Sunday, April 1, 2012

It's been a year: Reflections on ETing

One year ago, I departed for Peace Corps service. I wanted to do an anniversary blog, despite having ETed from PC Botswana, to commemorate the time and update folks on life at home.

March 31st, 2011 was one of the scariest and most difficult days of my life. The morning I was to get on a plane to Philadelphia, I really did not want to go. My plane was delayed at the airport, and Colin had accompanied me to the departure gate. It just meant more time to contemplate my fate and wrestle with leaving him. My plane finally arrived, and when it was time to board, I lingered for as long as I could. I was the last person on the plane. I knew that if I looked back while walking down the gate ramp, I wouldn't actually get on the plane.

Philadelphia is kind of a blur. I remember meeting Kristen and Jeremy for the first time. I was anxious because I had so much to carry and I didn't know exactly where to find them or the shuttle to our hotel. I finally spotted them after a few phone calls and with the help of our giant camping packs that made us look like true PCVs, and we made awkward hellos. We all seemed a little nervous, a little irritated, and anxious to get our adventure underway. I had chosen Jeremy during my restless invitee syndrome time through Facebook stalking as one of the folks who would be a new BFF. We arrived at the hotel and were assigned roommates. Mine had not arrived yet, but I recognized her name as one of the people who had been on the Facebook page- Carolynn. I dropped off my bags and sat around trying to relax. Carolynn arrived and we were both too hungry to wait for dinner, so we walked around the corner and found a Thai restaurant. The two of us chatted over cheap and delicious food and then made our way back to the hotel.  We had to check in with our staging leaders. Immediately, I spotted Tija. We met through blogging before ever being invited to Botswana, and had determined after our invitations that we would have to be friends. After checking in and signing a bunch of forms, we started to organize for dinner. I ended up going to Pod with Jeremy, Todd, and Britt. The conversation was easy and the food and cocktails were just as I remembered them. After we got back to the hotel, I chatted with Carolynn for a bit and then we went to bed. Let me just say, this hotel was ok, but it sucked due to non-free Internet access and non-free breakfast. WTF, Peace Corps? WTF, hospitality industry?

The next day we had to be up early for vaccinations and lots of workshop-type activities. We woke up to rain in Philly. We did a lot of "getting-to-know-you" stuff and a lot of "what-to-expect" stuff. It was exhausting. I don't remember the details, but I know I sat at a table with Patrick and that I learned that Tom was also from New York and serving without his wife. I also met Jim, who was set to be the oldest Peace Corps volunteer ever at 84 years old. During lunch, a bunch of us went back to the Thai restaurant that Carolynn and I had been to the night before. I don't even remember who was there- I think Britt, Shanta, Christina, Virginia, Jeremy, Brittany, and maybe a couple of others. We ran some errands, too. Christina needed a watch and Shanta had to find a drug store, and I had to pick up some pictures that I had emailed to a nearby Walgreens. I learned that Shanta was a scientist and I thought that was cool.

For dinner that night, a pizza restaurant close by had been recommended to Marion and Tish, so a bunch of us went with them. I know Charlie, Susan, Tija, and I went but I can't remember who else. While we waited for a table, we went to Wawa, a Philly favorite, to pick up some snacks to stuff into our luggage. I do remember that mine and Tija's life changed due to the amazing arancini that we ate there. Also, we drank a fair share of wine. It was the perfect "last meal" before we were to depart.

After arriving back at the hotel, I prepared to dump my iPhone and made some last phone calls to my family. I remember the conversation with my sister and with Caitlin, but I don't really remember what I talked about with my parents. I know Colin was a mess on the phone and that I ended up keeping my phone until I walked out of the hotel to leave at 1am or whatever time it was because he wanted me to call him again. I didn't sleep, but I think I napped for like a half hour before showering and making sure everything was packed to get on a plane. Tom ended up being my bus leader (we took two buses to New York from Philly). We arrived in New York at around 4:30 or so and of course there was no one set to check us in for our flight until like 6:30. We looked like a church group lounging around on our bags on the floor in the South African Airways area. I sat around with Zoie, who I remember seemed sort of grumpy, lol. We finally checked in and all of our anxiety about overweight luggage was for nothing- they didn't even seem to notice, let alone care. We had several more hours to wait for our flight to leave, so we filled the time with more bonding, eating, and coping with our anxiety in various ways. Once on the plane, the rumor that one of us had not boarded and was going home spread quickly. TJ, who I hadn't gotten to talk with much, had decided not to make the trip. By the time I found out, we were already in the air and I was kind of pissed because if I had known we could still change our minds, I might have. This was the first of many Bots 10ers to leave, and every single one made me long to be home, too. On the plane, I was excited to have a window seat, which ended up sucking because it meant I was reluctant to get up and disturb my seat-mates. I don't remember who I sat with, other than some random professor guy who was not "one of us", but I know Todd and Zoie and Jeremy sat near by. The flight was incredibly long and I didn't sleep very much. I remember watching the map on the headrest tv and wondering what Africa looked like below us. It was dark when we hit the continent.

We finally landed like 30 hours after leaving Philadelphia (16 hours on the flight from NY to Joburg). We had another flight to catch to Gaborone and many more hours to wait for our plane. I realized after getting through customs, that I left one of my bags on the plane. It was a cosmetic bag that I had taken out of my bigger bag that I had forgotten to put back in. I couldn't remember exactly what was in it, but I couldn't figure out what to do- there was no way to go back to the plane. Tija and I ended up finding an information booth and the woman was able to call the plane and find a flight attendant who could bring the bag to me. I opened it to see what I had almost forgotten. All of my meds, no big deal. Crisis averted.

We took a tiny plane to Gabs which held just about none of our luggage, a sure sign of trouble. Of course, when we arrived, our bags were not there and some panic ensued. We took a bus through Gabs to our hotel- the Big Five Lodge. It was our first glimpse of Botswana. Gabs was a bustling little city that had traffic lights, petrol stations, restaurants, and neighborhoods. The Big Five was a tourist-friendly hotel with little cabin rooms and a big dorm-style building, plus a restaurant & bar, pool, and conference rooms. I roomed with Theresa, a fellow SUNY Albany alum. She was very easy going, funny, and friendly, and we got along easily. The first thing that happened when we arrived was a massive thunderstorm. It was loud and dramatic and the rain came down in sheets. I was at the pool for tea time, and it was the first time I realized, "This is Africa! I'm here!". Tea time became my favorite time (besides cocktail hour) with its tiny sandwiches, Rooibos tea, and fruit juices. We met some of the currently-serving PCVs from Bots 9 and we had to be present for dinner and a presentation afterwards. We'd been traveling for something like 36 hours and it was about 4:00 pm when we arrived at Big 5, but we wouldn't have time to sleep until around 9 that night. We were all exhausted and cranky.

The next few days were spent at Big 5, doing admin work, learning Setswana (or trying to learn it), adjusting to the time change and jet lag, adjusting to new foods, and getting to know each other. We tried mophane worms for the first time, learned about pula (the local currency) when we were given our walk-around allowance, were given "scared straight" type lectures by PC Safety and Security officers, and learned extensive lists of rules and regulations. We got several more vaccinations. We got cell phones. We were prepared to meet our host families. This all happened from Sunday (when we arrived) and Wednesday night (our last night at Big 5).

Thursday morning, we left our comfortable bubble of big 5 and drove to Kanye to meet our families and move in with them for the duration of pre-service training. I was TERRIFIED. There was a ceremony for what seemed like hours and we sat across the room from our prospective families waiting. We looked nervously at each other, trying to figure out who belonged to whom. The time came for us to be matched up, and I was one of the last. Finally, my name was called, and I met my host mother. She spoke to me in rapid Setswana and held my hand for at least two hours without stopping. She paraded me around and cut me in front of lines for food and hand washing. I had NO idea what she was saying to me, but someone explained that she was telling me that my Setswana name was Lorato (it means love). After lunch, we boarded a combi with others from my neighborhood- Zoie, Shelley, Brittany, Dan, Clayton, Maggie, Easton, Patrick, and Carolynn. Our new moms, dads, and sisters sang songs the whole way and one by one, we were dropped off. I was so nervous and wondered which house would be mine as we drove further and further. I was the last in the combi with my mom, and finally we stopped at one of the most basic and run-down structures I had seen yet. It was concrete with a tin roof, like most of the other houses. I was alone. No PCVs to talk with, and no idea where any of my friends lived in relation to me. My mom took me inside where I was immediately greeted by a young woman with a baby, who I later learned were my sister (Amogelang) and her son (Buhle). There were a few other people in the room, but I didn't really take any of it in. My mom showed me to my room, with a bed and two nightstands, window, chair and nightstand with a mirror. There was a lightbulb (on when power to the house is on, off when power is off) and a door with a lock. I dropped my things and then she showed me the kitchen (in another house on the compound), the pit latrine, and where we would collect buckets of water in the yard for bathing, cooking, laundry, and drinking. I sat with the family, who I thought only spoke Setswana for a short time, held the baby who was thrust upon me naked and crying, and then my mom offered to let me rest. I went into my room, shut the door, and started to cry. I tried to sleep for a bit, but did not unpack because I had decided I was going home. I know my cell phone rang a couple of times- I talked to Colin briefly before we were cut off, and then my mother-in-law called and I lost that connection after only seconds, too. I don't remember what was so scary for me in those moments other than the idea that I was living in a place where I couldn't communicate with anyone and I didn't know how to function. I came out of my room a couple of hours later and met my brother (Obakeng), who was home from school, along with the two tenants (Kago & Thabano) who lived in the other house on the compound. They spoke English! They made dinner and I helped as much as I could, and then they showed me how they did the dishes outside in buckets of water. Anyone who knows me understands that this was one of the scariest things in the world for me- knowing that dishes were being washed in lukewarm dirty water- dishes that were covered in raw meat. It still skeeves me to think of it. My sister came into my room and made me unpack, which made me feel totally unsettled. I didn't like her seeing how much stuff I had. This may sound weird. It's not that I didn't trust her (though I didn't know her yet) or that I didn't want her going through my things (though that is probably also true), but what made me totally uncomfortable was knowing that I had more belongings packed in one of my bags than my family had in their entire house. She kept holding clothes up and talking about how nice they were and how pretty my things were and I just felt so guilty and like I should have packed less stuff. There wasn't even a place for most of it, so many of my clothes stayed in my suitcase for the duration of my stay in Kanye.

