Exploring home and healing

It’s no secret that I thrive when traveling in other countries. I count down the days until my next adventure and reminisce fondly on memories from recent trips. But the reality is that most of my days aren’t spent galavanting around the world, but chilling at home, going to work, and building a day-to-day routine. I’ve been grappling with ways to break out of my monotonous routine and capture the joy of travel here. Continue reading “Exploring home and healing”

You Look Happy

A reflection of thoughts while traveling Cambodia: December 2019

At the time of writing, I’m in Siem Reap, Cambodia, on one of the most exhausting and exhilarating days of my life. After a day of temples, quad biking, pasta, and rooftop dancing, I’m reflecting on a comment a friend made- “You look happy”. Continue reading “You Look Happy”

O Tswa Kae?

It’s a simple enough question really. I’m from the U.S., a west coast native from California and Arizona. But then it gets complicated. Because although I certainly was part of busy and whole lives in both of these places, neither has truly ever felt like the place I’ve yearned to be. Continue reading “O Tswa Kae?”

The new new

September is for new beginnings, for new school years, fresh supplies and shiny new clothes. But this year as I start my masters degree at Stanford I’m feeling a swirl of mixed emotions from utter and complete gratitude and joy to a vicious sense of lacking (or as my Brazilian friends might put it, saudades). Continue reading “The new new”

Wandering solo and loving it?

Solo travel inevitably means a lot of time in your own head, either relishing the opportunity to get to know yourself better, or frustrated and bored with the same thoughts bubbling up on repeat. Solo travel also provides an opportunity to meet people from all over the world and with incredibly different backgrounds, to create fast-paced friendships while engaging solely in activities that make you happy. Continue reading “Wandering solo and loving it?”

On Returning

Back. Back in the land of cuddly puppies, frozen yogurt and rapid-fire English. Back to driving myself around, blasting my own music or podcasts, no longer at the mercy of taxi drivers booming gqom or gospel. Back to yoga sessions sweaty from a heated room rather than a baking under my tin roof, back to family, back to friends, back to almost familiar ways. Continue reading “On Returning”

Do the Work

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

Silence

The tragedy is people see you as a victim

And they keep seeing you as a victim

Because you talk about the thing that hurt you.

Because you talk about your trauma

Because you discuss the thing that tore you apart.

 

They do not understand that talking about it

Being brave enough to face it

Understanding it

And allowing others

To see all of your vulnerability

Is courage at its rawest.

 

You are a survivor

Because you are not silent

Do not allow others

To define your survival

Because they lack the patience

The understanding

The courage to hear it.

 

  • Nikita Gill

*Dear readers, I’ve been hella real here. I’ve been super freaking vulnerable. And that’s not easy. So please, be gentle with my soul. I appreciate y’all for caring about my journey. 

It’s been a season of personal reckonings. Of really sitting with the growth and experiences I’ve undergone in the past 21 months of service. And that inevitably means wading into thoughts and emotions that are tough, that really hurt. But the fruits of that emotional labor can have resounding effects, rippling far past my little personal bubble and affecting relationships with others and even unaware, seemingly unrelated people. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

About a month ago I was invited by my Program Manager (PM) to be part of a meeting to reevaluate the SCRP (School and Community Resource) Project Framework, essentially assisting Peace Corps to determine the best use of education volunteers in the upcoming years. In this meeting was PC upper management, school principals, two other volunteers, and representatives of both provincial and national Departments of Education. And as volunteers, we were asked to bring the reality of our service to the table. To elaborate our successes, challenges, and suggestions going forward.

In my first draft for this meeting I skated over some of my realities, instead sticking to the surface level challenges that are well known throughout Peace Corps- language barrier, counterpart buy-in, etc. And I was proud of what I had to say. Except. Except it wasn’t the truth, not the whole truth at least. The reality is that my service has been incredibly affected by my being female. By the excessive harassment that I face, by the patriarchal society that I’m serving in, by severe anxiety stemming from my assault last year.

And so I rewrote. And I shared. I went vulnerable in a most terrifying way, feeling that if there is even the slimmest chance for change that could protect others, that it was my obligation to do so. And I was received. I got men wondering about the prevalence of these experiences across the nation and women empathizing that they too have been there. And I got people saying thank you.

This disclosure was but the start of a rabbit hole I journeyed into. I spoke with my PM the next day for three hours, outlining my experiences, thoughts and suggestions for staff. I emphasized that these experiences do not detract from the successes of my service and her rose-tinted perception of my service, but rather that they add another layer through which you can better understand PC service.

My experience is that PC service is far from easy. There are days when I don’t want to climb out of bed or do anything beyond the bare minimum. And there are days when I want to go for runs and stay late at school working on projects. That’s life. Sure, could I have gone home after all the shit I’ve dealt with? Yes. But would that really change anything? Would I be dealing any less with the patriarchy (unfortunately, probably not)? Would I be able to stop it all and just wallow? (I mean theoretically…) But no. Life continues either way, here or home. As much as I joke that I stick it out to get the R (in RPCV or returned volunteer), I stick it out because I love my work here. I stick it out because I feel that I have so much to share with other volunteers. I stick it out because it’s genuinely not all bad. Like everything, PC service is a mixed bag. And sometimes the bad is really bad and sometimes the good is incredible, peaks and valleys.

