Sunday, July 27, 2014

I milked a cow!


Today marks my official second weekend in La Palma, Chalatenango, El Salvador.  Only 10 days in and I’ve already experienced a tumultuous series of highs and lows. 

To begin with, let me tell you a bit about our swearing in ceremony as Peace Corps Response volunteers. Now, with regular Peace Corps, there is an extensive three-month training in which volunteers are introduced to rigorous shocks of culture, language, job assignment, etc.  With Response, everything passes with barely enough time to breathe.  I was whisked away on an airplane, trained for two (that’s right just two) days in San Salvador, and then taken straight to La Palma to begin my assignment with no phone, no internet, and a plethora of questions.
Here is the group (missing one) of Response volunteers (and the El Salvador Country Director Jaime) signing our commitment to service.

Taking an oath to serve to our country
 
Now, when I say taken straight to La Palma, I mean it figuratively speaking.  La Palma is in the mountainous region of Northern El Salvador, about 13kms from El Pital (the highest point of elevation in the country).  So the drive from Metapan, Santa Ana to La Palma, Chalatenango was anything BUT straight. We arrived and butterflies swarmed in my stomach like molten lava; I was not only going to bid farewell to my newly acquainted Peace Corps Response cohorts, but I was going to be left all alone in a family’s house to fend for myself.  Luckily for me, my new family had three children that helped the adjustment process run a bit more smoothly. Since that day, the family has taken me under their wing and cared for me as if I was their own. 

My first weekend, I spent my entire Sunday at the hotel in nearby San Ignacio.  (Quick side note: although my project assignment is to work in La Palma, the family that I live with actually lives in “la Laguna” which is directly on the border between La Palma and San Ignacio.)  I enjoyed the free wifi, the home-made nachos and the views of the pool outside (as per my last post).  As I was working in the restaurant, a mother peacock and her two chicks came waltzing in the room! I was the only one who was beside myself with excitement while everyone continued to either eat or shoo the majestic creatures out. 

Mama peacock and one of her chickadees

Hammocks around the compound of Hotel Entrepinos
The following Monday marked the beginning of my official job. 


The restaurant of Hotel La Palma where we ate lunch after our meetings with community leaders
I left early Monday morning to the school with my host parents (who are both teachers), after greeting all of the students and teachers in their classrooms I departed the meet John (the other Peace Corps Response Volunteer [PCRV] ) and together we visited the community leader (El Alcalde) as well as the head police officer. Everyone seemed so happy to have us, and even in such a formal setting, began joking around with us.  The following two days we had meetings with community leaders throughout Chalatenango and I got to see a bit more of the beautiful city that I’m living in.


This type of art surrounds the entire city of La Palma
On Thursday morning, as I nestled comfortably in my sheets and dreamt about sweet things, I was startled by a loud, explosive banging sound from far away.  My heart began racing as I looked at the clock and realized it was only 4:30 in the morning.  The sun hadn’t even woken up yet…what on earth could be causing such a ruckus!? My mind started racing with all of the things that could possibly be so loud.  A car backfiring? A car crash? A gunshot? A firework? But then three more bangs followed to lead me to the conclusion of the latter two.  I laid still, clutching the blankets between my fingers (as if that would have saved me from whatever it was) and slowly eased back into a tormented sleep.  When I woke the next morning, my family had informed me that the Ferias Patronales (festivals) had begun in San Salvador and not only do they set fireworks off from 4:30am-10:00pm every day, but that it goes on for TWO weeks. 0_o…. 

The lead singer of the fusion band
After swallowing that tough dose of reality, I decided to take part and see a little bit of what the festivals were about.  The first night we went to a huge beauty competition where people gathered from all around San Ignacio to spectate at the lavish evening gowns and batting eyelashes behind them.  Another night we went to listen to a fusion band that played everything from Santana to bachata.  I was overcome by the sights, sounds, smells, and smiles that were surrounding me. My host brother, Juan Diego, rode the Ferris wheel while my father and sister bought sweets for everyone.
Juan Diego is at the tippy top of the ferris wheel


The cornucopia of sweets that were available to us that night
On Friday, I was asked to act as a judge for a celebration at the elementary/primary school.  It was “Student’s Day” (Día del Aluno) and there were to be a series of presentations that took place in honor of the pupils.  I was delighted to see groups of children of all ages partake in various types of dances. I judged both the morning classes and the afternoon classes and was overcome with elation that this is where I am right now in life.

The kindergardeners preparing for their "Jailhouse Rock" performance

Some of the 4th grade girls were having entirely too much fun!