The next morning, I prepared myself for training. I got ready in the dark and my sister showed me how to bath. We warmed water over the fire and then she mimed how I should clean myself in the dark bathroom. I brought my flashlight with me and washed my body, not trying to wash my hair yet. After I was ready, my mom walked me to the kgotla, where I would catch a ride for the first few days of training with the others from my ward (neighborhood) until we would be expected to make our way to the training site on our own. I had no idea how to get from place to place in Gakebuang ward, let alone anywhere else in Kanye because every time Mama or Amogelang would take me somewhere, they would show me a different way. I was so terrified of being perpetually lost. After arriving at the kgotla and waiting with my friends with our host families huddled close by, we were picked up and driven to the training site which would be our home away from our home away from home for the next 9 weeks. We would spend about 8 hours a day there with our language and cultural facilitators, trainers, and various members of Peace Corps staff trying to prepare us for the next 2 years in Botswana. The main task of our first day at the training site was to process our first night of homestay. We were split into two groups and we went around the room talking about how it went. Most people were doing ok with some minor complaints about having to share rooms with someone (not allowed by PC), having a door without a lock (also not allowed by PC), or just not knowing who was who in their family. I was the crier. Not because I wasn't ok with my host family situation or anything, but because I was incredibly homesick and I didn't know how to deal. I knew that the solution to my problem was to go home, but that I shouldn't do that, and knowing that there was a simple solution that I couldn't allow myself to access was just the worst. I am sort of a crier, but generally not in public, and it's not something I like sharing with other people, but there I sat, crying my eyes out rather hysterically in a room full of relative strangers and Batswana PC staff who just really had no idea what to do with the crying American girl. It felt stupid and dramatic but I couldn't really stop myself. There were a lot of pitied looks thrown at me that day. Then we had the entire weekend in front of us to be alone with our families and I was totally dreading it. How was I possibly going to fill about 60 hours with these people?

Fast forward. It's the end of training. I've done the following:
- learned how to wash my hair and body in less than 3 gallons of water in the dark
- learned how to speak enough Setswana to impress my family and neighbors with basic introductions, adjectives, verbs, and nouns
- learned how to do laundry in a bucket, though not to the satisfaction of my host family, who thinks I do it wrong
- learned (sort of) how to shut down dudes who hit on me
- learned how to cook a few Setswana dishes
- taught my host sister Amo how to make s'mores and French toast
- learned how to make my family laugh
- learned how to get time to myself in a house full of people
- became hooked on Setswana soap operas
- became addicted to magwenya (fat cakes, i.e. fried bread)
- learned how to navigate Kanye and my neighborhood
- got over the fears (to a small degree) that were instilled in us about going to bars and walking at night
- passed my Setswana Language Proficiency Exam thanks to my great instructors, especially Tonic and Lasego.
- threw up in Zoie's bucket thanks to too much wine at Shelley's birthday party
- found a scorpion in my room and brought it for show-and-tell. Turns out it was one of the really dangerous ones
- learned the ins and outs of traveling by bus in Botswana
- made a trip up north to Maun where I got to go on a game drive and hang out with real life actual PCVs Ross and Heidi
- become close friends with my host sister, Amo
- learned how they throw parties in Botswana thanks to my nephew Buhle's 6-month birthday
- attended a wedding, a funeral, and church
- walked about 5 miles a day
- ate a chicken foot
- enjoyed the simple things, like clean socks (rare), clean feet (rarer), wine straight out of the bottle, splurging on chocolate, Buhle sleeping through the night, going to the bathroom in the middle of the night and being able to appreciate the amazing sky, the sunsets on my walk to training, the incredible rain storms, the sound of birds, bugs, cows, donkeys, and chickens, watching the kids dance in my yard, holding hands and getting hugs from a million children on my walk home every night, greeting Zoie in the morning for our walks together, texting late at night with Jeremy or Todd or Tija or Shelley or anyone, really, and snuggling with Magwenya, our training kitten.
- became super appreciative of my privelege as a white, middle-class, college-educated, cisgender, straight, married, American woman
- had not gotten over the fear that I would probably be killed in a horrific car accident in Botswana during my service due to the road conditions, darkness, lack of seat belts, airbags, and windshields, amount of drunk drivers, amount of animals in the road, and the general craziness of Botswana drivers
- met amazing people and made lifelong friends in my fellow Peace Corps volunteers. As of the end of training, we're down to 36, since we've lost TJ, Easton, Sarah, and Michelle

Things I missed at home during my service:
- Colin struggling to live without me (tongue in cheek, but really, he missed me tons)
- My parents finding a lake house to buy
- My friends Jody and Josh, Tom and Michelle, and Colleen and Luke getting married
- Many birthdays, including Colin's 29th
- Many anniversaries, including mine and Colin's lucky 7th
- Spring and the beginning of summer in Rochester
- My cats dealing with various medical issues that sounded serious

June 7th came, and it was time to swear in as a Peace Corps volunteer. By this point, I was ready to stay. I would have been disappointed if I had been sent home. I was proud of myself, and though I didn't know how I was supposed to go about doing all of the things we were supposedly trained to do, I was going to figure it out somehow. I was scared to go live in Molepolole, mostly because I'd have to learn my way around and most of my PCV friends would be far away in other villages. I took comfort in knowing that Patrick would be with me and that there were several other more seasoned volunteers there, too. Also, there was a KFC.

I began the process of settling into my village. I met my neighbors, though I'm not sure they were thrilled with me being there instead of the two volunteers who were there before me whose house I had moved into. I got to know my coworkers at the women's shelter. I figured out my neighborhood and how to find my house (big deal!). I unpacked and cooked for myself. I texted regularly with the other PCVs who were also starting off on their own. I travelled to Gabs by myself on the buses and combis. I tried to get used to the idea that not much work was actually done in my office and that I didn't really have any idea how to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. I got to know my new landlady, MmaKoda, and her family. I dealt with the bizarre bureaucracy of the district government offices and was beginning to understand why progress was slow and there was no real urgency to things in my village. I became frustrated with being away from home and with the (self-imposed) monotony of my days in Moleps.

I escaped Moleps during lockdown and made a trip to Mahalapye to visit other PCVs during 4th of July weekend. By this time, we'd lost 3 more members of Bots 10: Karen, Jean, and Jim. We were down to 33 of our original 40. Karen's departure hit me the hardest. I had been getting to know her and never expected that she would ET. But, she was in a car accident and was mostly unhurt, but shaken enough to want to be with the ones she loved at home. I understood this completely and wondered how long I could go without being with my people at home, too. Would it take a near-death experience? Would I even get the chance to make the choice to go home safely? Or would I die before I could decide? These are honestly the bizarre and dramatic things I was thinking. I worried about car accidents, about being murdered in my home or on my walk between work and home, and about my family members back home becoming ill or dying without me there. I was preoccupied with death. But during this time, I decided to break the rules and go to Mahalapye with friends to get out of my own head. We made the trip and had a great time. Ate too much, drank WAY too much, and made a nuisance of myself. I made the bus ride back to Moleps and snapped along the way when the woman in front of me shut my window on the hot and smelly bus because she didn't want her child to "catch flu". Tija saw me loose my shit. I was so fed up with this non-science idea that a person could catch anything from fresh air and that all illnesses were flu. It made no sense that I was angry and it was completely unproductive, but I got home to Moleps in a state of frustration and total disgust for where I was.

