Monday, November 10, 2014

Special Feature Post

During mid-October I had the immense opportunity to play host to my parents who came to visit El Salvador for nine days.  Although we endured a 7.3-scale earthquake, fear of a tsunami and evacuation from the beach, and my dad's broken back, we had a blast.  I asked my dad to write an account of his experience here, so you may see this wonderful country in a different view and he graciously accepted.  Below is his recollection of the trip:
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After months of having our daughter, Janina Victoria Yates, out in the world on her next big adventure, her mom Maria and I, Bruce, wanted to see how life was in her current country of residence: El Salvador.  My work gave me the "green light" to travel to San Salvador, El Salvador, where we met Nina on October 10th, 2014 during a typical tropical, third-world country night.  We were exhausted from having three separate flights and I had just broken my back at work a mere four days earlier.  Nina was very exited to see us but had a slight  look of worry on her face when we first met.  Apparently the San Salvador Airport had just recovered from a power outage due to heavy, torrential rains. I’m sure she was thinking, “Oh crap, my parents are going land at an airport in the dark!” However, customs for us was great and the people were very friendly.  We kissed and hugged one another and rode the shuttle straight to get our rental car.  Luckily we did not get the Toyota Mini car that we had originally ordered, but a very nice Nissan Standard four-door to hold all of our luggage.  

First stop was a great hotel where all the Peace Corps volunteers stay when they travel to and from San Salvador.  Short of an elevator, it was rather luxurious and spacious.  I have tons of pictures of this and many other places we traveled to with Nina, but this short article would turn into a novel if I include them all.  Because of mainstream media in the United States, El Salvador may appear rather scary to the American gringos; however, Nina showed us many of the wonderful sites that the country has to offer.

Our first destination was Concepcion de Ataco where typical life can be seen within an artistic atmosphere.  Ataco is a gorgeous colonial town which, in the native language Nahuatl, means "high place of springs" and is located on the highly-sought-after Ruta de las Flores. It's a very cheerful village, with lots of local and international tourists from around the world speckling the roads. 
One thing I noticed while our three days here were that the many scenes sprinkled with poverty.  One can encounter individuals of all social classes walking the streets.  Although there is relatively low health services due to a poor economy, the streets are clean and the food is well-prepared in restaurants. 
 
Unemployment throughout the country, according to Nina, is 28.9%, so the artisans do what they can to live and as I saw that they were happy doing it.

A group of mariachis who serenaded us during lunch one day.
Out next stop was the coast.  Nina had a reservation at a beach hotel that was obviously for the young-hearted surfing crowd.  Unfortunately it was not for us because the bed did not provide enough support for my back.  After settling for a bit, Maria (Mer) and I drove around and found a beautiful resort just down the coast called Atami Beach Club.  It had informed, excellent service.
 Our first lunch on the cliff of the resort overlooking the North Pacific Ocean was fabulous!  We fell in love with the air, the sea breeze, and the nature surrounding us.  Mer loved the clean rooms of the resort and I felt safe with the security at the entrance of the community and at the resort complex itself.  This place had huge swimming pools, a putt-putt golf course (although unmaintained), and a complete and utterly peaceful atmosphere.

Nina taking a much-needed break in one of the luxurious pools.
In fact there was no problems at all except the 7.3 earthquake just off the coast and tsunami warnings that ensued.  We feared the threat of evacuation, but were happy to discover that it wasn't necessary.  Unfortunately, one woman died in the country from having an electrical pole fall on her, but with such a large-scale event, the casualties could have been much higher.  For hours after, I monitored the news through the excellent wi-fi the resort provided.

Our next stop and the place where Mer and I were most interested in discovering was where Nina lives: La Palma.
Nina and Mer standing in front of a building with a passing "mototaxi"
The town is beautiful and serene.  Everyone says hello and “have a good meal” when you're eating at a restaurant, whether they know you or not.  The buildings of the city are covered in paintings in the style of Fernando Llort (El Salvador's national artist). 

Nina took us on a wonderful tour during our time here, and we met many friends, visited her many work sites, and encountered innumerous amounts of loveable people. 