Couple's dancing
Usually when people hear that I’m here for music they will begin to demonstrate for me their musical talents.  Take Don Edgar, for example. Although he is a deputy headmaster at the primary school, he is completely devoted to singing and playing the guitar.  My hopes are to make him the director of the choir further down the line when it is established.
Don Edgar serenading me before classes start
Let me tell you a little bit about my house now.  As I said before, I’m living with a host family that consists of a mother, father, two sisters (ages 17 and 14), and one brother (who just turned 9).  Now, for someone who has been living on her own for the past two years, the idea of living in another family’s home had gotten me a bit nervous.  And although we have all adjusted pretty well, there have been a few hiccups here and there.  If you know me well, you know that I love to cook.  It brings me peace to be able to see the ingredients, plan a meal, cook, and enjoy my masterpiece. The difficult part for me now is that the family with which I live doesn’t really do meals together. 

This is the house in which I live in. The mountain you see in the distance of my back yard is El Pital, the most elevated point of El Salvador

Our backyard with a cascading El Pital
I have cooked a few dishes in which everyone has sat around the table and given me their honest feedback.  Pizza, spaghetti with vegetable marinara, and battered tilapia are the only few dishes that I’ve prepared so far.  Generally the overall consensus is that the food, although different, is well-liked.  My biggest concern now (which, I would NEVER find myself saying in Botswana) is that this culture has a very bread-and-cheese centered cuisine. Breakfast is usually French bread with requesón, lunch and dinner always served with tortillas and queso cojido, and snack is more tortillas or bread.  My body craves vegetables. And fruit. We’ll see if I can’t get my hands on them soon at the markets.

So today was actually kind of a fun day J I woke up early, heard everyone rustling and bustling outside then heard the neighbor’s cows moo-ing.  I got up, threw on a change of clothes and treaded out to ask Juan Diego (my host brother) to teach me to milk a cow. 

"You wanna do WHAT?!"
So that’s precisely what we did. It felt nice to be able to milk a cow, bring the milk home, and drink it with my morning tea. 

I got it on the first try!

It felt really slippery and awkward

The final product, boiled fresh milk with cinnamon. YUM!
After a long day of milking I got dressed, spoke with my family back in America and made my way to Entrepinos Hotel, where I currently write by the shade of the tree, and hanging from a hammock.
la la la la la la life is wonderful.
 

So far, life is good.

Can’t wait to keep you posted about the upcoming choir meeting!

Love and good wishes.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Quick Update


Here I sit, writing you from Hotel Entrepinos in San Ignacio, El Salvador.  High ceilings with cascading windows and a hand-painted wall entailing a scene with a white Central American cathedral surround me while the sound of a Spanish newscast echoes throughout the hall.  A bright blue pool sits outside the open veranda and a wall of green vines crawl the fence as if trying to edge their way inside.  At long last I have arrived not only at this physical place but at this point in my life where I have begun youth development in Latin America, something I have dreamed of doing for so many years.


The floor-to-ceiling painting reminiscent of an old time in El Salvador
A number of events have led to today; and while they all feel like just moments ago, they have passed as if in a whirlwind.  First, I began the close of my service in Botswana, was the guest of honor at not one, not two, but THREE farewell parties, I took a trip to the Indian Ocean, and then flew to the United States where I was fortunate enough to spend time with friends and family both in Colorado and in Arizona.  After only a few short weeks, I was whisked away again on a plane and set foot in the humidity of San Salvador, El Salvador. Two speedy days of training, a Salvadorian Smashburger, and a bus ride later, I arrived at the lush, mountainous town of La Palma to meet my host family. 

The new group of 5 Response volunteers and our country director, Jaime, sworn in on July 16, 2014
And from here, I will begin to tell you the details of the previous events as close to my memory as possible.
My new site in La Palma, Chalatenango as well as my new site mate Jonas.
 
Please check in the next few days as I slowly update!     
.

More news and pictures to come!


Monday, March 31, 2014

Charlotte's Web (?)


The other day, as I was settling back in at home after weeks of traveling, my small friend Samantha came to visit me.  I can always tell when she’s been missing me; she finds reasons to simply sit in my house.  Since I wanted nothing more than to bathe, I asked her to leave and that I would see her later in the evening.  As she walked out of the house, she casually mentioned that there was a spider on my wall. 