I spent the next couple of days really analyzing whether or not I should stay. I made a trip to the house of another seasoned PCV, Sandy, from Bots 9 who lived in Moleps to talk about what I was thinking. She really asked me some good questions, like, why was I being so hard on myself? Why was so much of my worth tied into whether or not I "succeeded" at being a Peace Corps Volunteer? Why did I not begrudge others who had ET'ed but I was judging myself so harshly for contemplating it? Why did I want to sacrifice my happiness in order to finish what I had started? Why was success so tied in finishing regardless of the cost? Our conversation was so helpful. I didn't feel much closer to a decision, though. I took a combi back to my house, and on the way, I had another conversation that made me one step closer to going home. Two women sat next to me and started asking me questions. They were from South Africa, doing mission work in Moleps. They were so excited to meet a PCV because Peace Corps volunteers were doing such great things, in their eyes. They told me how awesome it was that I was there and blah blah blah. I was feeling like, yeah, maybe this IS where I'm supposed to be! Then they asked if I was a Christian. Now, this may sound awful, but I had learned to lie when answering this question because it was just easier because of language and culture. But I was so drained that I didn't even have the energy, so I just said, "No." And they were like, "Oh, so you don't believe in God?" Me: "No, I don't.". Women: "You know you're going to hell, right? Because you're a horrible person?" Me: "Yeah, I guess so." Umm, so much for our earlier discussion of PCVs being cool. End of conversation, this is my stop, thanks, bye. I had many conversations with Tija and Jeremy that week and wrote a lot of emails to my family. I talked with Colin for hours about what to do. He told me to stay, which for some reason made me even sadder. I think I was looking for him to tell me to come home. It would have been easier than having to decide for myself.

I eventually made an appointment in Gabs on Thursday to talk to the medical officer. I went in and we chatted and I said I needed the weekend to decide. But by then, I knew- I was going home. I wanted the time to tell my coworkers that I was going and I had made a commitment to them for the weekend because we were attending a health fair in the village. I had lunch with Carolynn in Gabs before going back to Moleps- we had a great meal, shared a bottle of wine, and had cake and it was almost like lunching at home. We had a great conversation and it really solidified for me that I was making the right choice for myself. When I got back to Moleps, I told Patrick that I was probably leaving, along with a couple of the other volunteers in my village. I packed up my stuff to a small extent. Sunday night, Patrick and Paco tried to convince me to stay by getting me drunk and feeding me pastries. It *almost* worked, and regardless, I appreciated the effort.

On Monday, I went to Gabs to tell Peace Corps that I wanted out. Tija came back to Moleps with me that night to help me pack and clean up my house. We snuggled in my bed and then were up early to frantically try to get all of my stuff out of there, get to the appointments we had in Moleps, and catch the bus to Gabs in order to make it in time for my various appointments there. I am so grateful for her help and Patrick's that day- it was crazy.

I made it to Gabs to outprocess with medical, dental, etc. They put me in a hotel for the night where I was staying with a handful of other volunteers who were there for conferences and doctor's appointments. I roomed with Christina, and it was great to see her before going home. I spent one more half-day in Gabs finishing up appointments and relaxing. I ate two very memorable smoothies, seriously, they were so good and I haven't been able to recreate them. Wednesday evening, I was on a plane from Gabs to Joburg and then from Joburg early Thursday morning to JFK, and then in Rochester by early afternoon.

It was over. My Peace Corps service was less than 4 months, but it had felt like an eternity. I didn't know if I would regret coming home or if I would be devastatingly disappointed in myself, but I also knew that I wasn't happy staying in Botswana. Most of my fears about coming home were about letting people down and not being able to redeem myself in terms of good karma. Could I be a good person without being a Peace Corps volunteer? Could I be successful? Would I find a job, or go back to my seemingly endless life of job hunting and rejection?

It's been a year. I still think about Botswana every day. I miss my friends. I regret leaving my host family without much of a goodbye and regret that I haven't had any contact with them since I got home. But, I do not regret leaving. It was the right decision for me. I look back on my time fondly and I am so glad I had the experience. I'm proud of myself for stepping out of my comfort and trying. I'm proud that I was able to see through the cloud of judgement I was placing on myself to make the decision to come home. I'm happy to be with my family, especially Colin. Much like readjusting to him coming home from deployments, we had some readjusting to do when I came home. His new routine, which he had barely settled into, was upset with my presence. I felt out of place. We had both changed. It was difficult. But we did what we always do- we figured it out. I adjusted to grocery stores and driving and showers and money conversions and constant Internet access. I adjusted to sharing a bed again and sleeping without a sleeping bag and ear plugs. I adjusted to the time change and the weather and the daylight. I ate my way through Rochester.

I have two jobs now- my full-time, dream job as a Community Health Specialist at an agency that provides care for people living with HIV, and education and outreach to the community. I do HIV testing and counseling; I provide educational programming and presentations; I have group sessions with people who are living with HIV on how to stay healthy and reduce transmission to their partners; and I work with youth leaders as their health educator. I also work part-time in retail at the mall.

I am happy. Bots 10 is down to 30 now, I think, at last count. Regardless of when we left, though, we are all RPCVs.

To all of my friends and my family, thank you for sticking by me. Your emails, phone calls, and messages of support went straight to my heart and kept me going both while I was gone and once I got home.

Especially, to my PC friends- I have only known you a year, but you have all changed my life for the better and I will never forget the four months I spent getting to know you. I miss you all!

To Colin, thank you for gracefully handling my quarter-life crisis with love and compassion. I am so happy to be home with you.

It's been a year. I am a RPCV! Ke a leboga!

Monday, July 11, 2011

"Tell the world that I'm coming home"

I am writing to tell you all officially that I am going home: Early Termination from Peace Corps Botswana.

I have been struggling with this decision and it certainly was not made easily, lightly, or without lots of thought and heartache. I have wanted to be a Peace Corps volunteer for awhile, and it was a dream that I thought meant everything to me. I thought that in order to be a good person, a worthwhile person, that I had to do the most selfless and difficult thing I could think of. The Peace Corps is such a noble, generous, and prestigious pursuit- and that was all really important to me. However, I’m realizing that maybe I don’t need to be THE BEST person in order to justify my own existence. Before Peace Corps, I was feeling unfulfilled and dissatisfied with my life. I had been looking unsuccessfully for a job and Peace Corps was something I’d been wanting to go for but hadn’t felt it the right time. After a year’s worth of job hunting, it was time for me to do it. The decision to join Peace Corps was also tough because it meant leaving behind a lot of people about whom I care deeply. But I felt that it would make me a better person and that I would do something that made others’ lives better, and that would be worth the sacrifices. In fact, the sacrifices were part of the appeal- almost like what I was giving up somehow would make my contributions to the world more valuable.

I've measured the value of myself with accomplishments and the level of difficulty of those accomplishments. I think it's ok to be proud of yourself and the things you've done, but I was letting that define me- what had I done that should make me really proud, what's worth being proud of, what is more elite in terms of selflessness and commitment to others and generosity and difficulty? Because if it's not hard, why do it, it's nothing to be proud of because anyone could do it. And that thinking was really destructive for me.

I’m realizing (and I don’t know why this took me so long) that harder doesn’t necessarily mean better. Maybe good works should not be measured by how much a person has to give up in order to do them. I want to be happy. I'm discovering that maybe being in love and being a wife and daughter and sister and friend may not be everything I need to make me incredibly happy all the time, but without those things, I can't be happy no matter how fulfilling my job might be. Instead of lowering my standards (the Bots 10 motto) for Peace Corps or Africa or Botswana, I need to lower my standards for myself.

I learned things about myself, but not the things I expected. I figured out that I’m not the person I thought I was, and not necessarily in a bad way. I don’t regret coming here- in fact, I still think it was something I HAD to do. I’m not sure that I won’t regret going home (I imagine to a certain degree, I will), but I know how I feel right now and going home is what’s best for me. I was worried about the disappointment I might cause in leaving- from my NGO, the Peace Corps, my fellow PCVs, my people at home, the people I’ve met here, etc., and the disappointment in myself. Staying was a decision I was making and would have to continue to make every day. Deciding to leave is a decision I can only make once and can't take back. I know if I stayed until the end I would probably be able to say, like most volunteers, "I'm glad I stuck it out". But just because I'd be glad I stayed doesn't mean that I won't be glad I left. Satisfaction from my decision could happen either way, as could dissatisfaction. And I'll never know "what could have been". But I think trying to be happy with what I have and who I am RIGHT NOW, not who I could maybe theoretically become, is what's best for me.

Thank you to everyone for reading my blog, commenting, sending me letters/emails/packages/texts, etc. Thanks for calling. Thank you for thinking of me back home and wherever you are. I appreciate all of your support!

I'm supposed to leave Botswana Wednesday or Thursday. I am working through medical out-processing, etc. The funnest part so far has been pooping in a jar! You know I couldn't go too long without mentioning poop. I will be staying in Gabs until I go. Working on packing my things and cleaning up my house before I leave it for good this morning.