So I do the work. I struggle through the emotional moments to deepen my own sense of self, to maximize my self-growth. I do the work not because I’m dwelling in a victimized past, but because it allows me to gain perspective and fight for what I know to be important.

 

 

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.

IMG_4054.jpg
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.

Searching for the Rainbow

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

Rain on a tin roof. In the soundtrack of my life it’s a sound that falls somewhere between soothing and relaxing and my roof might crash in please get me a helmet. As the blissfully cool days of winter wrap up, taking its teeth chattering nights with it, the rainy season returns and with it- life. Critters of all sizes creep back in- the spider making its web across my pit latrine, eager grasshoppers, and yes, even the roaches. Babies are being born, from faltering baby goats, to puppies that are terrified of pigs, to monkeys clutching to their mamas’ bellies.

In parts of South Africa the return of the rain equates to instant greenery and lushness. Right now, I am spending a few days at the Buddhist Retreat Centre (BRC) in Ixopo. Ixopo is about two hours northwest of Durban in Kwa-Zulu Natal and sits in beautiful lush mountains. If you hike out to the cliffs, you can see villages nestled in every tiny crevice, their flickering lights barely penetrating the thick fog at night.

For one of the first times in my service, I am somewhere I don’t speak the language. Certainly, English is widely understood at the Centre and in the city, but the twisty taxi ride wound its way through the peaks and valleys blasting radio programs in isiZulu. Beyond the basic greetings (Sanibonani! and Yebo!), I am at a loss, a tough break for someone who regularly relies on language skills to create a wider safety net and to engage with the people around me.

This week’s school holiday between terms and the trip to the BRC comes at a much-needed moment in my service. Term three proved exhausting, rocky, and interminable. Highlighted by small achievements- distribution of reusable menstrual pads, expanded usage of the mini library, and stronger connections with the staff at my school- term three was nonetheless incredibly difficult. I continue to remind myself that hiding out in my room is okay, that counting down the days to my next trip is normal, and that being frustrated with myself and my students comes with the territory. Don’t get me wrong; I still enjoy my Peace Corps service. I still find it rewarding and full of new growth opportunities, but I also find myself more in tune with myself and the crucial importance of not letting my service come at a cost to my mental health.

Next week, my cohort will come together at our Mid-Service Training (MST) for doctors appointments and to mark the start of our second year as volunteers. As excited, as I am to reconnect with the rest of SA34, I find MST mildly anxiety-inducing. In a meet-up of this nature it will be impossible not to compare services, taking all my strength to be proud of the projects implemented by my fellow PCVs while I feel sapped.

So this week, I am trying for a little rain in my brain. I am trying to push the sludge of term three away and make space for year two to blossom. Connecting with my soul in this way is painful and tiring- but if Peace Corps has taught me anything, it’s that growth doesn’t come for free and resilience takes some serious practice.

Being Known

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

One year. One year of service. 14 months in country, 1 incredible journey. Life as a Peace Corps Volunteer is not nearly as simple as one might think. Survival on some days takes a strength much deeper than you can possibly imagine. One of the biggest struggles for volunteers is the deep loneliness at site. We are often miles away from the nearest volunteer, separated by several provinces from our good friends, and ensconced in a daily routine where we are supposed to create support networks in the village.

In the village, we are constantly surrounded by people, under continual supervision, examined as we undertake even the smallest of tasks. But- there is a sense of knowing people without being known yourself. Folks at site know me superficially, but they don’t know my challenges, internal battles, or my life pre-South Africa.

Though one of the goals of Peace Corps is facilitating cultural exchange, this goal often sanitizes relationships. We are viewed as representatives of an entire country and most questions posed to us relate to American stereotypes: everyone in the U.S. is rich, life must be like Keeping up with the Kardashians, and we all know celebrities. Not exactly my reality.

And so, lacking the anonymity of a big city that enables you to be alone without feeling lonely, the microscopic nature of village life ensures that everyone knows who you are without them ever getting to know you. I long to be known, to be seen, to be heard. I yearn for someone to ask my favorite type of music and recall that I said nope not gospel as I’m Jewish. I would love to be able to have conversations that go beyond the weather, teaching, or food.

But I am not of this society. No matter my level of ability in Setswana or continued presence in the community, I will remain Rea or Elysa in the village, a shadow of myself- one who constantly smiles, has it all together, and probably goes to town too often.

I seek this kinship from other volunteers, friends, and family at home- and as much as I wish to be known for myself in my daily life, I recognize that one day I will miss this persona: this chameleon who easily attaches herself to South African life despite a soul seeking to burst free.

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

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