When I walked outside to look at what she was referring to, I was panged with a sudden jolt of fear.  This was no ordinary spider.  This thing was about the size of my hand.  Its colors shimmered in the setting sunlight: a brilliant orange and a black so dark that it appeared purple.  I instinctively put my arm between Samantha and the spider (even though the thing’s web was stretched across the span of my roof, and nowhere close to us), and she started giggling and asking if I was scared.  To try and appear brave I flexed my eyebrows together, pursed my lips, and jut my chin into the air as I shook my head “no”.  This only made Samantha’s giggles turn into a fit of laughter. 
The maniacal spider outside my house
I grabbed the rake that was leaning next to the house and tried to slam it against the spider.  The second the rake made contact with the beast, its pulsating fangs attacked the rake in a way that I’ve never witnessed before.  If I didn’t know any better, I’d think this was a creature sent from the underworld to bid me my last farewell.

What ensued must have been the most hilarious set of events that has happened to me in a while: picture Kitso, frazzled and wearing basketball shorts jumping, yelping, and swatting a metal rake at the side of my house while Samantha applauded in encouragement behind me.  When I nearly broke a window, I decided to set the rake down and wipe the sweat off my forehead.  The second the rake was on the ground, the monstrous crawler jumped from its web to the ground and began dashing towards us. 

At this point, Samantha’s smile quickly dissipated into a frantic grimace, she climbed my legs like a tree trunk and leapt into my arms.  Together, we sprinted across the yard and arrived at her aunt’s house where we were able to take a deep breath. 

To this day, the spider still sits proudly on her web eating all of the valiant moths that dare fly close to my house. Yesterday I asked my counterpart, Topo, to please help me. He took one look at the spider, assured me it was poisonous and told me to ask the old man across the way to help me. 
The web shimmering brightly in the sunshine

I’m surprised at how, even after two years; I can still encounter things that are shocking to me.  I have started a collection of the dead creepy crawlies that I encounter on my tile floors.  The majority of them are baby camel spiders, and their crumpled corpses serve as a reminder to me that I can overcome any fear.  After all, when I first came to Gobojango, the only thing that petrified me was the scampering of these treacherous creatures. Proudly, I show my visitors the carton of insects and bask in their reactions. 
My carton of insects

It serves as proof that no matter how large or small the fear may be, rather than dreading and avoiding it, life is better spent staring at it in the face and challenging yourself to overcome it. 

At the end of the day, what do you have to lose? If anything it’ll make a great story…

UPDATE: Yesterday as I was preparing myself to throw boiling water on the spider, I was startled to find that the web and its maker were gone from its perk on the side of my house.  The fear that was inspired within me at this point was even greater than before when a couple of primary school students walked over to me and declared that they had seen the stress it was causing me and killed it for me.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

I'm moving to El Salvador


I just received notification that I have been accepted to serve as a Peace Corps Response volunteer in La Palma, Chalatenango El Salvador! 

My official title is “Youth Outreach Music Coordinator”.  My assignment will be to work with local stakeholders and citizens within the community to strengthen a music program that keeps youth from delinquency and gangs. 

I am so delighted that I can hardly contain myself!

So basically what this means for my near future is that I will have the opportunity to finish Peace Corps Botswana as a Community Capacity Builder on June 10th.  I’m hoping to fit one last adventure in with Duncan to Cape Town for a few days, and then I’ll fly back to the United States.  Once in Tucson, I’ll have an opportunity to quickly readjust to the fast-paced life in America: visit my little brother’s graduation from the Air Force Academy, spend some much-needed time with friends and family, etc. Then, just when I’ll have caught my breath, I’ll be flying out to San Salvador, El Salvador for a 2 week introductory training. 

This assignment is scheduled to last 8 months.  I’m so propitious to have been selected for this opportunity! The fact that they only select one PCR volunteer per opening strengthens my personal confidence and makes me feel like I must have done something right!

Now, the plan is that once I finish my service in El Salvador in March, I’ll have five months to re-establish myself in America, move to Washington D.C., and settle in.  I’ll then begin studying to earn my Masters Degree in International Peace and Conflict Resolution from American University’s School of International Service (one of the top five best schools for international development) utilizing my Paul D. Coverdell Fellowship. 

I think that my time in Botswana has been an indispensable step in my life to reflect and grow as an individual. I know that all of the obstacles and frustrations over the past two years have been the rainstorms that have provided this seed to grow.  I feel like I’m slowly blooming into the individual I want to one day become:

someone who benefits the world,

someone who lives life with a purpose,

someone who can share happiness and wisdom. 

A good friend,

a good listener,

a positive role model.

Here’s to hoping that the oncoming years bring more life lessons, more moments to conquer struggles, more smiles, more tears, more laughter, and more moments to feel alive.

Monday, March 24, 2014

New Year, New Beginnings

I have been extremely negligent in keeping up with the blog…so I apologize first for the length of the following post, but also for the amount of information I’m about to dispense.  In order for me to be able to successfully portray the past few months to you, I’ve decided to provide a photo diary of major events that have occurred. I’ll elaborate when needed, but bear with me. 

