Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Small Stuff

Jess writes:

As you read this, Adam and I will arriving back across the pond, to that home that we left exactly one year ago today. As Adam described in the previous post, this decision was one of our toughest and, since I’m writing this post prior to our actual departure, I won’t attempt to make any conjectures at our current thoughts or emotions. Rather, I would like to conclude our blog with a post dedicated almost entirely to our fellow PCVs, in addition to serving as a reminder of that those memories that I will bring back home with me.

It’s true, as the saying goes, that "you shouldn’t sweat the small stuff" – that is, if they’re the tough parts. But if I had to choose just one thing that a year in South Africa has taught me, it’s that the ‘small stuff’, at least the happy bits, are the things that often get me through the day. And when I’m literally sweating – drenched from head to toe in front of a not-so-functional fan – it is this 'small stuff' that makes me smile and reminds me why this place will forever have a spot in my heart and mind.

So, to all our friends still in South Africa, and to our future selves, I give you my entirely haphazard and potentially nonsensical listing of the ‘small stuff’…

African Time. Baby cows, baby donkeys, baby goats… baby everythings! Coombie rides when you get the front row seat with all the leg room and space for groceries, packs, and other belongings. The sky – its vastness, its bright blue, its enormous clouds that seem to be only a few meters out of reach of your hands. Tea breaks at work. The sound of marshmallow frogs croaking before the rain comes. Care packages. Waves and smiles from total strangers. Casually walking alongside herds of cattle on our walks through town. The smell of litchis as we pass the citrus groves. Gray skies on a hot, hot, hot day. Greeting our friends and coworkers at Thembalethu each morning. Our conversations with our two-year old host brother. Brownies… yes, the batter and the final product. The color green – the unimaginable and innumerable colors of green after the rains come – the pale green of the acacia trees, the goldeny-greens of the whispy sugar canes, the bright green of the banana plants, the soft and endless greens of the hills, the dark greens of the shrubs and cacti, the everywhere greens of Nkomazi during the Summertime. A pit latrine without any flies. Hearing mothers say “Sorry sesi” [sister] or “Sorry bhuti” [brother] to their little babes when something goes awry. Our quirky, little, two-room home. The drive to and from Malelane, with the most incredible views of the foothills, mountains, sugar cane fields, and banana plant farms. Doing little chores together – scrubbing the dishes or washing our laundry – the tediousness, lengthiness and frustration of the process that gives us a sense of some small, well-earned achievement. Monkeys hiding in the groves alongside R570. The soft touch of our host mother’s hand when she reaches out after a joke or story.Waking up to a house that is dry after a nighttime storm. Short lines at the post office. Hearts and Spades, while listening to our card soundtrack of The Fleet Foxes and The Fits & Tantrums. Red dirt roads. Our house lizards, when they do their job and catch the cockroaches. The enormous eyes of the Crèche kids as they stare up into your face. Our thermometer – when it reads anything less than 36C. The feeling of sitting directly in front of a fan, on high. Successful meetings with project staff. The shy laugh of our teenage, host brother. Getting free rides from random workers who want to meet the new, white people. Actually needing the comforter on cooler evenings… and sleeping in on cooler mornings. The sound of birds at dawn (excluding the roosters). The smell of the air and the ground when the rains have passed. The gloriousness that is Kraft Mac n’ Cheese sent from home. Our walk to work together – getting time to chat about our projects, our service, our plans, and life in general. The excitement of community members when we try, never-so-successfully, to converse with them in SiSwati. Dried mud that you don’t have to sink into on your walk home. Pot-popped popcorn. End of the month text messages to say we’ve been paid… and even better, that we got our quarterly MTA with it. Our host father’s deep, throaty, chuckle. The accomplishment felt when all the water buckets, jugs and basins have been filled for the day. The sound of the main road in Schoemansdal when there are no cars in early morning. When the internet symbol on our phone says 3G. The sound of ritual drum sessions in the distance as evening approaches. Commiserating and celebrating with fellow volunteers. The feeling of the cool breezes that blow just before a big storm. The smell of laundry drying on the line. Women walking home with their firewood twigs atop their head. Meeting in our shopping towns with fellow volunteers for the luxuries of a flush toilet, a shower, air conditioning, Chinese food & sushi, and a movie that is not on a computer screen. The immense curiosity of children in our watches. Bakkies filled to the brim with family, friends and coworkers on the way back from the fields. The surge of excitement when the electricity comes back on. Eggs and hashbrowns for dinner. Hopping into freshly-washed sheets after a long, refreshing bucket bath. The slow, overly-enunciated greeting of the fruit and vegetable lady at the end of our road each morning, en route to work. Sleeping under our mosquito net, protected from all the big, bad bugs that Africa has to offer. Questions about America (“No, we are not close friends with Obama or Beyonce.”) The yellow and purples flowers on the hillside. Our fellow SA21s. Toothless Gogos. Huge, thunderous, thunderstorms (when the house isn’t flooding). Travelling anywhere here. Little ones – the littlest of them – staring silently in awe of your complete non-Africanness. Our host brother and sisters’ faces when we gave them their Christmas bikes. Sunsets over the mountains facing Swaziland. The stars – the bright, bright, bright stars… Okay then, goodnight South Africa.

