Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Panic at the grocery store

I’ve been home about three weeks now, and I still take in a sharp breath every time I walk into a grocery store.  I can’t believe I have all of this food right at my fingertips!  Blackberries!  Cap’n Crunch!  Real orange juice!  Ravioli!  Greek yogurt and Bloody Mary mix and ground coffee and so much more!!!

My first grocery store visit, I wandered around for two hours with my mouth open, completely dumbfounded.  I actually cried when I got to the cereal aisle.  I felt like dropping to my knees and belting out a “hallelujah!” to the heavens.  And did you know that Kraft sells seventeen different kinds of shredded cheese?  I still can’t get over it.  Cheddar, sharp cheddar, low-fat cheddar, mozzarella, Monterey Jack, Mexican three-blend, Mexican four-blend… I actually counted them.  And that’s just Kraft—there are also Kroger and store-bought brands and Horizon Organics and Glenview Farms and so many others that I can’t even list them all.  Is all that cheese really necessary?  I couldn’t even find one kind of shredded cheese in Lesotho.  Any second thoughts on leaving my cheese grater in Africa have since been forgotten.   
I get this odd feeling like I need to buy everything I can all at once and keep it safe at home in my cupboards.  I think I’ve become a food hoarder.  In Lesotho, I’d rarely get the chance to buy good cheese and canned chick peas, so I’d stock up when I could and save it for a special night.  I still can’t get over the fact that the food here is not going to disappear—food, good food, is always going to be there.

My only wish is that all of the volunteers from Lesotho could come back together and go shopping in a grocery store.  We’d either look like look like absolute maniacs, crying and screaming and throwing up our hands in the air, or like deer caught in the headlights, completely stunned into silence.  Luckily, I am the deer in the headlights type.  

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Changed Forever

            So, the news is out.  After months of debating, thinking, drinking, and soul-searching, I’ve decided to resign from the Peace Corps and move home.

            It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make.

            I think I spent about three days lying on my back in my bed, staring at the straw ceiling and anticipating every regret that I would have.  Between classes, I made pro/con lists and evaluated them.  I applied for several jobs to see if an opportunity would fall into my lap.  I asked for advice from at least seven or eight people and thought and rethought what they recommended to me. 

But a string of unfortunate events within my last three weeks led me to conclude that I had made the right decision, and I couldn’t be happier with where I am now.  

Over the course of the fifteen months that I served in Peace Corps, I realized that the work I was doing was not leading me down the path I had hoped it would.  I always wanted to go into development work, or join a non-profit organization, or maybe even keep teaching abroad.  I love living abroad and experiencing new things.  I love the feeling of adventure while you’re hitchhiking in the back of a pickup truck down a winding African dirt road.  At times, I lived that ideal image of Peace Corps life that many people see in advertisements or Facebook photos. 

But I didn’t join the Peace Corps to drink with Americans and backpack around southern Africa every weekend, however “romantic” that may sound.  I joined to make a difference in the world and to be a volunteer.  I soon became very jaded with the idea of development work, especially with the Peace Corps and especially in Lesotho.  That’s not to say that there are many volunteers doing amazing projects and positively impacting their schools every day.  I loved my school, and my students, and my teachers, and my principal.  They showed me love and acceptance like I’ve never seen before.  But I didn’t feel that the work I was doing was sustainable.  Five, ten years down the road from now, what kind of legacy would I leave behind, besides some great stories and a crumbling house?

For a succession of days, which turned into months, I woke up unenthusiastic about the day ahead of me.  I was lacking the passion that I had when I first joined Peace Corps.  I wasn’t excited about anything.  After feeling like this for too long, you have to make a change.  I realized that it wasn’t worth dragging myself through two years of melancholy, just to say I had completed two full years or just to be tough or to “build character”.

By no means does this mean that my decision was easy.  Remaining quietly in misery to protect your pride is much easier than throwing in the towel and calling it quits early.  More than anything, I was afraid of what other people would think.  And saying goodbye to my American and Basotho friends was one of the hardest things to do. 

