October 2 – 8, 2009- The Weekend That Was: I began this weekend by visiting my training family. It’s a nice feeling getting off at the siteshi (bus stop) and feeling a sense of familiar and home. I walked passed the sitolo (shop) that we kept in business during training, buying sodas, peanut butter, bread, and fat cakes. I walked passed several homesteads, recalling children who used to yell at us. Now well equipped with siSwati greetings, I could yell back, mostly to laughing or dropped jaw responses. There were a few updates to some houses and even to our training classroom, and the land is gradually changing to its seven shades of green. As I began my walk down the hill to the homestead I occupied for 2 months, the children spied me and came running up the hill, meeting me halfway. Even the oldest (13), who later seemed “too cool” to chat with me, was running to greet me. I laughed, greeting each one with a handshake and a ‘how’s it’, but really, I wanted to cry. I was overwhelmed with this feeling of kinship. In a word, I was vaclepmt! I consider it one of the best feelings I’ve felt since coming to Swaziland. I think it will be, by far, the best feeling I will feel here.
The next day I met Justine in town to take Jaci’s ever-packed bus 2-1/2 hrs to her site. She asked us to help her judge a speech competition happening the next morning between four high schools in her area. The morning welcomed us with rain. I usually carry my raincoat, but for some reason I forget it this time, so I borrowed Jaci’s. It was hanging on the back of her front door; she hadn’t worn it in months, but no matter, it would keep me dry. Shortly after putting it on and setting off to catch the bus, the left side of my body became itchy. To push ideas of a possible second bout of scabies out of my head, I tried to listen intently to Jaci and Justine’s conversation. I couldn’t. As we neared the siteshi, the itching became more persistent. Once settled onto the bus, I took off the raincoat since it was warm and sat on it. The itching continued, and other sections of my left side began itching, including my upper thigh and bum. Again, I tried to play cool since we were being introduced to a friend of Jaci’s but finally I could not take it anymore. I told Jaci I felt something was biting me; my side was itching a lot. I was afraid to look at my skin, fearing the worst, but she offered to investigate. As I covertly lifted my shirt, her eyes grew concerned. “You have red spots,” she said. I looked for myself. I had little red bumps all along my side and across half my belly. There were a few on the inside of my bicep and along the supine side of my arm. It didn’t think look like scabies but I couldn’t imagine what else could cause bumps. Maybe an allergic reaction to some medication I‘m taking? Maybe spiders or bugs in the bed at my training family’s house? I prayed, and so did Jaci that I didn’t give her something since we shared her bed the previous night.
I did everything I could to slow my breathing and look calm, and I tried to sit very still to just keep myself together. Jaci promised we’d figure it out. At our bus stop, the rain was coming down heavier, so I put the raincoat back on. Within minutes, the itchy, prickly feeling came back and it felt as if it were spreading to my legs and lower back. I brought Justine up-to-date, and she offered to rule out scabies, so I lifted my shirt again to show her my belly. She confirmed that it wasn’t scabies. So what the hell was it?
I could not imagine sitting through a morning of judging speeches and remaining focused; somehow, I managed, even after finding a mirror in the bathroom and sneaking a look at the multiplying red bumps. I was horrified! Sitting quite still seemed to help, so I did, and judged 20 speakers.
By early afternoon, we were heading back to the bus stop. The rain persisted all morning and through the afternoon, so I donned the coat again as we walked. Again, I felt the itching begin; I was convinced it was spreading. At the bus stop, the rain stopped and I decided to take off the raincoat. As I began to pull it off, I noticed a cocoon attached to the inside pocket. I threw it off quickly, with screams of disgust and “oh my God’s” to Jaci and Justine. The inside of her coat was filled with little black hairs. Jaci and Justine were intrigued, and finding a stick, they used it to detach the cocoon. Justine broke it open to discover it was a caterpillar. So I had rubbed caterpillar hairs into my body all morning. Fantastic. It began to sprinkle again. Jaci, laughing, offered me the raincoat. I said I’d rather get wet, and she could keep it.
It took several baths, exfoliating, tweezers, eucalyptus oil, hydrocortisone cream and a week and a half to dislodge the hairs and clear up the irritation. After telling the story and showing the spots to one of the Baylor doctors, just to confirm, he said I was lucky it wasn’t worse. Caterpillars carry neurotoxins, and it could have caused a several allergic reaction.
Yes, folks, I keep saying yes to this every morning when I wake, whether it is conscious or not. Some days I wonder who the hell I am and what the hell I’m doing. WHO DOES THIS? Even so, I’m sure once I return to America, I’ll be well aware of who I am and won’t look twice at adversity. Bring on the caterpillars!
The rest of the weekend we spent laughing about my (misfortune?) incident, as well as razzing Jaci about her housecleaning habits. She promised to dispose of the coat; she was never planning to wear it ever again. We also talked about the mad life and times of community living. I told them the story about my Make wanting to give me a baboon to ride after giving her homemade marmalade. Jaci told me her family says only witches ride baboons, which is why Swazis fear baboons. I guess witches follow shortly after baboons appear. I’m not sure if Make is complementing me: my marmalade is so good it’s magical; or if she thinks I’m a witch. What would I rather be, magical or witch-like? Hmmmm, perhaps both?!