Before ending this post, I’ll add just one last thought – actually, a quote from a fellow Peace Corps couple that COSed at the end of 2010, a quote that I feel sums up much of what I am unable to quite put into words at this time – he wrote: “…so if it happens that we don’t seem to be 100% there, or if one of us is looking off into the distance when there’s nothing really to be seen… please be patient with us.” And I speak quite truthfully for myself when saying, as many of our RPCV friends have, that I may feel as if I am living in more than one place, at least for a while… Because even though South Africa may never have become the ‘home’ that we were hoping for on that first flight over, there is so very much of it that has found a place it can call ‘home’ in me.

Salani kahle everyone… we’ll see you on the other side.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

And So it Was, that Schmutz and Bobo’s Great Adventure Came to an End…

Adam writes:

So Jess and I have some big news, and I mean ‘Rhinoceros big’. We have decided to end our service with Peace Corps and come home. I know that this news probably comes as a shock to most of you and so I wanted to write this post to shed some light on this decision and how we came to make it.

As those of you who have been actively been keeping up with this blog have probably noticed, Jess has written 90% of the posts. It is true that Jess enjoys the process of blogging more than myself, but this has mostly been a practical application of the rule, “If you don’t have anything good to say, say nothing at all.” That is not to say that I have nothing good to say about this country or our time here, rather, for a long time now I have been unhappy and have not felt motivated to write much.

I have felt for a long time now that I have been simply “spinning my wheels”. So much changed over the three years we applied that I didn’t even see till I was here for awhile. For the first time in a long time I had been excited about the future and motivated to begin it. This, I thought, was simply the first step. After this, culinary school and then the world! I have been looking for a project to get interested in and sink my teeth into ever since. I have been helping Jess in the meantime here and there but for the most part I have had little to do here.

Coupled with having little to do here is the fact that there is nothing to do here. In our after work hours, our activities are limited to household chores and movies on the computer. There is some socializing with other volunteers on the weekends, and occasionally we get to travel (and traveling in this country has been amazing), but for the most part we sit.

I became frustrated, to say the least, and Jess and I spent more and more time discussing ways that I could find some amount of meaning and purpose here. Over time we began to discuss the difference between simply making it through and enjoying our time here. In the end we both realized that for me it would never be the latter. I had started exhibiting symptoms that indicated that my unhappiness and anger were beginning to border on something worse.

It needs to be said here that my wife is the most amazing person I have ever known. If she were here on her own, she would have easily finished her service and contributed remarkably to our organization. She is exceptionally good at what she does. She has also been amazingly supportive. I on the other hand have been a pain in the ass at the best of times and unbearable at the worst. She has stood by me and offered her support through it all.

The discussion of what is best for us in terms of our future with Peace Corps had been ongoing for the last several months. We discussed all sorts of options ranging from me just sucking it up and finishing, to me returning and her finishing, to our leaving together. In the end we decided that the best thing for us was to come home together.

Over the last several months I have received a great deal of support from a few other PCV’s in helping me to find some meaning here and yet were always adamant that I needed to do what was best for me. To those PCV’s, and I hope you know who you were, thank you.