Alrighty so in October of last year, a close friend of ours (Cassie) completed her full two year Peace Corps service and so we had about a week-long celebration to bid her farewell.   First we went camping in the nearby village of Lepokole and enjoyed the ancient, secret cave paintings, baboon sightings, delicious bar-b-que, and each other’s company.


This moment struck me as being particularly significant because not only was it overwhelmingly exciting for Cassie but it was the first time I officially started visualizing what it would mean to leave. 

Next, I was fortunate enough to have some of my best friends visit me in Gobojango.  Stacey, Hollis, Claire, and I hitched a ride in the back of the ambulance; we joined the other PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) in the area and ventured off towards the newly-built Thuni Dam.  Here, our friend Jaiwan showed us the ins and outs of building a dam.  That night, we ate delicious, authentic Chinese food, drank Chinese rice wine, and were merry.
I know Hollis looks like she's in pain...but that's her "yummy food" face XD



 

Next, we have our sporadic adventure to Windhoek, Namibia for Oktoberfest.  Now, in October, 2012 a large group of my Bots12 cohorts took a trip that I was unable to join.  So, Lindsay, Hollis and I decided that we needed our own Oktoberfest experience.  We jumped on a bus headed towards Windhoek, crashed in a hostel, and enjoyed the splendid experience. To our surprise, we met a slew of our comrades at the festival; I jumped on the back of a bucking bull, and we partied until the following morning when we missed our bus. 

 

That day was exhausting…we hadn’t slept for more than 30 minutes and ended up having to hitchhike from Windhoek to Gobabis, Gobabis to the Marumo border, and then from there to Gaborone.  We had already bought our tickets on the bus for our return trip so we had no money left.  A gentleman who pitied us gave us a ride from Marumo border to Gaborone (over 600 kilometers) for free, simply because he didn’t want us stranded in the blistering heat.

Quick sidenote: I have encountered moments like these numerous times in Botswana.  Right when I feel as if I’m low on my luck, I encounter an individual who restores my faith in humanity.  Whether it’s a single mother with five children who takes me by the hand to the right bus so I do not get lost or a Zimbabwean man willing to drive three lost Americans over 600 kilometers for free, individuals like these keep my positive thoughts afloat.  These individuals are constant reminders that kindness repays kindness and a smile can do countless good.

Okay back on track now…I was asked to perform in a wedding after my trip to Namibia, however, I tore a tendon in my left hand and was rendered useless in the ukulele department.  So I simply attended the wedding, danced with women from the “Baherero” Tribe, and enjoyed the local traditions associated with weddings in Botswana.

In the interim, I spent as much time I could with my family in Gobojango: the dogs, my “daughter” Samma, and Lorato.  I even knitted Samantha a hat! I walked from the clinic to the primary school in the afternoons and encountered all of the children either waving at me or rushing towards me to hi-five me.  One evening I was lucky enough to come across a sporadic dance party.  I sat and watched the elementary school-age children competing for the applause of their peers, and the second I took out the camera the focus went from the dance floor to the lens and we spend the rest of the sunlight taking pictures.  In the evenings, I sharpened my cooking skills, trained Cleo and Sisero, and awe-d and oo-ed at the sunsets.

 



 

Near the end of November, the primary school formally invited me to speak at the handing over ceremony of the Playground Shade Project.  That morning, I rehearsed my speech in Setswana and English to myself through the mirror, perfecting my stray hairs that seemed to stand erect out of defiance.  When I got a knock at my door, I was delighted to find that my Peace Corps program director arrived to support me and he had brought two of my peers alongside him (Hollis and Lissa).  Their presence helped my nerves to subside, and we attended the ceremony with smiling faces. After the handing over, the Botswana Defense Force challenged the local Gobojango soccer team to a match and we all huddled in masses and migrated to the football playground.  I was elated when the Gobojango team started putting on the jerseys that we had gotten donated from England. 

 

At this point in time, I had been having so much fun and no work so I gruelingly began weeks of youth camps around the country.  The first one I attended was located on the outskirts of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in a tiny village called Salajwe and titled “Gender and Wellness Camp”.  This village is so tucked away in the sand that public transport is nonexistent.  We hired a private vehicle to take us there and to collect us. I was given the task of conducting condom demonstrations and discussing sexual and reproductive health as well as sexual decision-making.  Since the age groups we were working with were 15-18, my class was detrimental to the success of the camp.  In between the awkward moments of some children opening their first condoms and the stimulating spontaneous dance parties, every child left wearing a smile and feeling more empowered about overall gender and wellness.


