Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What South Africa Thinks of the US (and other weird things)

Let me preface this entry by saying that this is definitely from my very limited perspective and is mainly absorbed through pop culture.

The US is:
  • Otherwise known as “America”. It’s of no use to explain that there are several Americas which are also continents. To say that Brazil is also in an America is absolutely absurd.
  • The home of Barack Obama. These are usually the first words that are said to you after you say you’re American. I definitely don’t mind this one!
  • The birthplace of KFC which I am going to say is the more popular than McDonald’s around here. To quote a South African, “South Africans love their chicken. It’s the most important food.”
  • Where excellent music comes from. Music like Michael Bolton, The Backstreet Boys (I heard “Larger Than Life” like 5 times in one morning on our bus driver’s mix. I could have gladly gone my post-middle school life without ever hearing that one again…), Boys II Men, Whitney Houston (Andy can do an AMAZING falsetto of “I Will Always Love You”. I’m very excited to find out that there are still things about him I don’t know), and Beyonce (this is the most recent of the tunes I’ve gotten to hear).
  • Where excellent TV comes from. TV many of us have long forgotten such as Silk Stalkings, Girlfriends, and the OC. Then, there’s the TV I wish I could forget such as the hours (yes plural) of WWE wrestling I’ve been subjected to, though watching our host grandmother yell “One, Two, Three” every time a guy goes down is pretty amusing.
I can’t vouch for what’s playing in the theaters, but the movies that have come to television are absolutely top-notch (I’m dripping with e-sarcasm right now, if that hasn’t translated). We did take the time to view The Whole Ten Yards (a downright awful sequel to The Whole Nine Yards which I’ve never actually seen) and a large portion of 2 Fast 2 Furious, and have seen previews for Around the World in 80 Days (the Jackie Chan version) and I Spy (an Eddie Murphy/Owen Wilson team-up?!).
  • Seemingly not that interesting in terms of news. I have seen fairly constant coverage of the gender scandal of the South African world-record runner, but unless someone important from the US is actually in South Africa, talking about South Africa, or is Michael Jackson, there’s nothing interesting to report about it. So if anyone wants to send me emails with US news, it would be much appreciated!!

Some weird things about South Africa (and life in general):
  • If you don’t want to get stuck eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch again, you can run on over to the “Tuck Shop” and buy a sandwich from the Sandwich Man. What kind of sandwich you ask? Why a hotdog, bologna, french fries, American cheese slice, and Achaar (a pickled mango spread) surrounded by 4 slices of bread sandwich, of course!
  • If you get sick (like I unfortunately did last week), no worries. They have effervescent tablets with aspirin, vitamin C, and pseudoephedrine (the real stuff) that you just plop in water and drink.
  • If you have trash or seemingly annoying brush, just burn it! I have inhaled more smoke in the last month (I can’t believe we’ve been here a month!!), than I have in my lifetime.
  • If you are a valley girl in search of a good home, have no fear. You can just hop on over to one of the big cities (Johannesburg, Pretoria) and go to a mall. A mall. A mall like any mall you would see in the US, but with different names for the stores with the same kinds of items. I had Thai food. I went to a Woolworth’s that had a grocery store. I experienced First World/Third World for the first time. My mind was officially blown.

That’s all for now, folks! We’re getting our site placements on Friday which everyone is quite anxious for, and then it’s off to the site for a week to check things out. That means internet might not be in my future next week, but I’ll do my best to report sooner rather than later. Love, love, love!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Lauren talks about South Africa (and feelings)...finally

Since this is the first one back, I’ll make it a good and long one. I’ll start with a quick recap of the craziness that was my last month in the U.S. (sorry Katie, I will take your advice after this one).
  • Move from Brooklyn went VERY smoothly.It was organized and-dare I say-almost enjoyable.I had never driven through the eastern states and I was impressed.I definitely want to make it back to Pennsylvania someday.
  • Brief stay in MO to visit my family.Relaxing, but busy with the first part of the to-do’s. My mom patiently helped us find our supplies and helped us with shopping. We also got to eat Cracker Barrel and other delightful home cooked meals thanks to her and grandma. Also, had the joy of seeing Texas relatives which is always exciting!
  • Up to MN for about a week and a half which contained a 3 day trip to Duluth, the Taste of MN on the 4th of July, my first trip to REI (thanks to Linds, my eternal lifesaver), and assorted friend/family visits.
  • Farewell party at the Kasper’s which was just incredible.I cannot thank everyone for coming, particularly those who traveled and those who made surprise visits.It truly meant the world to us to see everyone and made it that much more difficult to leave.The party ended in tears which lasted into the next day and the next day….
  • Down to MO again for a day to get ready for……
  • My surprise trip to California planned by my awesome husband.Great friends, great food (Denny’s: that’s all I’m going to say about that), great beaches, and an AMAZING Tori Amos concert.
  • Back to MO to finish up the to-do’s and pack. Again, my parents were a huge help and got to visit with grandparents! The night before we were to fly to Washington DC, we still had so many loose ends to tie up, we got an hour of sleep before packing it all up in the car (we were underweight!), and heading to the airport. Thanks dad for the 5am car ride!

Then, came the blur that was “Staging”. Basically we fly into DC, have lunch with some of the people in our group, sit through 6 hours of intro stuff, have dinner, attempt to catch up on sleep, get up early the next morning, drive to some health building in DC, get a shot, go directly to the airport, and wait for 5 hours until our flight takes off.