Thanks for reading and best of luck to all of you!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Settling In

I’ve been a Peace Corps Volunteer for a little over 2 weeks. I’ve moved into my house, gotten some temporary furniture (bed, desk, 2 chairs, 2 nightstands), and purchased some on my own (a kitchen unit- kitchens in Botswana don’t typically come equipped with counters and cabinets, and a pantry), and borrowed a wardrobe from a fellow PCV who has built-in closets and didn’t need the ones that his office provided (thanks, Patrick!). I’ve put pictures, maps, and cards that people have sent up on my walls. I bought a couple of floor mats to keep my feet warm when I get out of the tub and take my shoes off at the door. I got some canisters for my kitchen to keep the bugs out of my cereal and stuff (bugs yet to be seen, but this is not the season for them). I love my house! It’s freezing cold right now, but it’s got tons of room and hot water is amazing. My bathtub is deep enough to submerge myself completely in scalding hot water, which I’ve been doing regularly. I have washed my hair (and CONDITIONED it) 3 times this week. Record-breaker! Today, I blow-dried my hair for the first time since arriving in Botswana. Mostly for the warmth, but I’m definitely having a good hair night. You know, for my wild evening of eating chocolate in bed while reading before bedtime at 8:30 (5 minutes from now).

I have gone into work every day and done little things like accompany my co-workers to various offices for tasks, attend meetings, and run errands. There is a lot of down time. I am supposed to be working on my community assessment, but was having a difficult time figuring out where to start. I decided I’d start with my office and interview all of my colleagues- the 4 in my office and the 10 or so in the Gabs office. I have come up with an interview form for myself to ask them questions about themselves, their jobs, and the organization. I plan to do something similar with some of the government officials, hospital/clinic administrators, school heads & teachers, prison officers, and other NGO workers in the area, police, and local kgosis and Village Development Committee members to try to get a feel for Moleps, its needs, and meet the locals. My co-workers are pretty great. I think I hit the Peace Corps jackpot when it comes to NGOs, colleagues, and counterpart.

I got Internet! I went into Gabs for a meeting last week and got permission to go to the Orange store. It took over 4 hours (the details of which I won’t bore you), but I was able to procure a dongle. It works, very slowly. I’ve been able to upload pictures on Facebook. I’m going to try video next and then see if I can get pics up on the blog.

I haven’t gotten hopelessly lost yet. I would say I haven’t gotten lost yet, but that would be a lie. It happened when I was in a car directing someone to my house, of course, so I couldn’t even pretend because there were witnesses. Oh well.

I’m missing everyone at home. I know my sister just got promoted to Captain in the Air Force. My parents are spending the summer on the Finger Lakes and the smell of diesel here reminds me of their boat and the fun I’m missing on it with them. Colin’s working on home improvement without me, about which I feel both guilty and slightly relieved because he’s solely in charge. Wedding season is underway and I’ve already missed the wedding of our good friends Tom & Michelle, who were married last weekend in the same chapel where Colin and I were married 7 years ago. Still to miss are Jody and Josh, Dana and Andy, my cousin Nicholas and his Lauren, and April and Brendan.

I’m also missing my fellow PCVs. We spent all of April and May living on top of each other and now we’re spread out across this country, many without another PCV for miles. I’m lucky to have a fellow Bots 10 PCV in the same village (Patrick) and a few Bots 9 volunteers, too (Nicole, Rachel and Sandy). There are many volunteers close by. But I’m still missing the rest of the Bots 10 group! It’s strange not to see them every day. I miss my host family, too. They text me every few days to check in. I know they want to come visit, but until I have furniture, I’m not quite ready for that.

Tomorrow there is some excitement for me and some of my fellow PCVs! Michelle Obama will be in Gabs and we’ll get to meet her at a little meet-and-greet. We’ll also get to meet the new ambassador. Pretty exciting! I’ll share the details when it’s all over. I’m hoping to be able to take some pictures.

It’s after my bed time! Early morning tomorrow for travel to Gabs. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sworn-in and at site!

I am officially a Peace Corps Volunteer! We swore in on Tuesday with the US Ambassador to Botswana (who is leaving in a week and will be replaced by a 34 year old female Obama appointee, she's going to be my new BFF). Swearing-in was the usual pomp and circumstance that you might witness at a graduation ceremony. I could only focus on how hungry I was all day. Ha ha, that's so Tracy.

Afterwards, we had a little party at a fellow PCV's new house in Kanye. Liles was placed in Kanye so it was the perfect venue for our first official Bots 10 party. There was dancing, drinking, and lots of giggling, as has become customary when we have anything to drink these days. I went home before dark and crazy Botswana rain and finished packing my things. Yesterday morning, I said goodbye to my host family. They were very sad to see me go, which was touching. I know I'll see them relatively often because they are only about an hour away. Patrick (the other PCV in Bots 10 who was placed in Molepolole) and I were picked up by a very large van and driven to our new homes. I am staying in a house owned by my landlady until my actual house is vacated by the outgoing volunteers, Matt and Laura, who are living there until next Friday. I should be in by next weekend and then I can start unpacking and setting up home. For now I'm squatting, but I'm by myself, which is such an amazing feeling- I literally have not been alone for over 2 months. The house is very safe and has an alarm system. I have hot running water, a microwave, and a television. I don't think I'll be watching any tv; silence will be much appreciated. Reading books will commence as I'm starting to have an attention span again. The house that I will be moving into will not have a tv and I'll have to buy a microwave. Right now I'm sitting in an Internet cafe across from my office (also still waiting on Internet). Forgive this shitty blog post. I'm surrounded by people who are crammed into this cafe and all yelling to each other in Setswana. My English grammar feels pretty god-awful these days.

It's really cold here! Again, props to my awesome sleeping bag. I slept in this morning and considered just laying in it all day because it was so cold outside of it. I didn't have to go to work today because the power is supposed to be out all day so there's nothing to do. I'll probably start for real on Monday and spend today doing a few errands, for example, wine-buying. I am finally able to cook food for myself, and I'm most excited about the zucchini I bought today since I haven't had a real vegetable in weeks.

Trying to figure out how I'm going to get Internet here. I want to get a dongle, but I have to wait until I can go to Gabs. That may be awhile, so for now get used to crappy blog posts, unanswered emails, and a lack of regular FB updates.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Party Weekend

 Friday was shopping day. We went to Gabs and hit up Game City Mall and River Walk. I wasn’t able to get my Internet dongle (like a wireless card) for my laptop, so that’s a bummer. Don’t know when I’ll be able to do that since I’ll be on lockdown in my village for the next two months. However, I was able to get everything else I had planned to- a bathroom scale, and three ice creams (balance!). I also bought some nail polish remover, a pillow, a travel mug, a pair of tights, and a scarf. Lots of people in our group bought guitars and some people had carts full of stuff to get to their site. Luckily, Matt and Laura are leaving me a bunch of their things and I will be able to purchase just about everything I want in Moleps, like a microwave. I was also able to eat some delicious Indian food at River Walk, as a group went there to celebrate a fellow trainee’s birthday. Happy 23rd, Becca!
Saturday was the host family party. We were up early to set up and decorate the hall where the party was being held, cook for over 100 people, and prepare the entertainment. Amelia, Carolynn, Jeremy, Karen and I sang the Botswana National Anthem and then Karen and I sang The Star Spangled Banner. We think we did pretty well if we do say so ourselves. I know someone took video, so in 2 years when it gets up here, you can be the judge yourself. Until then, just know that we were awesome. Blake and Tija demonstrated some swing dancing and then taught a handful of people from the audience the moves. Some of the host family parents gave speeches, performed poems, sang and prayed. Karen performed with her ukulele, and Carolynn performed Amazing Grace. There was also a dramatic performance of the traditional wedding ceremony. We put on a fashion show that basically consisted of trainees wearing the stupidest looking things that we brought with us to Botswana, to include a fanny pack, headlamps, my awesome travel vest, “elderly athletic wear” (thanks, Tom), a full body mosquito net, socks with sandals, and other such ridiculousness. Then the talented cooking committee served us a delicious meal of mac & cheese, chili, cucumber tomato salad, and Rice Krispies treats. Yum.
After the party, we went to a local café that I’ve never been to before. I had a glass of red wine and a milkshake. Of course I had a milkshake. I went home, did my laundry, washed my hair, thoroughly scrubbed my feet and put on brand new socks that my parents mailed to me. There is nothing better than the feeling of cushy new socks. Overall, a good day.
Yesterday (Sunday), my family got up early to go to a funeral. We went to the family’s home where there was lots of prayer and song. Then we drove to the cemetery for the burial. Afterwards, we went back to the family’s house for food. The funeral was boring because it was all in Setswana and it was very long. We stood listening to the pastor talk for hours. Thankfully, it was not hot and not cold.
I got to talk to Colin briefly and we wished each other a happy 7th anniversary. Our friend Craig was taking him golfing. I was also able to Skype with Lauren and Craig and Evy for a little bit, and my parents and their company at the lake, old friends Bob & Ann.
Yesterday afternoon a bunch of us met at the training center to celebrate Tija’s birthday. There was cake and laughter. Last night we had a Peace Corps party at a local business owner’s home. The family owns a grocery store by the hospital and they love foreign aid workers so they invited us over for a braii (barbecue). A goat was slaughtered and we also had beef and chicken. Everything was delicious, especially the authentic Indian food. I’m having those leftovers today. It’s common practice in Botswana to bring your Tupperware to parties so that you can take as much food as possible. I’m pretty sure that’s why funerals are so popular.
After I got home from the party last night, my family threw me a party. They got a cake, chips, cookies, jello, custard, and a large bottle of Oros (think Tang). We took lots of pictures and they made speeches about how much they love me and will miss me. It was very touching. I’m going to miss having them to take care of me! Amo thinks I’m going to starve in Moleps.
Today is our last day of training. We swear in tomorrow as Peace Corps Volunteers. Wednesday, I’m off to Moleps (though I’m not sure yet how I’m getting there…). It feels like we’ve been here a lot longer than 9 ½ weeks! Let the real work begin.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Site Visit, Freezing in Africa, and Party Time!