 

The ride from Salajwe to the capital remains in my memory as one of the most traumatic…yet hilarious episodes of travel that I’ve experienced in Botswana.  We congregated our belongings in Salajwe and awaited the arrival of our driver, Sylvester.  When he finally came, we piled our bags into the car and took off only to get stuck in the sand a few meters away.  We unloaded our possessions, pushed the sinking vehicle, and reloaded to take off again.  As we were driving down the sandy thoroughfare, I was yacking to my friend Stacey when the car began swerving and we grabbed each other out of fear.  We thought one of the tires had been punctured only to realize that the suspension had broken clean through. 


So picture this….there we were, 6 Peace Corps volunteers and our driver, stranded in the middle of the Kalahari Desert with nothing to do but shrug and try to laugh it off. We slathered on sunscreen and pushed the car to the side of the road when Sylvester turns to me and says, “Nina, help me to find a stick”.  I looked at him out of the corners of my eyelids and asked him what he planned to do with a stick.  “We can put the stick in the broken suspension to hold us off until we reach Lethlakeng [45 kilometers away]”.  I busted out laughing, called him crazy, took shelter in the shade of the car and prayed for a truck to drive by to pick us up.  Alas, the only answer I got from up above was a bit of cloud cover and the first rainfall in the area for over 4 months! Thank goodness I was with my fellow PCVs.  I don’t think anyone else can find the humor in a situation such as this other than Peace Corps volunteers.  Finally, we hitchhiked on the back of a semi-truck and arrived to the capital safely that night.

The next camp I attended was two bus-rides away in a village called Mmankgodi.  There, I was asked to speak about Assertiveness and Active Listening. The children were younger here, so I had to alter my teaching methods a bit.  Unfortunately, I had to arrive a day late to this camp, so I wasn’t able to participate in the bonding process from the beginning with the children, however, it was also a stupendous success.  My favorite aspect of this camp was the opportunity to liaise with some Peace Corps Volunteers from the Southeastern District. I was overjoyed to learn their teaching methods and even more interested to hear their stories of success and challenges.  As I waved farewell to the children on the last day of the camp, I was overwhelmed with a sensation of accomplishment. 

Oftentimes it feels like the work we do as Peace Corps volunteers is meaningless and unrecognized.  We’re always told to verify the sustainability of each of our projects and that we will never see the fruits of our labors.  As disappointing as this may sound, countless individuals still strive to make positive changes and act as constructive role models in their communities.  In my opinion, these youth camps are a great way to generate progressive, encouraging change in the world.  Working with the children in any community is the best way to inspire change. Not only are they the most open-minded population that you will encounter, but they are the ones most willing and passionate to accept change.  Because of the work I’ve done with the youth in Botswana, I’ve decided to devote the rest of my life working with youth development and promoting better lives for the world’s children.
 

Unfortunately, for Christmas last year, I was unable to afford another trip home (both financially and time-wise), so my parents helped me to pay for a trip throughout Southern Africa! Before I departed on this whirlwind of a trip, I traveled to the capitol to take my GRE for grad school.  (Which I passed, with flying colors J).

Then, I jumped on a bus with my two colleagues, Leia and Chad, due straight for Johannesburg, South Africa.  As we got closer and closer to the capitol, we began sweating realizing that we weren’t going to make our connection to Swaziland if the bus continued it slow-moving pace so instead we jumped on the subway in Pretoria (called the Gau-train [pronounced “How train”]) and sat with ease as it zipped past traffic on the highway. Since Nelson Mandela had passed away that morning, everyone was buzzing about it in the corners of our ears.  I discovered that the reason the traffic was so overwhelmingly heavy was because Madiba’s body was being taken through Pretoria at that very moment.
 

We arrived to the airport with seconds to spare, called the Trans-Magnifique bus and requested that they wait for us just a little bit longer.  As we walked onto the platform, we watched the red and white sprinter pull out of its parking spot and begin to turn to drive away.  All three of us began tearing down the people-infested walkway, elbowing anyone who got in our way, and screaming and whistling for it to stop.  Needless to say, we hailed it just in the nick of time, nestled in our seats on the bus, and traveled for 5 hours to Swaziland.

Swaziland. Is. Beautiful!! Imagine rolling green hills, blue cloudy skies, tropical plants, and cactus in the same frame.  While in Swaziland, we visited a fellow Bots12 volunteer Maureen (who now works for the Clinton Health Initiative).  She took us everywhere from the glass factory to local markets to a park where people can walk alongside zebras and other African antelope.  We then drove to a game park for the last couple nights, went on a game drive, and slept in a beautiful cottage. Since the park could also be navigated as a self-drive route, we drove out into the wildlife area and became trapped in by a family of elephants.  Our last morning there, I went downstairs, poured myself a cup of tea and looked out the window only to find an assembly of white rhinoceros rolling in the dirt and hippopotamus splashing around in the lake. We left with memories and photos to last a lifetime.