The staff of La Palma's "Casa de Cultura"
Nina's work in El Salvador is focused around music.  She volunteers with music lessons and mentoring at a community history and cultural center called Casa de la Cultura.  For me, the most rewarding place she works at is the school where she teaches. Here, at CE 22 de Junio, Nina has a choir of 23 pupils who eagerly sing and absorb every word she says.  The existence of the choir is vital, it not only offers the students a positive environment to remain at after school, but it also keeps them from getting involved in dangerous gang activity, which is common for out-of-school youth in this country.

Some students at CE 22 de Junio playing basketball during gym class
We met her counterpart Christi who is wonderful and took us in as part of her family right from the get go.  

Nina's counterpart Christina Gardu; a teacher, mother of five, entrepreneur, and overall wonderful person.
I could see how Nina has already made her mark with the hugs from her students and observations during her choir practices.
Janina speaking to one of her students.
 
Mer and I stayed in a beautiful hotel next to La Palma in San  Ignacio.  It was on over 100 acres in the mountainous region of the North equipped with a gorgeous view of Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador.  It has an Olympic pool , tennis courts, and a gym where Nina often works out. 

Mer and I were pleasantly honored to meet Nina’s host family.  They were one of the best things about our trip.  I felt as though I had known them for years.

Sofia, Margoth, Janina, Diego, Juan, and Alejandra
Nina lives with them.  They constantly watch over her and I could tell she loves them as well.

Our trip back to the airport was filled with excitement.  We drove though some pretty shady areas and saw a glimpse of what the American news has portrayed regarding poverty El Salvador.  However, that was minimal and we saw the city's Metrocentro shopping center where any American can get what they want and although it doesn’t feel quite like home, it shows the people of El Salvador and their culture. 
By asking directions in a sports shop, we didn’t find how to get to the airport, but how gracious and loving the people of El Salvador can be. 
 
In fact our whole trip was getting acquainted with a Peace Corps volunteer's life in a third-world country and how she lives and prospers.  Now I know that Nina not only is living the life of a Peace Cops voluteer, she is exemplifying the main themes of a volunteer.  Through getting to know the land and people, she helps where she can, and promotes world peace and friendship by fulfilling the organization's three main goals: she helps the people of El Salvador in meeting their need for trained men and women, she promotes a better understanding of Americans on the part of the Salvadorans, and helps promote a better understanding of Salvadorans on the part of Americans. 
 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Sing your Heart Out


“Music can change the world, because it can change people” –Bono

It was a cloudy Monday, not unlike any other morning in the mountainous town of La Palma, Chalatenango.  Students’ voices resonated from every corner of the building, and the school pulsed with vivacity.  As the usual pupils from Centro Escolar 22 de Junio stood in compliance in the great hall watching the Semana Civica presentations, more children clad in varied school uniforms shuffled in, eager with anticipation for the competition that was scheduled to take place.  It was as if the crowd ebbed and flowed with its own rhythm and repartee, and although the banter seemed to dull the nerves within the participants of the Choir Genesis, their uneasy smiles told another story. 
Singing El Salvador's National Anthem in front of a packed auditorium

For the previous two weeks, the members of the newly-formed choir had been practicing daily for this competition and the moment had finally arrived when they would perform El Salvador’s National Anthem (in its entirety) in front of representatives from every school in the city. This also meant that they would be competing for the opportunity to sing at the Independence Day Ceremony the following week.

Now, if you had told me a mere 3 months ago that I would not only be witnessing but directing a choir of 30 students in El Salvador, I probably would have scoffed in your face.  During that time, I was living in the Botswana bush, wrapping up my Peace Corps service and scrambling to pick up the loose ends before my next big adventure.  Thoughts of graduate school and life in the U.S. swirled in my mind and the anticipation of what was to come became an impending weight on my shoulders.  One afternoon, I scrolled listlessly through the Response positions available throughout the world.  (I wasn’t quite ready to commit myself to facing the fast-paced life that awaited me in the U.S.) and I nearly collapsed from my chair when I found a project for a Youth Outreach Music Coordinator in Central America.  It turns out, the position had been open for some time, and they needed me just as much as I needed them. 