Apologies for not having written in awhile. Things have been busy here! Thankfully, we were able to go on our site visits last week on Tuesday, so I got my first look at where I will be living and working in Molepolole. I stayed with Matt and Laura, current and soon-to-be finishing volunteers. I will be moving into their house when they finish their Peace Corps service on June 18th. My counterpart, Mpho, with whom I will be working at Kagisano Women’s Shelter Project, along with Matt and Laura, were fabulous. They showed me around town, took me to meet the police station commander, the kgosi, the DAC (District AIDS Coordinator), showed me the shops- grocery stores, hardware stores, banks, KFC (right across from my office, oh mathatha!), clothing shops, etc., gave me numbers for reputable taxi drivers, fed me good food, and generally took excellent care of me while I was in Molepolole. They made sure I knew how to get around, showed me the bus rank, the hospital, the schools, and introduced me to neighbors and my amazing land lady. Her name is MmaKoda, and she is very sweet. She calls me her daughter and is very concerned about me getting lost. It’s like she knows me or something already. The house is nice. It’s BIG. It has two bedrooms, both very large, a huge living room area, a spacious kitchen, and a very big bathroom. There is hot running water and electricity. Still don’t know whether I will have furniture when I move in, but I’m not too concerned about it yet. I live on the family compound with MmaKoda. Her house is maybe 10 yards from mine. There is a very fat dog (rare in Botswana) who lives on the compound named Tau (lion). There are also 2 cats, both of which seem to be pregnant for the first time. How awesome. You know me- this is not good. I can’t come home from Botswana with a dozen cats. I don’t plan to get attached, but this is how I’ve ended up with pets before. Ugh. There is a nice garden that I plan to spend some time in and a beautiful lemon tree. Whiskey sours, lemon meringue pie and margaritas, here I come! Welcome back, Fat Tracy, you’ve been missed.

Kagisano Women’s Shelter Project, where I’ll be working, is based in Gaborone. The branch in Moleps opened up within the last few years and was started with the help of previous PCVs. Currently, there are a bunch of volunteers in the Moleps area who work on secondary projects with KWSP. I am the first volunteer who is assigned there primarily, so they are excited to have a volunteer of their own. I met the staff of the Moleps KWSP- Mpho, Komotso, and Granny, and two of the staff from the Gabs office, Susan and Changu. They all seem very nice and I’m excited to start working with them. They provide counseling to women and families dealing with gender-based violence. I’m not sure yet what I will be doing there, but I have the next 2 years to figure that out. My first two months in Moleps, I will be on PC lockdown, meaning I can’t leave my village because I’m supposed to be integrating into the community and doing my community and organizational assessment. There is lots of work to be done! After two months, all of the Bots 10 PCVs will go to IST (In-Service Training) for a week or two (?) and then we will go back to our sites and be off of lockdown. Woot!

On Saturday, my family threw a huge party for baby Buhle’s 6-month birthday. I came home early from Moleps (about a 90 minute kombi ride) in order to make it to the festivities. For the first six months of the baby’s life, the mother (my sister Amo) is to be in seclusion and not to leave the house. She is to spend this time getting to know her baby and co-sleeping with him. So this was a very big day for Amo, too! Everyone had a blast, most especially my sister. She had her hair done and a new outfit and looked gorgeous. There were so many people at the house, and so much food. A goat and a cow were slaughtered, along with several chickens. I missed this due to being away (btw, thanks fate for re-arranging my travel dates!). A giant barrel of bojalwa ja Setswana (traditional brew) was fermenting all week in the kitchen (missed this lovely smell for the most part as well). There was dancing, singing, praying, eating, general merriment, and lots of bojalwa drinking. I avoided this, as it is much like Chibuku in taste (think beer + vinegar + chunks of bread + sour milk). I went to bed around 8:30 to avoid the hoards of partying strangers speaking Setswana gibberish to me. The party slowed down around 4 am, and when I awoke fresh as a daisy at 7 a.m. to do my laundry, there was many a straggler scattered around the yard all bleary-eyed and zombie-like.

Wednesday (yesterday), I had my final (and official) Language Proficiency Interview (LPI). I think it went ok. Should find out the results next week. Also today, I got a card from my parents in the mail with pictures of my host family (they were SOOOO excited). I also got an amazing package from them with spices, seeds for my garden and garden gloves, fruit leather from Target, jerky, stain sticks, deodorant, shampoo, floss, socks, and Easy fucking Mac, which is the best thing that has ever happened to me in Botswana, and other great things. AWESOME package and really made my day. I know there are more on the way, and I’m hoping to get them before I leave for Molepolole next week. If they don’t get here, they’ll be at the PC office in Gabs, so no big deal; it just means a longer wait. Oh well!

I know the whole time I was preparing to leave for PC, I kept getting mad at people (Sorry to my mother-in-law especially) for assuming I was going to be living like I was camping. Well, I was wrong, newsflash, this is a lot like camping. I brush my teeth outside. I have to go outside to get to the pit latrine. I wash my hands outside. I warm water over a fire sometimes (when the electric kettle is in use or broken or the electricity is out). I make smores with my sister every Sunday as a treat. I smell like smoke all the time. My clothes are never clean. I find spiders and scorpions in my room (ok, I never found any scorpions while camping before). I listen to animal sounds all night (here it’s cows, chickens, donkeys, people, music, and dogs). It’s very cold here now, so I’m sleeping in long underwear, tights, flannel pants, fleece jacket, and gloves and hat. It gets down into the low 30s right now at night and that means it’s in the low 30s in my room. There is no insulation in Batswana houses, and no heat or air conditioning- what it’s like outside is what it’s like inside- noise, temp., and humidity included, thankfully, in my house, precipitation excluded. 30s doesn’t seem cold, but when there’s no place to go to warm up, it’s not pleasant. Being from upstate NY, I thought I would be all immune to being cold in Africa, but damn. Effing cold. Especially considering that I heard it was hot (80s or 90s??) in Rochester this week. I look like a homeless person because I’m usually wearing just about everything I own on my way to training in the mornings. There was frost on the ground today and I could see my breath. Inside. I put my lotion on and I think there was ice in it. I’ve been trying to wash my hair as soon as I get home from training because the sun is still up (barely), but bathing in the morning is very painful. I may fake it tomorrow (my family gets really upset when they think I’m not bathing at least twice a day). Thankfully, I purchased a great sleeping bag (with a Peace Corps discount! Check them out on the PC Wiki page) that is rated to 20 degrees for women (men and women’s bags have different ratings, did you know? b/c women are generally not as good at staying warm as men? Biology is crazy!) so I’ve been pretty toasty while in it. It’s getting out of it in the morning that makes me want to call in sick to training.

That’s another thing. I haven’t been sick here yet, and I’m thanking my malaria prophylaxis for that. It’s a broad spectrum antibiotic and I think it’s keeping me from getting stuff like salmonella in addition to malaria. I have had lots of blisters from walking and new shoes, and I do currently have ringworm (it’s a fungus like athlete’s foot, not a parasite) that I got from the little kids who follow me home and hug me all the time, but other than that, I have avoided illness, knock on wood. Many trainees have had bad GI issues or other knock-you-down illnesses, so I’m really thankful to have been healthy so far. I had one nasty hangover, but that was my own dumb fault. Hoping to remain healthy (and get rid of this fungus without giving it to anyone else).

We have our shopping day on Friday. We have a small allowance from Peace Corps to buy things we might need in our new homes. I am trying to decide what to get. Matt and Laura are generously leaving me a bunch of their stuff (curtains, dishes, pots & pans, etc), so I won’t have to buy a ton, which is really great. I am thinking of getting a microwave. I’ll definitely get a bathroom scale and a nice new pillow for myself. I need to make a list for sure.

Our host-family party is on Saturday. We just started planning it- our schedule is so screwed up from the site-visit change due to the strike, so we’re a little behind schedule. We are cooking, decorating, and entertaining. I’ll be singing the Star-Spangled Banner with another trainee, Karen, and the Botswana National Anthem with several volunteers, Carolynn, Amelia, Karen, and Jeremy, so far. We’re also putting on a fashion show to highlight some of the ridiculous things we brought with us and some classic Peace Corps looks. Pictures will follow. There is another party on Sunday that one of the trainees, Tom (Also from NY! Also serving without spouse! We do exist!), has organized and planned with a local business owner who loves PCVs. A lot of fun things coming up that will make the rest of our time in Kanye fly by!