We got on the Trans-Magnifique yet again and ventured back into South Africa, scuttled to the correct combi rank in Johannesburg and squelched into a tiny minibus to Lesotho. 

LESOTHO. IS. GORGEOUS!!! Since I’ve arrived to Africa, nothing has reminded me of Colorado as much as the patched green and towering mountains of Lesotho. 

Oh wait, I forgot to tell you about our adventure arriving to the country!  We sat on the minibus well into the nighttime and snacked along the way.  Finally, around 8pm the combi pulled to a stop and a woman who was sitting next to me took me by the hand and walked us through the chicken wire lines to the immigration checkpoint at the border. For some reason, she had convinced herself that we were in need of dire assistance.  Although we had planned to simply take a taxi to the hostel where we were going to stay for the night, she made me second-guess our plan by refusing us to take any taxi.  With eyes wide, she recommended I go speak to a customs officer to verify the phone number of the hostel and have them send us transport.  Unfortunately, nobody knew of where we were going, people were yelling at each of us to take their taxi, the woman kept yanking me by the arm to go different places, and the phone wasn’t working.  Now, imagine all of this in the spectrum of a poorly-lit international border at night with police officers walking around in their military boots, and the feeling of rising anxiety around every turn.  In addition, right as I yelled at everyone to leave us alone, I placed my foot in a gap in the pavement, was taken down by the weight of my heavy backpack, and swallowed a mouthful of Lesotho dirt.

Needless to say, we arrived at our hostel safe and sound and slept like babies that night.  The next day, we walked to the combi rank, and were pleased to find that the language in Lesotho (Sesotho) is Setswana’s cousin, and we could navigate with ease.  We took a combi to a village called Malealea where we would spend the next four days. Malealea was a breath-taking location for a lodge.  Imagine a splashed green landscape cascaded by crystal blue skies and puzzle-pieced cloud shadows overhead.  I spent hours hanging in a hammock and enjoyed listening to the birds fleeting overhead. 

That afternoon, we decided to take a hike down into the gorge that bellowed deep into the earth in the village below us.  As we walked, we encountered children who were asking for sweets and offering to show us the way. We walked deeper and deeper into the canyon until a rock face acted as a cave overhang and we paused to take in the beauty of the ravine. A river flowed at the bottom and whispered its rushing waters so that it echoed off the cave walls. We found “bushman” cave paintings along the route and looked on in awe.  When we decided it was finally time to return, the puzzle-piece clouds joined forces and began spewing rain at us. By the time we reached the cave at the top of the valley, an effervescent rainbow splayed the length of the canyon. We sought refuge from the rain in the cave and encountered a rambunctious flock of sheep and goats.

The next morning, we awoke with the sunrise and literally “saddled up” for a two-day horse ride into the mountains.  Now, although I’ve ridden horses for a good part of my life, we followed some trails with the horses that were treacherously horrifying.  I clutched onto my horse’s mane as she climbed stone-strewn mountain hairpin turns and slid down uneven rock faces.  Along the way, we passed villages that had never seen cars and children who didn’t know the meaning of a computer.  People herded livestock around us and harvested their fields, while Aloe Vera plants marked properties and windows of the huts stared down at us from the tops of the mountains. Finally, we arrived to the farm compound where we were to stay for the night.  We dismounted our horses, unloaded our bags into a rondoval, and began hiking, on foot, towards the waterfall at the mouth of the green valley that we had just arrived to. As we walked, we passed patches of wild callalilies and minded our steps carefully as rocks crumbled beneath us.  I dove into the freezing pond water, splashed around for a bit and asked our guide why he wasn’t swimming with me.  “Because of all of the snakes in the water” was his response. 

And that was the end of my swim.

The hike back was reverberated by the most exquisite sunset I had ever witnessed over the unscathed, natural valley, and we returned to our farmhouse rondoval too fatigued to even speak to one another.  The next day, we awoke early and packed our bags to head back to Malealea. After we arrived to the lodge again, we relaxed, and watched the local band perform their traditional dances on home-made instruments. I even got to try to play a traditional Lesotho violin!