But in the end, I made the decision that was right for me.  I will forever be grateful for the time I spent in Lesotho.  I’ve become a much better person because of it.  I am more patient, whether it be waiting in lines or talking with people that I don’t much care for.  I learned to be generous, because all good things are much better when they are shared.  I think twice when I see someone who is different from everyone else, because I know now what it’s like to stand out in a crowd.  I’m appreciative of everything that we were blessed with in America, just because we were born into wealthier circumstances.  And I’ve learned how important it is to cherish your family and friends—in America, Lesotho, or anywhere in the world—because in a lot of places, life is cut short much too quickly. 

I would highly recommend to everyone to join the Peace Corps, or at least to donate some time and work by volunteering in a place where the people are less fortunate than you.  You will learn more than you could ever imagine.  You will be changed forever.  

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

remember those who have nothing to eat

            We eat lunch at school every day at the same time—11a.m., right after math class. 
The rotating menu is also the same every week:  maize meal and fried cabbage Monday, beans and bread Tuesday, maize meal, fried cabbage and an egg Wednesday, samp and beans Thursday, and maize meal and milk Friday.  The students bring their own plastic lunch boxes from home, and they take turns lining up by class, youngest to oldest, to be served their food. 
Before dismissing the students for lunch, they all stand at their desks, fold their arms, close their eyes, and pray.  The prayer is the same every week.
“Oh Lord, thank you for the food that we are going to eat.  Remember those who have nothing to eat.  Amen.”
My breath catches in my throat every time they say it.  Some of these kids come to school just for the free food that the Ministry of Education provides.  They are the ones who have nothing to eat.  They live all day, every day on that one free meal they get at school. 
But they still remember to pray for those who have even less.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