The music vocational project was started as a means to give children throughout the Northern catchment of Chalatenango, El Salvador safe after-school activities to keep them out of mischief that could lead to delinquency.  Lack of access to quality education is a critical challenge in the area, and as a result, the privation of job opportunities also exists. Many bright young individuals leave the country to increase their opportunities for personal development, yet fewer than 10% successfully complete high school after settling in their destination country. Those who choose to stay in El Salvador are faced with a number of difficulties, including very little economic opportunities, and often end up joining gangs, becoming involved in drug trafficking, or other criminal activities as a matter of economic survival.

As a result, Peace Corps presence is prominent throughout the area; the volunteers are well-recognized and are generally venerated for assisting in projects focusing on adolescents and youths. When I arrived to La Palma in July, the need for a music program was evident. I was struck by the amount of talent that existed throughout this town, and overjoyed at the sparked interest some students showed. Poco a poco, and through extreme moments of frustration, talk of a music program slowly transformed into a choir consisting of 23 students ranging from ages 7 to 14.

After the participants of the choir sang their last note of the Anthem during the September 8 competition, their faces lifted with pride.  Weeks had passed of tedious hour-long practices and finally they were able to feel the efforts of their labors paying off. After some quick deliberation, and anxious anticipation, the judges announced the winners and the crowd went wild to hear that the Choir Genesis would be singing at the Independence Day Celebrations the following Monday, September 15. 
Pride.
 
The participants leapt to their feet and embraced one another with elation as the more prominent singers approached the stage and diffidently accepted the trophy.
Accepting the trophy

From that day on, more students showed interest in joining the choir.  Their sparked curiosity from the competition left them zealous and keen to begin singing.  Every day in the hallways, the participants would bombard me with hugs and inquiries as to when the choir would perform again. 

September 15 marked the long-anticipated Independence Day celebrations.  Teachers from all of the schools in La Palma arrived at the central park at 5:45 in the morning to begin preparations for the day.  The clouds rested close to the ground, the sun hid deep in the dark sky, and over my cup of atol chuco, I wondered if the weather was going to affect the singers’ moods.  When I arrived to the school a couple of hours later, a horde of eager choral students awaited me like a pack of wolves preying upon a fresh rabbit. Their enthusiasm was contagious.  I herded them into a room and we began our usual vocal warm-ups. 

As I took a deep breath, tried to refocus myself, and blocked out the surmounting noise and stress that reverberated throughout the cement classroom, I looked at a seventh-grade student braiding a third grade student’s hair and was overcome by the giggles that escaped their lips.  Their resounding smiles struck a chord deep within me and made me realize something: this choir meant more to them than a simple organized club.  Being in the group gave these children hope, unity, appreciation, and pride.  In a tumultuous world, being a part of a choral team gave them a sense of belonging and comfort where they had probably sought and been rejected before. It didn’t matter that the clouds were prophesying rain outside or that we had not yet practiced how to march for the parade. What mattered most was that they had finally found a niche where they could belong, something that they could hold onto, call their own, and be proud of.
Marching in the Independence Day Parade
The rest of the day passed quickly: the parade with the cheering crowds, the parents that awaited with cameras, and the children crooning the national anthem into microphones…but the faces that they wore throughout the day will remain imprinted in my memory for the rest of my life. I had never seen so much pride and unfettered excitement. The choir continues to gain more students after every performance, and their presentations have now expanded to encompass Día de los Niños as well as the nation-wide Concurso de las Bandas.

The choir proudly showing off their first-place trophy
One thing that the children of the Choir Genesis have taught me in these few short months is the value of music.  Music transcends age, gender, and life experience.  It is encompassing enough that it can touch any life, any subject, in any way.  For the children of La Palma, El Salvador, music has become the haven and the community that they need to begin to change their futures and the world.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Playas, Fiestas y Hospitales


I’m currently sitting in a session put on by the Fire Chief of La Palma about “Control and Circumvention of Fires”.  He started with the history of fires.

In other words…yawn.

Today the students had the day off so that the teachers could all attend this meeting. I’m grumpy and not wanting to be here, so instead I’ll update my blog (after all, there’s no wifi, and nobody around me can really read English to tell the difference between this and notes). 