As we reached our decision and since there have been several things, both large and small, that have seemed serendipitous. There were random occurrences that seemed to be telling us we needed to be going home, and there have been many things that seem to be telling us that we made the right decision. It was after we had made our decision and told our supervisor that we found out that there was someone who wanted to take over Jess’ big project. Also, the RPCV who had our site previously is back for a few months to help out and has taken over our house, which used to be hers.

Most importantly, we are coming home to both our sisters having babies, and we are both excited to meet our new nieces/nephew. And, with Jess’s sister getting married, Jess is looking forward to being around to help plan and dress shop. Both Jess and I believe that we are making the right decision and are excited for our future. We don’t see this as a failed attempt, rather as our first big adventure together, of which we plan on having many more.

In fact, we plan on moving from this adventure to another. We are planning to move to Portland, OR sometime this year. I have found a culinary program that I could not be more excited about and Jess is actively looking to start her career there. And then from there, who knows?

If I had the chance to go back four years ago knowing then what I know now and I had to decide whether or not to submit my application to Peace Corps again, I would do so without hesitation. Through this entire adventure I have learned two important lessons that I will take with me: First, if you want something badly enough, are realistic about what it takes to achieve it, and are willing to put in the time and energy, than anything is possible. And second, life is not worth it if you aren’t happy.

To all who read our blog, thank you for sharing in our adventure. Good-bye to South Africa, a beautiful country that I have loved exploring (I don’t think we are done exploring this country or this continent yet). And, hello again to all of our family, friends, and loved ones back home.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Addendum to ‘The Times They Are a Changin’

Jess writes:

As an additional piece of information to our New Years post a while back, there is one last little, tiny, teensy-weensy, itsy-bitsy, onesie-sized, gummy bear-shaped, bit of ‘change’ that I’ve been waiting quite a while to share… and that is…

My sister and Devin will also be having a baby girl in 2011!!! This has meant that, like Adam, I have gone into super-Aunt mode (well Adam would be super-Uncle mode, obviously) and I've spent a great deal of our holiday vacation time and past few shopping trips on ‘African Babes’ clothing and baby curios shopping!! And since we only just found out about the sex of the baby and, thus, I have purchased neutral colors to this point, I am already planning for at least one very pink and frilly buy before the due date! I think it is also worth pointing out here that, as it turns out, my sister is following the classic ‘Murphy timeline’… which means I was actually the only odd duckling that chose a more, ummm… ‘traditional’ path with Adam… *wink*!! Plenty of news from her to come soon, but as I mentioned before, ‘The Times They [certainly] Are A Changin’!

Monday, January 24, 2011

RWO: One of the Many Reasons that We May Forever Say ‘Zed’

Jess writes:

South Africa is often abbreviated Z.A. – right, not S.A., but Z.A. – this has to do with the Afrikaans name for “South Africa”, which is “Zuid Afrika”. Regardless, it gets a little addictive when saying “Zed” for everything (i.e.,, KZN – the abbreviation for KwaZulu Nataal, etc.) So, it is entirely possible that we may forever say ‘Zed’. Just figured we should give you fair warning.

Some of Our Conversations with South Africans

Jess writes:

One of the greatest aspects of cross-cultural exchange, in my opinion, is the conversations you have with the family, friends, coworkers and fellow travelers you meet when staying someplace different for a while – the casual, unassuming chats that lead to something surprising and, as is usually the case, rather entertaining or enlightening. While we’ve had more of these types of interactions than we could possibly recount in a single post, there were a couple note-worthy ones that I felt should not go unmentioned. Each one provided some type of insight – either funny or intriguing – that I thought was worth being recorded somewhere along the way. Enjoy!