Next, was the 19 hour flight to Johannesburg with a half hour layover in Dakar, Senegal. Notes from the flight: the food was surprisingly good, there were plenty of interesting movie choices (I finally got to see He’s Just Not That Into You), and I was able to get some sleep thanks to Benadryl and the sleep pillow/eye shades given to me by my awesome coworkers (thanks ladies, I’ve used so much of the stuff you gave me!).

We arrive in South Africa at about 6pm, grab our luggage, immediately get on a bus and travel 2.5 hours to the place where we’re staying. We had our first South African meal and went to our dorms where ice cold showers awaited us. Only to find out the next day that our dorm was the only one without hot water. :-) We were all just ready for a true Peace Corps experience.

The facts:
  • Weather: It’s definitely cold at night (full body outfit under 4 large blankets), but warm during the day (short sleeves and pants).We’ve had one hour of rain so far which is normal.August is “spring” and is supposed to be windy and then it’s rainy in September.
  • Time: 7 hours ahead of central.It gets light at about 6am and dark at 6pm.
  • Living: No water, tin roof, concrete house, outhouse, cooking on a hot plate, rural area.
  • Food:Pap/Bogobe which is cornmeal and water and then some kind of meat, salad (salad meaning side dish which has ranged from coleslaw to a spicy carrot/bean dish called chocolaca (sp?)), and veggie gravy to go with it.Needless to say I’ve had a lot of chicken and more starch than I ever thought possible.
  • Animals:Chickens, cows, and goats in the classroom, roosters at 4 am, dogs and cats, crazy looking birds, no safari animals yet!
  • Shots: Tetanus, Hep A/B, rabies, Yellow fever(no malaria pills)
  • What I’m doing: Training consists of language Setswana, job related info, medical/safety info, observing and light teaching in a local school, and learning culture by living with a host family.
  • What I will be doing: Working at a school or two either teaching, teacher training, or some other school related project.The first three months are observation and discussing what would be the best projects for the site. Sites will be announced in 2.5 weeks.Eeek!

I am all over the place. At times, I think I’m crazy for even thinking of doing this when I could be in my cozy Brooklyn apartment never having to cook or do laundry. Mostly, I’m ridiculously happy to be here and to experience something truly extraordinary. I am constantly discovering that I am so much stronger than I even thought possible, and that alone is worth the hardships. I am excited for what is to come when I get to my site. As it usually is for me, I am looking forward to getting to work and to actually be doing something productive.

I think the best way for me to describe moving to an entirely different life is to compare it to a second infancy: I can’t speak the language, I don’t know how to do the simplest of tasks, they teach me to be afraid of everything and so I am, everything takes me forever to accomplish, and because of all this I go to bed at around 8:30 every night.

Time moves at the strangest pace. It feels like I’ve been here for months, yet the days go by so quickly. My mind can’t even comprehend that it’s been three weeks since I got on that plane. How could that even be true when everything about me and around me has changed? There isn’t a part of my day or a thing in my world that I can recognize. I am learning every single second.

I am relearning how to live and how I fit into the world. It strips me of my confidence. Why would anyone want to work with me when I can’t correctly take a bucket bath, do laundry (I scrubbed until my fingers were bleeding), or even say a simple sentence? What skills could I possibly have to offer as an infant in South Africa?

It’s strange to have Andy here because as I am figuring out who I am all over again, I have to figure out who he is and how we fit together again. That being said, it’s been wonderful to have a partner and someone who remembers who you’re supposed to be. I am always grateful to have him and so thrilled that we get to experience this together. And let me tell you, he’s doing awesome. He doesn’t falter for a second. I am extremely proud of both of us.

Some highlights worthy of discussion:
  • Our host family is amazing.We live with a great-grandma and her 2 year-old great grandson.She’s super sweet, helps us learn how to cook, do chores, and learn the language.We definitely are lucky to have her.
  • The school that we’ve been working with has been really interesting and inspiring.They barely have anything in them other than torn apart benches with tables and a chalkboard.Every morning they have an assembly where all the children line up in this perfect, tight rectangle and sing songs and pray.It’s truly moving.I also got my first taste of helping someone this morning when I helped a teacher figure out how to use stem and leaf plots.Yay for little victories!
  • South Africa has the best soap operas which play all evening.Our nightly line up is as follows: The Bold and the Beautiful (the American one.Can anybody help me out and tell me if it’s an hour in the states?It’s only a half hour here), then an awesome show called Scandal which Andy deems his favorite, and finally Generations.Generations tends to be the group’s favorite and I am partial to it because one of the main characters is Dineo (which is what my host mama named me) and she’s all kinds of trouble being pregnant by her husband’s son and in constant turmoil about whether to keep the baby or stay with her rich husband.I think you get the idea.
  • The other volunteers in our group are fantastic.It’s a fairly geographical and career diverse group.There are five other couples in the group along with us.Forty-two volunteers total and we range from age 20 to 60-somethings.I’ve really had a good time with them and have made some great friends.
  • The sky is so huge here because the land is so flat.It feels like you can see forever, and because it’s the dry season, there is not a cloud in the sky.I’ve never seen anything like it.The sunset one of the best parts of everyday.
  • Okay, now for the winner.So let me first begin by stating that in the states there was a particular junk food that, though extremely rare, was my absolute favorite.This food was so rare in fact, that I had not seen it in months.I can actually remember the last time I was able to locate and enjoy this particular treat and those that were with me when I discovered them can attest to how much they mean to me.Yes folks, they have Habanero Doritos in South Africa.What else is there to say?

That’s all I can think of for now. Please send me questions if you have ‘em. Love and miss you all!