My home away from home

            It’s strange to think that Christmas is just around the corner, and yet I’m spending my free time sneaking behind my hut in shorts to tan my toothpaste-white thighs in the afternoon sun.  I’m usually in my prime during the American holiday season—cooking, baking, wrapping presents, sitting by the fire—but  here it’s too hot to bake anything, let alone dozens of Christmas cookies and trays of peanut brittle. 
            For the first time in my life, I’m not feeling the holiday spirit.  Not at all.  Instead, I’m feeling a long day by the pool with a water-bottle filled with margarita mix.  It’s summer.
            I finished my first year of teaching last week!  The school decided to throw an end-of-year party to celebrate, and I was told to be at school at 8 a.m. sharp.  For some reason, my teachers are always worried about putting me to work and making me tired (why they think I need so much rest, I’ll never know), so while they ran around frantically cooking meat in pots over fires and setting up chairs in our school hall, I sat at a table in the corner and played games on my Blackberry.
            After what seemed like hours of senseless “organizing”, the students finally filed into the hall and formed their choir in the front of the room.  They sang a few of the hymns they regularly sing before school starts in the morning, and parents began congregating in the back and settling down in their chairs.  But a couple of songs in, I started noticing something.  I felt strangely like I recognized the songs that they were singing, even though the words were all in Sesotho.
            And so I started to listen closely, and it suddenly hit me.  They were singing about me. 
            They had changed their standard songs to fit my name somewhere in the middle.  They were all looking at me, swaying back and forth and making their usual choir-hand movements, and they were smiling.  And before I knew it, they had finished singing and the principal was standing up in front of the audience and giving a speech entirely in Sesotho.  After she finished, she turned to me and explained that they wanted to thank me for all the hard work I had done this year with the students.  She said that she knew it would be difficult to be so far away from home during the holidays, and so the school wanted to show their appreciation and love for me by throwing a party.
            All classes, first through seventh grade, then took turns standing in front of the crowd and reading cards that they had written.  The first graders wrote “Merry Christmars” on all of their cards.  Third grade wrote a letter in Sesotho, and my teacher later translated it to say “Thank God, for we are so blessed.  The sun is shining from America!  Neo Lehloenya is a child of Mahloenyeng; Hannah Campbell is a child of Theresa James School.”  My best student in seventh grade recited a beautiful poem in English, which elicited a standing ovation from the parents. 
            Towards the end of the ceremony, the school staff asked me to come to the middle of the stage and stand in front of the choir.    My principal began another speech explaining that she was sure that it was hard for me to come to Lesotho when I knew nothing about what I was getting in to.  She knew that I would miss my family and friends, and that I might not even like my new home, but some unknown, subconscious drive kept pushing me to go.  And then she said that that special “calling” was her prayers; she had been asking God for so long to help her school.   And I came along.
Suddenly, they started singing an absolutely beautiful song which I first learned when I arrived in Lesotho, during Peace Corps training.  It’s a song to thank someone; the words say something like “thank you, thank you; we’ve waited for this day for so long”.
My students’ mothers began slowly making their way towards me from the back of the room, dancing in a single-file line.  They were all holding gifts, and as they approached me, they smiled and put the gifts down at my feet.  My teachers and principal came out from nowhere carrying one of the biggest boxes I’ve ever seen and put it down in the middle of the room, along with the other gifts.  Of course, I was sobbing and smiling and dancing and singing the entire time.
After the ceremony, we sat down for a huge feast.  We ate chicken, rice with a spicy tomato sauce, carrot salad with raisins, beans, and Jello and cookies for dessert.  We even rented a sound system, and my seventh grade girls and I danced and shouted until I lost my voice. 
Traveling home that evening in a taxi, I found myself smiling.  I couldn’t stop smiling.  I was absolutely exhausted, but felt more content than I have in a long time.  I felt loved.  I’ve never before been shown so much acceptance and compassion and love as I have by my tiny, poor little school in Matsieng.  Here are people who have nothing, yet they put together what little resources and funds they had in order to make me feel at home when they knew I was lonely around Christmas. 
Before we all left, I made a short speech to thank everyone for what they had done for me that afternoon.  I said that although they were thanking me for all of the measurable change I had brought to their school and their students, the biggest change was what they had given me. 
They have completely changed me as a person.  I’ve become more patient, sharing, accepting, and humble.  I appreciate so many things that I otherwise would never have noticed.  I’ve slowed down my life and thought about what is really important.  I have changed inexplicably more than what I could ever do for these people here.  I don’t think they quite understood what I meant.  But it made me secretly smile inside.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

poop talk

                My bed has been voted as the Worst Bed in Peace Corps Lesotho.  It’s been compared to everything from “an old, thin box spring” to “like sleeping on plastic cups”.  Ever since I moved in, I’d been meaning to call Peace Corps and ask what they could do to fix the situation.  But the sad thing is that I’m used to it now.  Every time I cough and feel the springs rattle at the same time, it doesn’t even phase me.

                We share a lot of beds in Peace Corps.  Pretty quickly, I had to get over being shy at sleepovers.  Peeing in a bucket in the middle of the night, squeezing three or four people to a bed (or sharing the dirt floor with eight or nine people), and everyone waking up simultaneously hung over/eating leftover dinner straight from the pot is usually how Peace Corps sleepovers end up.

                Heather and I had a sleepover last night.  We had a couple of quarts of beer, per usual… nothing crazy.  Her bed is much nicer than mine, by the way. 

                The roosters and donkeys woke us up around 6am.  I could tell Heather was up and reading already, but I wanted to keep sleeping.  Once I finally decided to roll over, she was bright-eyed and bushy tailed and wanted to chat!  Three minutes later, we were lying down facing each other, our cheeks resting on the backs of our hands, deep into a conversation about the sustainability of projects in developing countries and finding meaning in life through volunteerism.  

                All this at about 6:15am.  I don’t think I had even rubbed the sleep clear from my eyes.

                I’ve had some of the best conversations with people during my time in Peace Corps.  Most of the volunteers in my group are in their twenties and almost all of them are nearly straight from college, but they have some of the most mature insights into international development, personal growth, overcoming challenges and accepting failure as an inevitable part of this Peace Corps experience.