We swear in as Peace Corps Volunteers on Tuesday! It’s very exciting. This will all start to be so real after all of these months (years!) of anticipation. We’ve all worked really hard to be here. For myself, I know I’ve worked really hard to stay here, too. I want to be here. I want to be a PCV in Botswana. I want to finish my service 2 years from now. I’ve waited a long time for this and gone through a lot to be here. My family, especially my husband, has sacrificed a lot and been through a lot in order for me to be here. I want to make the most of my time here and do what I set out to do: in short, change myself, help some people, be a better person, learn about a different culture, and decide what I want to do when PC is finished.

And finally, Happy Anniversary to my wonderful monna wame, Colin, to whom I have been married for 7 fabulous years (as of Sunday, June 5th). I love you and wish we were spending the day together. 

Thanks for reading! This was a long one. Avoiding homework, as usual. Love to all!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Acts of Defiance

Youthful Acts of Defiance (me as a teen in the U.S.)
- Breaking curfew (11:30 p.m.)
- Underage drinking
- Skipping class
- Getting my ear cartilage pierced, when I was 18
- Piercing my belly button. Myself.
- Sleeping until noon
- Dating an 18 year old when I was 15

Adult Acts of Defiance (me as a PC Trainee in Botswana)
- Breaking curfew (6:00 p.m.)
- Having a glass of wine
- Refusing 4 hour Setswana lessons
- Refusing to bath 3 times a day
- Hoarding food in my room
- Sleeping past 7 a.m.
- Associating with non-same-gendered trainees in public

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Site Visit Cancelled

Our site visit has been postponed until next week due to the strikes and unrest in Gabs and surrounding areas. This is crappy. Was looking forward to getting out of Kanye, having a break from training and 4 hour Setswana lessons, and a break from Setswana food.

I'm really doubtful that anything will be different next week in terms of the strikes, etc., so who knows wtf we'll end up doing. Blerg.

No worries, Kanye is quiet so far and most of the rumors floating around here have not been substantiated. We're safe.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Civil Unrest

Things are getting dicey here with the ongoing government strike. School is suspended indefinitely, as students have been rioting and throwing bricks, etc. Rumors abound. Here is an article on the strike:

Peace Corps hasn't said much to us yet, but I'm sure it will be brought up in training today. Don't worry, I'm sure everything will be fine! I'll post again if I hear more.

Tomorrow  (until Sunday) I am supposed to travel to Molepolole for my site visit to see where I will live and work.  I met my counterpart at the women's shelter, Mpho, yesterday. He is very shy but seems great so far. I will be working with him more today and then we travel together tomorrow. Wish me luck!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

My home for the next 2 years is...

MOLEPOLOLE!! *AKA Moleps* Excited. Will be working in a women's shelter. Yay! Off to celebrate!

The Worth of a Mosetsana (Motswana girl)

On Thursday, we went to a wedding. Actually, it wasn’t a wedding, but rather the exchange of the lebola (bride price).  It happened at the main kgotla in Kanye. The kgosi (chief) and other important people were there, along with many men and women from the community and all of the PC trainees. Typically, only married women are allowed (widows are impure/bad luck, and single women are not welcome either), but they made an exception and allowed all of the PCTs to attend so that we could learn more about Setswana culture. There are very strict dress requirements (some of which we were not told, oops!). Women have to wear long skirts that cover the knees, a shawl draped over the shoulders (more like a wool blanket, very practical for the weather here), and a head covering.  Men have to wear ties and jackets. There are certain places where you are not allowed to walk, which is confusing, because usually you don’t find this out until you are already walking in that spot. Men sit on one side of the kgotla, in chairs, while women sit “in their rightful place” (kgosi’s words, not mine) on the ground. My feminist hackles were raised. I’m talking old, OLD ladies, forced to sit on the ground while a bunch of young dudes sit comfortably in chairs. But I digress.

So, a lot of what we witnessed went uninterpreted, but the gist is as follows.  If you want to get married in Botswana, you have to have permission from your parents (both bride and groom). Then, the groom has to raise lebola (the bride price). The amount is different depending on where the bride is from. The women in Kanye, for example, go for 8 cows and a male sheep. To me of course, this is absurd. The idea of trading a daughter (a niece, actually, since a woman’s maternal uncles negotiate and receive the lebola) for livestock is appalling. However, it was explained that this is more of a gift to say thank you for sharing your daughter with us as a family. This makes it sound better (maybe?), but I’m still not on board. So anyway, misogyny discussion aside, the lebola may take many years to raise for some men. Once they have raised the appropriate sum, they can present it to the family, which is the ceremony we witnessed on Thursday. The kgosi presides over the ceremony and makes sure that certain requirements are met. He asks the parents whether they approve of the marriage and then grills the bride and groom about how they met, how long they’ve known each other, and what their first conversations were like. It was actually really touching to watch because the bride and groom appeared so nervous and because everyone chuckled when the groom said they met at church and discussed the Bible together. Side note- it made me reminisce about my wedding when I was really nervous and there was lots of laughter at our ceremony. Sigh! Love to monna wame (my husband). The bride and groom receive a certificate saying that the ceremonial marriage is complete.  Everyone cheers and makes lots of noise and is generally in a celebratory mood (I love listening to the women make their celebratory noises- I have yet to master the technique, but it involves yelling and moving your tongue around a lot in your mouth). For legal, federally-recognized marriage, they proceed to the district level with this customary certificate and they receive yet another certificate. Typically, they will have a party at one or both families’ homes with a big tent and lots of food and dancing, no invitations necessary. FYI, divorce is common in Botswana and accepted. Only about 20% of Batswana get married. Part of this may be because it is so expensive. Lebola aside, wedding receptions are very expensive because you have to feed so many people and because tent rental is not cheap. They do the typical white-wedding ceremony that many couples have in the U.S., too. Gay marriage is a long way away in Botswana, as homosexuality is still illegal here, punishable by imprisonment. I’ve had a few conversations with my host family regarding the subject (which is great) but there is still a lot of fear and use of “morals” and religion as a way to defend homophobia (does that remind you of anywhere familiar??). South Africa has legalized gay marriage, though, and as a very close neighbor, perhaps the influence will travel north to Botswana and beyond… across the Atlantic? Who knows.

I have yet to go to a wedding reception, but I am looking forward to doing so eventually. Perhaps when I get to my village? Which brings me to my next point. Today is the day we find out our sites! I’m nervous. I’m looking forward to getting it over with, though, and moving on to the celebration/drowning in sorrows which will follow. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Ready for Site Placement!

I know I’ve been neglecting the blog big time. Sorry about that! Since I last wrote, a lot has been going on.

My host family and I are settling in to a comfortable routine. I have been teaching them about important American things like French Toast and smores (they loved both). My sister taught me how to make diphaphathas (baked bread sort of like an English muffin) and I showed her that they are delicious with egg and cheese and tomato. I wake up around 5 and bath in my room (bath here, not bathe, yes, you get used to saying this). I leave by 6:15 (still dark) to meet fellow trainees in my ward (neighborhood) for the walk to the training center. Get there around 7:30/7:45 and have a few minutes of Internet time. Training starts at 8, usually beginning with 4 glorious hours of Setswana. I really hate these 4 hour sessions. My brain stops working after about 1.5 hours and then nothing but frustration occurs for me and usually my LCF (Language and Cultural Facilitator) as well. We have rotated LCFs since our practice LPI a couple of weeks ago. The practice went ok- somehow I managed to score Novice High (which is the standard for passing PST at the end) despite not actually meeting the list of requirements for this score. Anyway. Lunch happens from 12:30 to 1:30, followed by more PST sessions- Project Design and Management, Safety & Security, Medical, Cross Cultural, etc. At 4:30 we are released and I make the long walk home (and usually stop at Choppie’s, the grocery store chain here, to buy junk food). I get home around 6:00 when it is getting dark. I usually try to relax between 6 and dinner (7? 7:30? 8?) followed by watching soap operas (South African or Batswana, kind of awesome and addicting) for a bit before retiring to study/do homework/sleep. I usually help with dishes but lately I’ve been too tired and had too much work to do, so I’ve settled for helping to cook and do dishes on weekends. What can I say, I guess I’m a bad daughter. Saturdays we have class usually until between 12 and 2. Then I come home and hang with my family, or if I’m lucky, I go to Motse Lodge with the other trainees to have a couple glasses of wine. Sunday I get to sleep in (9 a.m.!!) and then I’ll make lunch and do laundry. Doing laundry here is not that difficult, except for the constant criticism and the berating from my family who says I’m doing it wrong. This may or may not be true, but I told them that I’m the only one who has to wear my clothes so their criticism was unwelcome. I’ve also tried explaining that calling Americans fat or old is generally considered to be very rude. But I suppose they are having trouble explaining to me why baring my underarms or knees is scandalous, but taking a poop next to a crowded bus full of people on the side of the road is perfectly acceptable.