When we returned to Botswana, I went straight to the northern district to meet my boyfriend Duncan for his cousin’s wedding.  Luckily for me, his nephew was driving up from the capital so I caught a lift with him.  The wedding was lovely, and we stayed to celebrate Christmas with his family.  Now, this is the first Christmas I’ve ever celebrated so far from home and without any family close by.  It was a rollercoaster of emotions, trust me. And to add to everything, we stayed in his parents’ compound with no electricity, no running water, and far from any nearby town.

This in it of itself had its benefits: I learned how to collect clean water from the nearby riverbed; I herded donkeys with Duncan’s sister Daisy, plowed barefoot with his mother, learned new games from the children, and even harvested honey from underground! Everything was fine until Christmas eve, I found myself sitting in a circle of people speaking their tribal language (Kalanga) listening to one of the kids singing “Oh Christmas Tree”…tears welled in my eyes and my tongue seemed to triple in size in my throat.  I excused myself and wallowed in the bedroom.  At that very moment, I turned my laptop on, praying that there was enough juice to connect and was overwhelmed with happiness to Skype with my ENTIRE family back home.  Heads popped in at every corner of the screen with people telling me that they loved and missed me.  My heart began pumping warm blood back into my fingertips again and I began to cherish the opportunity to spend Christmas in Africa. 

The next day, Duncan and I traveled down to the nearby town (Francistown) to celebrate Christmas with my cohort of PCVs.  We literally celebrated it “American style”: potluck buffet, presents, alcohol, and goofy company.  We even did a Secret Santa gift exchange where I acted as “African Santa”. After our giggles were out and the wrapping paper smothered the ground, we went outside, lit sparklers, and danced our butts off.

Duncan and I spent New Year’s in the Private Tuli Safari Block with a few of my colleagues and friends.  At the stroke of midnight, we sat around the fire and shared with everyone what we were grateful for in 2013.  While I was stuck pondering, lips pursed and brows furrowed, Duncan announced that he was grateful for me and the opportunities he’s had ever since March of that year when we met (aww, right?).
 

The beginning of January passed quickly, with projects resuming their same status as before.  I went with some local friends of mine to a lodge in the southern Tuli Safari Block past Zanzibar.  We saw a plethora of animals, including a wild rhino, and I encouraged an entire group of professionals to jump in the Limpopo River with me. 

I spent more time with my family.  Watching how quickly the kids grow, and spending the hot afternoons in the shade of their mud house. 

Then, in February, I treated myself to a trip to Mozambique with some of my favorite people.  The “getting there” and “coming back” aspects were too treacherous and traumatic to rewrite on here (don’t worry, everyone is safe and well)…but I can tell you that the first night we arrived to Xai Xai, rather than sleeping, we pitched our tents and ran straight to the beach.  We swam until the sun came up and as we began swimming towards shore, I felt a strident pain pierce my ankles.  I splashed my way to the beach only to find blue bottle jellyfish tentacles wrapped around my legs.  Stacey had also been stung; since she had lived in California (and we were all fans of the hit tv show “Friends”) we knew what to do to subdue the throbbing pain from the stings.  …that was an adventure in it of itself!

We spent two nights in the beautiful serenity of Xai Xai beach. Since it wasn’t high season for tourists we were the only ones in the entire spans of beach and we woke and slept to the sound of the waves. Finally, when it came time, we piled back in the car and traveled north, past Inhambane towards a sleepy beach town called Tofu.  Here, we ate freshly picked and roasted cashew nuts, enjoyed the most succulent fruit, drank milk directly from the coconut, and ate fish straight from the ocean. Mignon, a friend and travel companion, had arranged for us to stay in a dazzling beachside house just a walk away from Tofu beach and along the shore of Tofinho beach. To save on costs, we would buy the “catch of the day” from the fishermen in the neighborhood and cook it for dinner.  (Another great thing about traveling with fellow PCVs is that they love food just as much as I do, cooking AND eating it as well). We went on an ocean safari to see whale sharks, and dove into a cove of blue bottle jellyfish.  Tofu was so tropical and exotic, I was deeply saddened to leave. 

Eish. I can’t even begin to explain the perturbing trip back.  For this story, I'll refer you to Mignon's blog, please click HERE. 

We made it back to Botswana in one piece! Thank goodness! Then, as I wanted nothing more than to just go home and lock myself in my house for the weekend, Duncan surprised me and told me that he was taking me to Kasane for Valentine’s Day!

The next day we drove straight through, only stopping to let elephants cross the roads and after 6 hours, arrived to the lush, green splendor that is Kasane. We went on boat cruises and watched the sunset over the Chobe River.  The night of Valentine’s Day, Duncan led me to a lodge called the Chobe River Lodge where a man holding a glass of Champaign was waiting for me at the top of the stairs.  He escorted us to our table that was strewn about with heart confetti and flower petals. I ate crocodile crepes, salmon fettucini, and topped it off with pinot grigio.