                Heather told me this morning that the first year of Peace Corps is about failing, and the second year is about accepting failure.

                I’m trying to figure out how I’ll be able to have these same conversations with people from home.  I don’t think I’ll be able to put into words what this experience has been like for me.  How can I answer a question like, “so how was Africa?”?  Well, how long do you have to talk?

                I’ve also had pretty immature conversations with volunteers.  There’s nothing better than passing the time in a disgusting, crowded taxi by playing the game “Would You Rather” (most of the choices had something to do with poop, being pooped on, throwing poop around). 

                PCVs really love talking about their poop.  We have weird poops in Africa.  It's always too much poop or not enough, and we've also got great stories about places we've pooped.  We poop in disgusting latrines, in piles of trash, in buckets and bags, and sometimes in our own pants.  Now who wouldn't want to swap stories like that?

                Come to think of it, my skills as a “normal” conversationalist have probably deteriorated a lot since being in Africa.  If I can’t talk about the ups and downs of being a Peace Corps volunteer with the average citizen, and I can’t resort to describing my daily bowel movements either, I’m not really sure what I’m going to talk about with people when I come home. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

seasons of fruit

            One of my favorite parts of Colorado summers was waking up early to go to the farmer’s market with my mom.  We’d stock up on whatever was in season—rhubarb in early spring, heirloom tomatoes and homemade herb pasta throughout the summer, and sweet corn and peaches in the fall. 

We had our favorite farmers’ stalls, too.  We always visited the Roasted Pepper Guys first; they had a giant iron cage that spun over an open flame and produced a magnificent, smoky aroma that floated throughout the market.  Next was the Bread and Dipping Oil Man.  By the end of the summer, he didn’t even need to ask for our order—we’d walk up and he’d immediately begin packing a plastic bag with the usual: dipping oils with parmesean cheese and spicy olives, rosemary and sage, and fiery green peppers. 

Before leaving the farmer’s market, we always sat down and ate something different.  We tried organic coffee, breakfast burritos, miniature cherry pies, paella… once we even discovered an Argentine food truck.  I absolutely swooned over the triple-layered alfajores, beef and chicken empanadas, and thick, sultry dulce de leche.

Cooking and eating in Lesotho isn’t exactly like home.  Like I’ve said before, my fresh fruit and vegetable choices in village are usually limited to onions, green apples, potatoes, and cabbage…and that’s quite a selection compared to what many other volunteers have.  I can’t tell you how many variations I’ve come up with for cabbage dishes.  Finishing an entire head of cabbage within a week and a half was one of my prouder moments of Peace Corps.

One thing I have noticed, though, is the fruit that comes along with the change of seasons.  I arrived last year in late summer, just in time for peach harvesting.  There were peaches everywhere.  I overdosed on peaches on several occasions (which warrants far too many trips to the latrine, in case you were wondering what happens after a peach overdose).  I couldn’t walk down the road without being offered three or four peaches.  My students brought me bags of peaches after school.  We made sun-dried peaches and canned peaches in Home Economics class.  Just when I thought I couldn’t look at another peach, the weather turned cold and they disappeared just as quickly as they arrived.

Winter brought another season of fruit: oranges.  I’ve never actually seen an orange tree in Lesotho, so I assume they are imported from South Africa.  Orange peels littered the streets, and I constantly felt that sticky sweet film on my fingers that remains after halving a juicy orange.  I got creative and experimented with sweet orange bread, thai noodles with orange chunks, and freshly-squeezed orange juice.  I’m not partial to oranges, I think because of the mess they make when you eat them, but I ate at least one orange a day (and all that vitamin C paid off—I didn’t get sick once!).

Now it’s summer time, and the fruit of choice is guavas, my favorite fruit season so far.  I don’t think I had ever actually eaten a guava before arriving in Lesotho.  The smell of a ripe guava is enough to make your mouth water.  The skin is tender and smooth and easily gives way when you take a bite.  Guava fruits are filled with a cluster of small, hard but edible round seeds in the center.  There isn’t a core; the entire thing can be eaten without a trace of evidence.  And they’re so pretty!  Sunset light orange on the outside and rosy pink inside.  Such a girly fruit.  I love them.