This leads me to my next point: the trip to Maun! It was awesome. Aside from the 10 hour bus ride (with aforementioned pit stops by the side of the road), the trip was really great. I got to see how Heidi and Ross live- their house is really cute and felt very safe. Maun is a big city with lots of people, and lots of foreigners. This was pretty appealing to me. I wasn’t starred at or harassed as I am in Kanye. No one screaming “Lekgoa!” (which means “white person”, but literally translates to “vomited from the sea”. Pleasant), no one asking me for money or quizzing me on my Setswana, and no one calling me baby or following me home or uninvited touching. It was more fast-paced than Kanye (but by no means close to American-paced) and there was a ton more stuff to do and more available in terms of shopping, groceries, and NGOs. I got to see the kind of work that Ross and Heidi are doing, which was awesome and overwhelming. They seem to be the gold-standard for PCVs. They are both NGO volunteers like I will be and they work for two different NGOs in Maun- Heidi at WAR (Women Against Rape) and Ross at Thuso Rehabilitation Center. We ran around like crazy to see the kind of work they do and the projects they have taken on in Maun. They’re pretty great. They also fed us lots of American food. I was with 3 other volunteers in Maun and we went on a safari in Moremi Game Reserve. It was sooooo cool. We started our trip at 6 a.m. and made it to the game reserve by 8:00 with our driver, Liebo, and two British guys who teach in Phalapye. We saw giraffes first thing- before we had even crossed into the gate. Then elephants. Throughout the day, we spotted warthogs, impalas, red lechwe, kudu, a wildebeest, a jackal, vervet monkeys, lots of different birds, a HIPPO, and leopard footprints. No cat sightings, but that’s ok. It was a really great day! I will try to get pictures up at some point. 

I have received 4 packages so far- 3 from my parents and 1 from Colin. They were great- lots of dried fruite, jerky, hand sanitizer, wet wipes, etc. Loved getting mail! I know it was a pain to send, though, but it was definitely appreciated.

Site assignment day is coming up on Saturday. This is the day we find out where we’ll be placed for the next 2 years. I’m pretty nervous, but I know Rosemary, the NGO APCD, is pretty awesome and that I’m in good hands with her. I’m trusting in the process (or at least telling myself that until it’s true!). I’ll post when I know where I’m going! I’m hoping for a big city close to other volunteers, maybe in the North. Mostly I’m hoping for great NGO placement in terms of my job and counterpart. We’ll see.

On Saturday, we did a cultural visit to a village outside of Gabs where we were fed traditional food (there is nothing new or exciting about traditional Setswana food at this point- I was over it when I was served a chicken foot a couple of weeks ago), watched traditional dancing, and learned about traditional brew (think Chibuku, look it up), tanning leather, blacksmithing (shout outs to Graham and Jeremy on this!), and basket weaving. The dancing was pretty amazing. I took lots of video. I really loved watching it and hope I have more opportunities to see it!

Today I went to Gabs to get my visa. Which was good because our original temporary visas expired thanks in part to the government strike. I got to eat pizza again. I may or may not have had more than one ice cream cone in an hour.

Thursday we are going to a wedding. I’m looking forward to this because I haven’t yet been to a Motswana wedding. It also means an interruption of 4 hour language sessions.

That’s about it! Looking forward to Saturday’s site announcement. Thanks to everyone for the well-wishes, emails, texts, FB posts, mail, blog comments, etc. You’re all amazing! xoxo

Monday, April 25, 2011

Adjusting to Botswana

I am still struggling with the day-to-day of being away from home and those I love. Every time I think I’m starting to settle in, waves of homesickness come over me and I feel like giving up and going home. I am still asking myself, “What the hell am I doing here?” and “Why did I decide to do this?”. I didn’t think it would be this hard to be away from Colin and from everyone I care about.  Everything is very magnified here- from the rain, to the sky, to the loneliness.  I feel a lot of guilt and anxiety being away from home. It’s hard making the choice to stay here every day because I know I could end these feelings by getting on a plane to come home. It’s a choice I make every day to stay here. I will say that one of my fellow trainees had to go home to deal with a medical crisis in his family. At that moment, I was (shamefully) both jealous that he was going home and no one would fault him for it, and glad that I didn’t have to make that choice. Easton, if you’re out there, we’re all rooting for you and your mom and we hope you are able to come back to us quickly! It’s hard thinking about all of the things that could happen at home over which I have no control. 

Things you should know about Botswana and Batswana (people of Botswana):
-       Batswana are not immune to auto-tuning. There are lots of Setswana songs that are auto-tuned, and they sound just as stupid as American ones.
-       My host family is now focused on clearing the rocks from the yard. I have helped in this, despite the fact that the yard and the “soil” is entirely made up of rocks. I don’t know why we are doing this or whether or not there will be a time when they’re like, “Ok! Re Feditse! (we’re finished!”).
-       Mail is taking a long time to get here. I received a card from Mr. and Mrs. Ross (thanks, guys! My first and only piece of mail so far!!)- an Easter card, on Thursday last week, very timely. But they sent it on April 1st, so, yeah.
-       The food here is gross. I am not one of those people who was evolutionarily designed to survive. I would starve before eating something I think is nasty.
-       The Batswana do not believe in hand-washing the way that we do. My host mom prepared chicken last night, and those of you who know me can probably imagine how I was freaking the eff out. I mean, her hands went directly from inside the raw chicken (which was being prepared in the basin where we wash dishes), to the light switch, to the door knobs, to clean dishes, to clean cutlery, to the fridge, to the baby. I tried to disinfect as best I could (everything but the baby) with hand sanitizer and hot water. I am hoping that the broad-spectrum tetracycline antibiotics I am on for malaria prophylaxis (doxycycline) will also prevent me from getting salmonella and other food borne bacteria illnesses. Fingers crossed!
-       I have not seen a car here with an entirely intact windshield. There are lots of accidents involving cows/goats/donkeys/dogs/chickens/people. I buckle my seat belt whenever I have one and then hope for the best.
-       Batswana tell me to put a jacket on or shoes on all the time. This drives me crazy because I am used to deciding myself when I am cold. They also worry about walking in the rain- that it will make us sick. Unfortunately, I don’t have much choice about that because I can’t afford to take a taxi every day to and from training and still be able to afford wine and chocolate. Walking in the rain works for me.

Things you should know about me:
-       I am exhausted. From the walking back and forth to training every day (~18000 total steps according to my pedometer) to the constantly being “on-call” as a PC trainee (having to be nice and friendly and culturally appropriate always), to not sleeping very well has made me go to bed by 8 or 9:00 almost every night.
-       Mailing shit to me is extremely expensive. I don’t need anything, so please don’t feel that you need to send me stuff. Obviously, it is much appreciated, but I know it’s really a pain in the ass and not financially feasible. I can live without (or at least that’s what I’m trying to prove to myself right now)! People here live with what they have and that’s part of my job, too. If there’s anything I need that I can’t get here, I don’t really need it.
-       All of the trainees here are becoming like family. Yes, we spend entirely too much time together, and sometimes we drive each other crazy (they have seen me be a total bitch), but we are all in this together and I wouldn’t be here without their support.
-       I still don’t know whether I am going to be able to stick this out. I have a lot of moments of self-doubt. I miss home immensely. I am trying to take things a day at a time, but sometimes it’s really hard.
-       From Wednesday to Sunday this week, I am traveling to Maun to shadow other Peace Corps Volunteers (you should be able to find their blog- Ross and Heidi). I am really excited about this trip. Maun is in the Okavango River Delta and is a very long bus ride away, but I’m happy to get out of Kanye and spend some time seeing what volunteers actually do.
-       I found out that the NGO I will most likely be working with is the Botswana National Youth Council. I think this is good, but who knows at this point.
-       My host family likes me most when I am dancing, or doing impressions of myself running into cows at night or doing impressions of my parents snoring (sorry mom and dad). I am much like a clown here and they are constantly chanting, “Lorato, bina (dance)!”, “Lorato, mogaro (snore)!”, or “Lorato le kgomo (Lorato & cow)!” and then laughing when I appease them. My dancing is terrible, so they ask me to dance often. Actually, they don’t ever ask me to do anything, and I can’t tell if it’s a cultural difference or a language limitation that I am constantly being ordered around.
-       The trainees have claimed a bar called Motse Lodge. We usually go there Saturdays after training ends around noon. It’s expensive, but worth it for the wine, food, and lack of people other than us trainees and the bar tenders. I look forward to these afternoons.
-       Tomorrow (Monday, the 25th) is my first LPI (Language Proficiency Interview). It’s an oral test of my Setswana skills (or rather, my lack thereof). I am trying not to get to stressed about it as it’s sort of just practice, but it’s hard for me because I am not used to being crappy at academic things. Setswana is a very hard language to learn. I am not good at it. Ask my host family, they’ll tell you, “Lorato sesu! (Lorato is a fool)”. I am trying to get used to not being top of the class.
-       I would love to upload pictures, but the Internet here is slow and my time is extremely limited. Maybe while I’m in Maun, I’ll be able to give it a try, but no guarantees. I’m also having issues with my camera in uploading pics onto my computer- don’t know what the deal is there. Meh.
-       Molly (one of our cats at home in Brockport) is sick again. At first they were thinking leukemia (watch my heart breaking), but that is looking much less likely (so thankful for that!). This is part of the reason that I’m so anxious to be home. Colin is taking care of things with the awesome help of our parents who have been shuttling Molly back and forth to specialists and watching him when Colin’s not home. Thanks to Gary & Karen & mom & dad. You guys are life savers! Still don’t know exactly what’s wrong with him, but hoping for the best.
-       My sister Kate and her husband Brent are on a fabulous vacation. They are stationed in Korea, so they decided to travel to Cambodia and Thailand. I’m super jealous. Sounds amazing.
-       Colin and parents and Caitlin (and Mike, too, I think?) went down to see Grandma in Binghamton this weekend for Easter. Jealous of them, too.

