, it is this deeper understanding of myself that drives my return. I return to South Africa on my own terms: I can choose to take each day as it comes, with plenty of options and support to combat the overwhelming, in one month, I will get a break as I journey back to the U.S. for my sister’s wedding, and I am armed with the knowledge that whatever decision I ultimately make bears no judgment on my character. The journey continues, reflective of life, it is messy, frustrating, and deviates from the expected- but the reward of growth and the continual pursuit of greater understanding, empathy, and self-love provides the strength to keep going, despite the murky paths ahead.

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