A Conversation with Mama Christine & Johannas:

South Africans tend to be very honest about their observations of others. In fact, it is not uncommon at all for our reasonably fit and petite, female volunteers to be told by a woman three-times they’re girth that they are “looking quite fat” on their first day back to work after vacation!! But it is never intended as a direct insult of any kind, it is simply a statement. And it works in the reverse as well… When Adam and I returned to visit our PST Host Family during our training in July, both of our host parents made mention of our somewhat decreased “size”. Our host mother, Mama Christine, is a very rotund woman (due mostly to the rampant diabetes in South Africa), while our host father, Johannas, could not weigh more than 100lbs, soaking wet – they are quite the couple! Our return conversation went something like as follows…

Us: Sanibonani!!
Mama Christine [upon seeing Adam first]: Jabu! Jabu! Oh my goodness… where have you gone?!? [Then patting him around the middle] You are going to end up like Johannas!!
Us [picturing Adam as a 100lb man]: Oh no mama, he won’t end up like Johannas [Johannas nodding]. This is good, we are healthy!
Mama Christine [then turning to me, who had lost far less weight]: Oh Sesi! Sesi, you too are getting so sick! Why have you done this?!?
Us [trying to reiterate that we were, in fact, in much better shape at that point]: No mama, we are just walking more every day. It’s good for us!
Mama Christine: Oh, but Sesi, I liked you better when you had all your curves. [She then proceeds to make multiple “donut” gestures around my mid section, not including my boobs.]
Me [thinking to myself]: Thanks.

A Conversation with an Eskom Supervisor:

We often get curious, if not worrisome looks, from white South Africans when they see us walking through our village with our work backpacks or grocery bags. Simply put, most white South Africans are not accustomed to seeing other white people – especially younger ones, that look as though they are quite familiarized – in the rural villages and towns of South Africa. This was one such instance as I walked back from The Plaza with some groceries and passed a group of Eskom workers (all black South Africans) and their supervisor (a white South African).

Me [as I was passing the supervisor]: Hello.
Supervisor [looking a bit confused]: Um, hello. Are you lost?
Me [slowing down to answer]: No, I stay just there [pointing to the dirt road off the main route.]
Supervisor [confused]: Oh, okay… but wait, where do you actually live?
Me [starting to laugh]: I actually live just there [pointing to that same dirt road.]
Supervisor [even more confused]: But you have a car to get to and from the city for work?
Me [laughing now]: No, I don’t have a car. I work in the village – I walk to work.
Supervisor [totally confused]: Then how do you get to the city???
Me [bordering on an entertaining sense of frustration]: I take the coombies.
Supervisor [chuckles loudly]: No really, how do you get there?
Me: Really, I take the coombies.
Supervisor [in total schock]: The coombies?!? You mean the public taxis?!? With everyone else?!?
Me [rolling my eyes]: Yes, those coombies.
Supervisor: Oh… [trailing off to nothing].
Me [as I started walking again and was passing his team of workers]: Sanibonani!
Workers: Sawubona sesi!
I glanced back at the supervisor, he was utterly baffled. Too funny!

A Conversation with Dumisani:

Dumisani is one of the drivers and maintenance workers for Thembalethu. He has one of the softest voices and one of the greatest smiles! As the summer days get longer and hotter, he often takes on the task of driving our lazy butts back home after work, as we are entirely exhausted from sweating all day in the offices of the compound. On one drive, we discussed the incredible amount of rain that we had been getting in the area and how a lot of the roads had been flooding and becoming impassable:

Me: So Dumisani, is the bridge that goes that side [pointing towards Tonga, on the western side of Schoemansdal] still above water?
Dumisani: No, it has been flooded all week.
Me: Then how is everyone getting to work from there?
Dumisani: They have to pay the coombie to drive them all the way around, through Malelane, to come this side.
Me: Oh shame! That is very expensive!!
Dumisani [more somber]: Yes, but last week a taxi tried to cross the bridge that side and it went underwater and the woman in the front could not get out. She drowned.
Me [horrified]: Oh my! That’s terrible!! Why did the coombie go through the water???
Dumisani: The driver did not want to pay the extra petrol to go all the way around. Me [still horrified]: And she died because of that?!? That is awful!!!
Dumisani [turning to look at me in order to provide this very pertinent bit of advice]: Nobuhle, you should know, that when the roads are flooded, I think it is better to pay the extra money for petrol than to get trapped in the coombie underwater and drowned. [A long pause.] Yes, I do think so.
Me [trying to restrain a smile at this advice in the face of this seriousness]: Yes Dumisani, I think you are right.