When I returned home, my hut was without electricity. Because it’s been raining so heavily, the rain washed away the ground where the electrical piping, which runs to my hut, is buried. Considering the piping isn’t buried very deep, it wasn’t a hard task to accomplish. Water got into the piping causing a short in the wires. I waited until the next day to take action, hoping if I allowed the pipes time to dry, that it would be better. Make insisted I call an electrician, so I got the name of a local electrician from the clinic staff. When I called he promised to come the next morning by 6 am, but he didn’t show. When I returned from Baylor at 5pm, I called him. He said forgot but that he was on his way. He came at 6:30pm. I held a flashlight as four guys worked to find the problem. It took 30 minutes to find the right set of piping running to my house, and other 45 minutes to correct the problem. They had to splice a section of the old, damaged electrical wires with a section of new wires and then protect it with new piping. The head electrician wasted so much time trying his best to flirt with me. I played the game thinking it would make him work faster; you know, to impress the white girl. It didn’t work that way; although, he only charged me E50 for labor. Apparently, it should have cost me E200 for all the materials. But he said he was being nice. Rarely do I use my sexuality to get what I want; I don’t like playing games. But I guess flirting worked in my favor this time, and I only endured a few annoying phone calls from him for the next couple of days. I’m not confident of their handiwork, though. They didn’t bury the piping very deep. I bet my brother, the electrician, would have a heart attach for sure watching them work. At least I have electricity again, and I paid very little for it.
October 6, 2009- Letter from Home: Today my mailbox held a letter from Rebecca, my dear friend in Vermillion. It detailed all the wonderful happenings in Vermillion. I drooled as she described the vegetables she grew this season- baskets of peppers and heirloom tomatoes, bags of beans, overflowing buckets of zucchini, squash and eggplant. She wrote about the end of season gatherings, the visitors that flocked to Vermillion, and the vacation she took to see friends in Seattle. The Vermillion Area Farmers Market, which I helped establish and served on the Board of Directors for 4 years, is thriving. There are about a dozen consistent vendors, customer traffic is increasing, and everyone is happily making money, she said. The new market manager is a local, and seriously dedicated to the “think global, buy local” adage. Rebecca managed to get an Electronic Funds Transfer machine for customer use, and she wrangled with the State to allow those using food stamps to shop at the market, a first for farmers’ markets in South Dakota. Her philosophy is everyone should be exposed and able to afford fresh, local produce. I agree! And I’m delighted that the market is flourishing. It’s nice to know that something I helped establish and grow is enduring and sustainable.
There is talk of starting a Slow Food chapter in eastern South Dakota, something Rebecca and I pondered the possibility of during long, cold winters. A new Asian-Fusion restaurant opened near the Coffee Shop. The community garden is continuing its success.
As I hear the news about my old home, I cannot help but long to be part of the undertakings. Vermillion is a unique little Midwest town. In many ways, it can be stifling. Yet, it’s filled with multi-talented people, each with plethora of interests and ideas, looking to enhance the space they occupy. And those people are my friends; they are people I admire, encouraged, supported, cavorted with, collaborated with, and shared a sense of pride when we accomplished some feat. Vermillion is a great place because of these people. When I left, I felt I had outgrown the town. I was ready to go beyond its borders in search of something more, something new, and something completely different. I found it, that’s for sure. However, some days I long for the familiar, the sense of family I felt in Vermillion, and working with committed others to generate ideas and actually put them into action. I’m not sure if I’ll return to Vermillion to live when I get back to America but it’s a possibility; there are many possibilities. What I do know is that Vermillion was mostly good to me, and I’m happy it’s well. I hope to find a place that makes me feel the way I feel about Vermillion wherever I journey.
October 7, 2009- Environmental/Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Class: This week I showed my students an episode of BBC’s Planet Earth series. The first in the series, Pole to Pole, is about the world from the North Pole to the South Pole and everything in-between. I’ve never seen my students more attentive or more delighted at learning about anything! It was the first time the classroom was quiet. In light of this, I’ve decided to scrap most of my environmental curriculum and show more Planet Earth episodes. I will continue the recycling art projects combined with a few reduce, reuse, and recycle tips but the rest is gone. If my students learn even a little from the Planet Earth series and how to reuse things to make art then I’m okay with less teaching.
October 13, 2009- Holding Headstand: Since June, I’ve had the goal of holding my posture in headstand. I have no problem getting into headstand, but I’ve never been able to hold it for any length of time. I began to incorporate it into each practice, but today while practicing yoga, I decided my focus would be poses that prepare the body for headstand and attempting to hold the pose. For the first time ever I was able to hold the posture. For five breaths to be exact. Huh, patience and practice do pay off.