That’s about it! Love to all. Miss you! Your emails and texts and calls and mail is so much appreciated. Peace!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Homestay beginning

I feel like it’s been weeks since I have arrived in Africa, but I’ve only been here for 9 days. After over 30 hours of traveling, we arrived in Gaborone, Botswana at the Big Five Lodge which was to be our home from Sunday to Thursday. The hotel was very nice, especially by Botswana standards. I hope to be able to post pictures soon. We started training almost immediately, to include Setswana language classes, culture lessons, training and volunteer expectations, Peace Corps rules and policies, and information about our jobs and duties as Peace Corps volunteers.  For now we are considered Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs). We become Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) when we swear in June 7th.  We find out our specific jobs and where we will be posted on May 14th. 

Anyway, Thursday, I met my host family. It was a very crazy day. We left Gabs and headed to Kanye, a village about an hour (?) away, where we spend the duration of our training. We had a long ceremony with the host families and then finally they announced who belonged to whom. My host mom did a lot of yelling and jumping up and down with excitement. She held my hand for about 2 hours. She speaks about zero English. We took a kombi ride home and I felt so scared and lonely when it dropped me off with this stranger in a strange place that was to be my home. I walked into the house and met my new nephew, Buhle, who is 4 months old and his mom (my sister), Amogelang, who is 21 (her birthday is today!). My brother, Obekeng, is 16 (turning 17 on Sunday). I have another brother, Bakang AKA Andrew, who is 26 (ish?).  My new Setswana name is Lorato, which means love. My surname is Obusitswe. There are two tenants who live in my family’s compound, Kago (23) and Thabano (26). I think I have a dad (?) who works in South Africa but will be coming home for Easter.

Thursday was extremely overwhelming. With the anxiety of meeting my family aside, I was also dealing with jet lag, anti-malarial medications, and new vaccinations (typhoid, yellow fever, rabies, meningitis, and flu so far). My host family wasn’t speaking much English and I was exhausted. It was (and still is) so awkward for me to sit in a room with strangers who I am supposed to treat (and who are supposed to treat me) as family. Communication is a huge barrier.

My homestay situation seems to be one of the most basic/limited in terms of amenities in our trainee group. Our compound has 2 buildings and a pit latrine. The one building, where Kago and Thabano live, has the kitchen with a small fridge, a gas stove, and an electric kettle that we use to heat water for bathing, laundry, and washing dishes.  There is no running water, but we have a tap out at the end of the yard and I’m constantly carrying water up to the house in buckets. In the other building, we have a sitting room with a tv (that is on always, at full blast, and is tuned in to ridiculous old American tv shows, Setswana soap operas, WWE, and other such awfulness), 3 bedrooms, and a bathroom. The bathroom is where we bathe only, but we carry in all the water from outside for bucket baths. I have figured out how to wash my hair, my body, and the bathtub (before and after my bath) with only my 3 gallon bucket full of water. I have yet to figure out how to do this without getting water all over the floor.  The house is made of cement- walls and floor, with a corrugated metal roof that also serves as a ceiling and a roosting area for chickens and roosters. BTW, whoever said that roosters crow at dawn was leaving a lot out. They crow all the damn time. My bedroom has a twin bed, two nighstands where I keep my clothes, and a small table and nightstand where I store my toiletries. There is also a chair where I dry clothes/towels and my luggage, which also holds stuff.  I have a door that locks with a key and a window (no screen). I think I have managed to rid myself of the spiders with whom I was sharing the room with a terrifying and wonderful product called DOOM. I have a light in my room (a lightbulb that dangles out of the wall), but electricity is either all on or all off here- there are no switches to this lightbulb, so it’s on when the power for Kanye is on, and off when the power for Kanye is off. Thankfully, I have a headlamp and a couple of flashlights, and I have an eye mask because the light is on all night long.

At my house, we have a lot of visitors.They come and hang out all day and there are always kids around. I’m not really sure who is related and who isn’t, but I know that some are cousins, some are friends, and some are neighbors. They are trying to teach me different games but I am terrible at all of them. I taught them how to limbo, which they seem to like. I wish I knew more kids games that are easy to explain without much talking and without any equipment. I’ve figured out that nail polish is universal and that it will make me friends with little girls quickly.

It is pretty hot here right now. It gets “cool” at night, but I keep hearing that it will eventually get cold. It’s pretty dry, though I did experience my first thunderstorm when we were staying at the Lodge in Gabs and it was pretty awesome. I can tell that it’s pretty dry now, as I’m drinking lots of water but not using the bathroom very much at all (whether this is related to dehydration or my fear of the pit latrine, I’m not sure). The landscape is very hilly and surprisingly green, though there is that classic red-brown African dirt everywhere that there isn’t trees or scrub brush. There are chickens, donkeys, and cows (wearing bells) everywhere. We have vervet monkeys that hang out at the training center, too. They seem pretty shy. My house has a dog named Bobi. I have become friends with him. I haven’t seen anyone beat him yet, but I heard it happen the other night. I’m trying to stay disconnected from that as much as possible, but I still try to feed and water him whenever I can and I talk to him and give him some attention.

I have a cell phone. It works sort of. Getting in touch with me can be difficult, especially if you’re using a phone card. Skype calls work pretty well, but I get disconnected a lot. I can receive calls and texts at no cost to me. I can’t text back to Skype or to phones without international texting turned on (mom and dad, yours isn’t on, call Verizon!). My cell phone number is (011 or +1) 267 (country code) 76569775 (yes, 8 digits). I’m 6 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time and I go to bed early, so no calls after 10 p.m. my time. If you’re texting me, please include a signature with your name or something so I know who you are since I don’t have most numbers programmed in to my phone.

I spent Friday in training. We processed our first night of homestay and I was the crier. It really had nothing to do with my family or house, but everything to do with being homesick. I was ready to go home to New York and back to Colin and comfort. I’m definitely still having moments like that, but I’m trying to focus on my goals and why I’m here and what I’m hoping to accomplish while I’m here. I wanted this so badly and I don’t want to give up just because I’m lonely. But having the choice and the ability to go home at any moment definitely makes it harder to decide to stay!

Saturday I went to the shops with my sister and met my other brother who lives in Gaborone but visits on weekends. I spent the rest of the day playing with my sister and her friends and their children. They love to watch me dance and struggle with speaking Setswana. Every time I talk (or dance), most people start laughing. This is hard for me to get used to. Being stared at all the time is difficult, too. I’m hoping that when I start getting a grasp on Setswana, this will feel less awkward and unusual.

Sunday I went to a church with Thabano. My family doesn’t go to church, but I asked to go for the experience. It was pretty interesting. It was extremely loud because the sound system was jacked up and not very good. The service was done in Setswana and English and Shelley, the other volunteer who was there with me, and I were asked to introduce ourselves to the congregation. I was somehow able to avoid committing to a second visit. Two and a half hours of a Sunday morning will be much better spent sleeping in, but I’m glad I went to see what it was like. I met a bunch of friends and walked downtown with them for most of the rest of the day. We found the Internet café and ended up sunburned and parched from being out in the sun for so long.

Monday we had training bright and early at 8:00. My host family doesn’t let me walk anywhere alone, which is annoying, but probably good since I can’t seem to figure out where I live or where anyone else lives. My sense of direction is bad enough when there are street signs and maps, but there is no map for me here and no street signs, and my family takes me “short cuts” to everything, so we go a different way every damn time and I can’t figure out where shit is. It’s frustrating.

We have training every day from 8 until 4:30. Next week, we have to start walking to training ourselves- they’ve been picking us up at our kgotlas (village meeting center) since we got here, but the star treatment ends at the end of the week. This means about an hour (?) long walk each way, so I’ll be getting up with the sun.

I’m tired of the food already. Paleche, morogo (like spinach but much more bitter), porridge (fermented sorghum meal), bread, rice, pasta (plain), and dumplings (bread) are the basic staples (SO MUCH STARCH!!!), along with cabbage, beans, maize (like corn, but very tough and chewy), and pumpkin. We eat beef and chicken sometimes but I try to avoid the meat because it’s not my favorite thing. Care packages welcome! Easy Mac, regular Mac & cheese, cheese that doesn’t require refrigeration, crackers (Better Cheddars would be amazing or Cheese Ritz Bits), granola, dry fruit, granola or fruit bars, beef jerky, and all forms of spices (chili powder, garlic powder, red pepper, black pepper, onion powder) would be amazing, as would pictures and letters. I think I’m not supposed to get boxes yet (padded envelopes only), and it’s very expensive to mail stuff, but I think Colin has the best system figured out, so just ask him. When filling out the customs form, just put “Educational Materials”. 

Anyway, Internet is spotty- we have it at the training site, but only about an hour of the day available to use it, so I haven't been able to read much news or FB too much. I hope it will be different once I get to my site, but we'll see... 
That's all for now!