At home, everything is so readily available in the grocery store at all times of the year, so I never really noticed the different harvesting seasons.  It’s been fun to learn how to cook what’s available—and cook a lot of it.  The peach trees in my backyard are already developing tiny, hard green peach buds.  I need to start brainstorming what I’m going to do with all those buckets of peaches.  I can’t eat that much peach pie all on my own. J

Monday, October 29, 2012

like a little kid again

            I don’t know what to do.  My mom just left. 

She spent the last two weeks in Lesotho with me, visiting my classes, cooking over my propane stove, sleeping in my terrible bed, and drinking quarts of beer with me every afternoon.  Now she’s gone, and my house is so quiet and dark and empty.

We had such an incredible time together.  Two weeks ago, she and my soon-to-be stepdad, Andy, flew into Johannesburg and rented a car to drive all the way down to Maseru.  We had planned on meeting at 2pm in a coffee shop, and when they hadn’t arrived by 5pm I was a sweaty, nervous wreck (on top of the fact that I’d knocked back about four cups of coffee). 

When they finally showed up, my mom and I ran towards each other and broke out in tears, naturally.  I’m not quite sure what I expected for our reunion after a year’s separation (would it be awkward?  Surprised?  Scared?), but after a few minutes of conversation, it seemed like we’d barely been apart.  We all immediately agreed that it was time for a beer.

My mom and Andy spent the next two days with me at school, meeting my teachers and students and watching me in the classroom.  My mom fought back tears on several occasions while she watched my kids sing songs and give speeches.  Andy helped me grade papers in my high school class, and at one point he was completely engulfed by dozens of students vying for his attention.  My mom tried to take a photo, but he had disappeared into a crowd of blue uniforms.

They finally understood my happiness and my frustrations of working in Lesotho.  After only two days, they had come to the same conclusions that I have regarding my work in the Peace Corps.  I was talking to them like I would talk to fellow volunteers, and they completely empathized with me.

It felt so wonderful to be taken care of by my parents after so long.  They treated me to several nights in an expensive hotel, with a shower (!) and a television (!!) and a swimming pool (!!!).  I ate more meat and cheese than I have in months.  They bought me new clothes and fabrics and things for my house.  They brought nail polish and face scrubs and wrinkle cream and magazines from home.  I even loved the feeling of riding in the backseat everywhere we went like I was a little kid again, and having my mom hug me and coddle over me nonstop.  It’s been awhile since I’ve felt so cared for.

One weekend, we took a trip to a rural mountain village called Semonkong.  After a white-knuckle drive up steep, crumbling roads, we spent the evening on a “donkey pub crawl”.  Apparently, I was trying to persuade everyone to stay out drinking all night.  Andy eventually convinced me to go to bed. J

It was fun to see the progression of my mom and Andy’s initial shock/amazement of my current living conditions to an acceptance and even comfort of this African way of life.  By the end of the trip, they were completely settled in.  Andy burned trash and swept the house without being asked by anyone.  My mom became better at washing clothes than I am.  One night, I had a home-cooked meal that tasted exactly like it would have on a summer night back in Colorado.  They quickly learned how to stay entertained without a television or stereo system: drink beer!  (I don’t think I need to drink any more beer for the next month.)

Saying goodbye today was awful.  I couldn’t stop crying all afternoon.  I still can’t.  I feel empty.  I feel lonely.  I feel angry that I won’t see them again for so long.  I miss my family more than I ever have in the past year.  I never knew how comforting it feels to be close to those people that you love so much, and how much it hurts to be so far from them.  
Hug your moms and dads and families today, and remind yourself that even though you might get on each other’s nerves and you might bicker and fight, you have them safe and near.  Maybe it takes traveling the world to realize that all you really need is right at home.