A Conversation with a “Bru”:

While travelling over the holidays, we had the opportunity to meet many of the younger Afrikaans and British residents of South Africa. Many of these encounters were thoroughly enlightening – as we learned (“learned”) the rules of cricket, heard their insights on the socio-political climate of their country, and exchanged stories about living in rural areas versus city centers. Many in this younger generation strike me as an odd mix between ethnic African lifestyles and a type of laid-back, Australian, surfer lifestyle. For example, more than few love the word “Bru” when talking to eachother. While staying in Coffee Bay, we played a game called 30 Seconds (basically the South African version of Catchprhase) with several of these fellow residents. And while Adam and I were at a serious disadvantage, because most of the words on the cards were native to South African pop culture and history, we had one particular round that left us rolling on the floor…

Bru #1 [flipping the card to start giving clues to the word]: Okay, Bru, right, right, this is totally like one of those Egyptian kings, you know bru?!?
Bru #2: Umm, King Tut, right bru?
Bru #1 [standing up in his excitement to give better clues]: No bru, come on bru!! Like another one, I think a newer one… think of a newer one bru!
Bru #3: Okay, um, King Tut isn’t newer though bru! What other one is there bru?!?
Bru #1 [totally frustrated and now jumping up and down]: Argh… come on bru, you know this! Come on!
Brus #2 & #3 [yelling angrily]: Bru, King Tut is the only one we know bru!!
Us [watching the last bit of sand fall in the timer]: Time!!
Bru #2: Christ, bru!!
Bru #3: Yeah, bru, who the hell was it?!?
Bru #1: God bru, it was Desmond Tutu.
Us: [I’m not even going to try to explain our response… I almost pissed my pants!!!!]

Our Conversations with Siyanda:

We have many, many conversations with our two year old host brother. While doing laundry, while sitting out on the stoop, while hanging out on their porch, he chats and chats and chats to us and we listen intently to his stories of, well, who knows… it’s all in SiSwati. Sometimes, he’ll add to his stories by utilizing props for our benefit, such as playing his toy electric guitar while singing a song (usually, not at all to the pre-set tunes on the guitar) or the time that he took a tin can, filled it with dirt, placed it atop his head, and walked with a funny little waddle across the yard saying, “Gogo! Gogo! Gogo!” (“Gogo” means “Grandmother”) Ha! That was a particular favorite!! But most of our conversations are pretty much repeats of all the others, and they go something like this…

Siyanda [spotting us from the porch and yelling very sweetly]: Nobuuuuhle! Theeeemba!! (Our SiSwati names, with very elongated vowels)
Us [waving back]: Yebo bhuti! (“Yes, brother!”)
Siyanda [frighteningly stern & demanding]: Buya! (“Come here!)
Us [walking down to him]: Unjani bhuti? (“How are you brother?)
Siyanda [back to being very sweet and innocent]: Nikoooona. (“Good”, but stretching out the vowels)
Us: Okay.
Siyanda: Okay. [And then he starts to prattle in SiSwati] Aasdfkj werlhaf adihawenka poweasdjdfkj fdahwenk [my interpretation of what he is saying.]
Us: Oh, uh huh.
Siyanda [still prattling, sometimes more enthusiastically or in a new tone of voice]: kfsldkjflknwe asdfininf nnvheryo jopfenio!
Us [starting to walk back with him to our house, where we are working]: Oh! Yebo!
Siyanda [more prattle]: iidfndkanfek hadfqebnf alkjfpopjean.
Us [every now and then, to break up the conversation]: Eh wena!! (“Hey you!”, but translates loosely to, “Really?”)
Siyanda [always very serious at this point]: Wena! (“You!”, but again, translating loosely to, “Yes, really.”)
Us: Hauw! (“Wow!”) Okay…
Siyanda [prattles again for a while]: knndaslfow ihfehean asdlkn fewa sfdfjefi….

And about a half hour later, after helping with the laundry, lounging on the stoop with us, or commandeering the bed to act out his very vivid stories…

Siyanda [done prattling and entirely abruptly]: Okay, bye bye now. [And off he goes with a wave.]
Us [always with a laugh and wave]: Okay, bye bye Siyanda!

Thanks for all the conversations everyone! We’ve loved every one of them!!