The next day we went to the natural hot springs of the area. As we made our way across the logs to the mouth of the spring, my foot slipped and I began sinking into the warm, mushy mud.  Two women who were nearby began screaming and rushed to pull me out, telling Duncan that he needed to keep a better eye on me since elephants have been known to sink and die in that spot.

 

After Valentine’s Day, I went straight down to Gaborone to attend the 2014 All-Volunteer Conference.  Over 130 individuals attended the conference, and sat in on different sessions.  Unfortunately, on the second day, I became ill and convinced myself that I had malaria (since I had just returned from two malaria-prone environments) although it was probably just exhaustion from traveling!  On the last night, we sat down to a ceremony with the United States Ambassador Michelle Gavin and the Peace Corps Botswana Country Director Tim Hartman.  Stacey and I went back to our hotel room, drank some wine and watched the Winter Olympics until a talent show ensued under the tent outside.  Everyone congregated and joined in.  Bots12 (the individuals in my cohort) stood bravely in front of the crowd and drunkenly attempted to sing our self-elected anthem “Wagon Wheel”.  And the next day we parted ways.

Remind me to tell you about my hitch the following day…

Anyway, once I returned to Gobojango, things returned to being normal for a few days.  I became a co-facilitator for the Junior Secondary School Chess Club (not that I knew what I was doing..?) and we celebrated my friend Ketnie’s birthday in the local town of Phikwe.  The rains came near the beginning of March and brought tall grasses, yellow flowers, and mosquitos.   One afternoon I was startled to find a parade of donkeys in my backyard, hee-hawing all the way. Then, on one tumultuous afternoon, I convinced myself that a tornado was going to rip its way through Gobojango. 

Luckily, tornados cannot happen in Botswana, Nina, a-duhh.

On the 7th, I assisted Ketnie with a workshop she was conducting in a somewhat close village called Sefhope.  An audience of about 15 out-of-school youth and young professionals attended to further their knowledge of HIV and AIDS.  I presented about the life cycle of the human-immunodeficiency virus, and helped to correct some myths.  I was also not diffident to conduct condom demonstrations for all to see.

Then, a couple days later, I was traveling back north again to the village of Tutume to visit my friends Dan and Leah.  Throughout these past three months, power outages have been prevailing across the country and the majority of my nights have been spent in darkness, or reading by candlelight.  So when we arrived to Tutume, I wasn’t surprised to find cellphone lights and candles being our only source for light.  We ate quesadillas and drank tea and I had an opportunity to catch up with some amazing individuals.

The next day, we were fortunate enough to get a hitch straight to Maun where we were to report for our “Close of Service Conference”.  Along the way, the rains were so heavy, that it felt like the bus had transformed itself into a boat!

We spent the next few days in Maun at a Hotel that catered to us nicely.  It was refreshing to be around my posse again, I was surrounded by individuals who had taken the exact amount of energy and time in Botswana as I had.  Their faces surrounded me two years ago in the airport as we departed the United States into the abyss of the unknown, and there was an inkling of comfort as I looked around and saw their faces together again in the same room.  My feelings were two-fold, however.  Although I had shared a very unique experience with these individuals over the past two years, we were now reaching another point in our lives where we not only had to say goodbye to the lives that we had been working so hard for, but to our peers who had cried with us, laughed with us, and grown to love.

During my time in Maun, I also received a surfeit of information (good news, really) that overwhelmed my decisions.  Before I arrived to Maun, I was planning to move to Costa Rica to study at la Universidad para La Paz in Ciudad Colon and work at Habitat for Humanity.  The day of my arrival, I received my acceptance letter to American University’s School of International Service in Washington D.C. as well as a Fellowship to help me cover the costs.  Then on a subsequent night, I had been asked to do an interview with a position in Chaletenango, El Salvador to become a Youth Outreach Music Coordinator with Peace Corps Response. I had a great opportunity to milk the country director for all of the information he had, as well as for advice.

After spending time in Maun, I attended a spur-of-the moment meeting with the Peer Support and Diversity Committee in the capital.  We swore in and trained the new members and stepped down as the retiring members. During the training process, we experienced cathartic bonding and uplifted and empowered one another.

Gosh, if you’re still reading, I give you mad props. You must really be bored to read all of this!

There will be more to come, I promise. I think I’ve usurped my internet time for the week!!

I’ll try to upload more pictures as soon as I can.

I hope you enjoyed the stories!

Until next time,

Feel a hug from Africa

~Nina