October 14, 2009- Saving Chris Brown: Today I asked my first period 6th grade class to get into groups and create murals about saving the earth. I told them to choose a theme centered on either saving the earth, saving animals or recycling. I gave each group a magazine or newspaper to look for pictures representing their theme. They did really well sticking to their theme, and most nicely arranged and decorated their murals. Some labeled each picture; some wrote “Save the Earth” and “Save Animals” across the top and bottom of their mural. When groups were finishing I gave them bo-stick to hang their mural on the wall of their choice. As I walked around to admire each group’s artwork, I noticed a “save” expression I hadn’t offered as a suggestion. Next to a Nike swoosh drawn someone in the group, a student wrote “Save Chris Brown.” I asked that group about their mural. “Chris Brown needs to be saved?” I asked. “Why, is he in danger? And the Nike swoosh? It needs to be saved?” I only got smiles for answers. As a fellow volunteer reminded me, Chris Brown is beloved in Swaziland; they probably believe he needs saving from Rihanna. What about the Nike swoosh? Is Nike in bankruptcy?
October 16 – 18, 2009- Electricity can be elusive: The rainy season is in full swing. It began earlier this month, much earlier than last year. This year’s rainfall is more and heavier than last year too. Since the rains have been so heavy, the electricity comes and goes frequently. This whole weekend, I was forced to use the gas stove in the main house to heat water and cook food since I never had power for more than 30 to 40 minutes at a time. I have a newfound appreciation for those who live without electricity each day, relying only on wood burning stoves or open wood fires. My skills of maneuvering and operating by candlelight have greatly increased. Even so, the notion of living by candlelight is romantic for a short time only; it soon becomes taxing. Reading becomes a chore, and strains the eyes. Crocheting by candlelight is tricky; I’m glad I’m beginning to learn to crochet without looking. Alternatives for heating water and cooking food are imperative. And one learns which corners not to stumble into for fear of stubbing toes or stepping on spiders. I also go to bed earlier; one due to eyestrain, and two because there’s not much else to do.
I’m better at conserving electricity and water here than I was in the states, even though I thought I was pretty conscious of what I used. Here, how much you have and how much you use take on new connotations. I know that if I use more than 2 or 3 liters of water a day, then I’ll have to carry my containers twice a week to the water tap instead of once. I know that on rainy days I must be efficient, boiling the water that I will need for the day when I have power in case the power comes and goes. Multi-tasking, here, has become an art form.
October 20, 2009- ‘Plowing’ the Field: I helped bosisi wami (my sisters) plow the fields to ready them for planting. The term plowing in siSwati does not have the same meaning at is does in English. Plowing means to ready the land, as it does in English, but it also means making the holes for each kernel of maize. The field we readied was about the size of mom’s garden. When plowing each hole, you have to dig in each of the four directions, north, south, east and west; then the hole is ready for manure. Make used to use chemical fertilizer; this year she is utilizing the organic methods she learned from the RDA (Rural Development Assoc.). The manure sits overnight or for 24 hours; then the holes are ready for maize the following day. When I asked why it’s necessary to dig in all four directions, I never got a straight answer, something about making the hole the right size for the kernel.
Bosisi wami laughed when I said I wanted to help. They didn’t think I was capable of hoeing a hole much less a third of the field. They laughed at my hoeing techniques because I didn’t do it exactly as they did. Nonetheless, I think they appreciated the help. If I hadn’t helped they would have spend another afternoon plowing. Instead, the next afternoon they were able to plant. It was great exercise for me, but also nice to think about my parents, grand- and great-grandparents as I dug, wondering at their experiences with plowing. It’s easy to forget that America is not far removed from this way of life.
October 24 -25, 2009- Hiking all Weekend: Having to be in the capital for meetings and a workshop, I decided to work in a few hikes. The world’s largest exposed granite dome is near Mbabane. Estimated at three billion years old, it looms over the city, and I’ve been eyeing it since we arrived. Taking to enthusiastic hiking buddies, Matthew and Jenn, we walked to the outcropping in two hours. It’s a relatively easy hike if you enter from the plateau; we decided we need to come back and climb the face of the dome. There’s also several caves but we didn’t take the time to search for them as time was limited for them. I could have stayed all day. I took pictures with Jenn’s camera, as mine is broken. I cannot wait to view them; I felt inspired. We rested on the top of the dome; having brought my travel journal from Annette, I drew the landscape. It was a great cathartic rest. The following day I joined the Mbabane Hiking Club for a hike near my site, as it turned out. About 5 km from my site is a rocky pinnacle that tested my limited rock climbing skills, and excited experienced climbers. The hike up to the pinnacle was beautiful; the countryside looked lush. Due to the rains, everything is greening and flowering trees are blooming.
The Mbabane Hiking Club consists of some Peace Corps staff and volunteers, Embassy staff, NGO workers and ex-pats. The mix is eclectic, to say the least, and no one is want for good or interesting conversation. Three other volunteers, Jay and Hilary and Matthew, joined me. It was a perfect day. Walking thru nature is therapy; beautiful scenery is a perk.