These past two days have been the first practices of the Choir Genesis. I have been so undoubtedly nervous that I haven’t really realized how quickly they’ve gone.  The first day I had about 18 students show up, and yesterday there were 28! The students are from 1st grade all the way up to 9th grade and since I’ve never directed a choir before, my fear of inadequacies are keeping me preoccupied.  Furthermore, I’ve decided to register the students to sing in a competition on September 8 of El Salvador’s National Anthem.  Although we have little time to attend the competition, I’m trying to meet with them for one hour every day to practice. 

The past few weeks have been pretty up and down.  In the beginning of the month of August I had the opportunity to jump on another volunteers’ vacation train.  I followed a group of 6 other volunteers to a beach called Playa Tunco. 

Now, before I get into the festivities of the beach weekend, allow me to interject here to discuss the downfalls of living in a country with increased security risks.  In Botswana, I was able to travel relatively safely every weekend, hitchhike and take busses throughout the country and even see all of the other 7 SADC countries without much fear of direct violence. (I suppose it’s odd when someone thinks of Africa they expect a number of reservations associated with violence.  Thank you, media and pop culture.) This isn’t necessarily to say that it’s 100% safe in Botswana…because realistically speaking, we all know it’s not…but generally I felt exceptionally safe when traveling throughout the country.

Here in El Salvador, on the other hand, there are common stories of bus drivers being shot, incidences of gang violence, and other security risks that endanger volunteers’ everyday lives.  A few years ago, a volunteer in Honduras was the unfortunate recipient of a ricochet bullet on a bus (she lived, thank goodness) and they had a complete revision of the Central American safety and security policies.  El Salvador was closed as a post and all of the volunteers were either relocated or sent home.  A reassessment of the country occurred two years back, and after discovering that it would be relatively anodyne, it was reopened with increased mitigation policies and volunteers were redistributed throughout towns and villages in the northern part of the country. As a result, Peace Corps has placed a number of security mitigation rules on our service.  Some of these rules are as follows:

1.      There are a number of “red zones” or restricted areas throughout the country where we, as volunteers, are not allowed to go.  The capital, San Salvador (and location of Peace Corps Headquarters) are one of these red zones and volunteers are not allowed, under any circumstance to be found in these zones alone.

2.      We are not allowed to take busses across departments/municipalities. In my opinion, this makes life a lot more difficult (and a lot more expensive…) Rather than jumping on a direct bus from one department to another, I have to wait for certain days that the Peace Corps shuttle is running (see number 3) or pay for my own private transport.  Since we are advised to take the taxi drivers suggested by Peace Corps, we oftentimes pay well over what we would have been paying otherwise

3.      Peace Corps provides a personal shuttle for volunteers on a rotating schedule.  We have to therefore take the local bus to a pickup spot about an hour away (in the town Amayo) then take the shuttle from there.  Some weeks it runs Monday, Tuesday, and Friday.  Other weeks, just Monday and Friday, and other weeks, solely on Monday.  Unless we want to take it directly from La Palma, the shuttle runs once a month.  A schedule has been distributed to all volunteers and we are to refer to it if we ever want to go to another site.  (I’m still figuring it out…it sounds extremely complicated)

4.      We are only allowed to be outside of our site three days every month (as well as our two vacation days per month). This is to say that we are only allowed one weekend a month to visit another location. 

5.      We are supposed to live with host families.  This makes us less of a direct target to robberies, thefts, etc. and also assists in the integration process.

In conclusion, the sense of independence I once had as a volunteer in Botswana has now been replaced by an overall dependency upon outside forces. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about the overall system.  I understand the need for it, and would rather pay my entire monthly allowance than face any problem of security (after all, there’s no price for a life)…but it does complicate things quite a bit. 

Okay, to end my rant, let me continue with my adventure to Playa Tunco.  On Friday, I left with three other volunteers from La Palma to San Salvador.  Once settled at a café that not only offered a yummy selection for lunch, but also free wifi, we awaited the other members of our group to arrive.  Around two o’clock, we all departed in a privately-hired minibus to take us to the beach.  The ride was breath-taking and beautiful.  Green surrounded us everywhere. Palm trees cascaded the street view and vendors walked up and down the road selling everything from fresh coconut milk to candy.  Slowly, as we arrived closer and closer to the beach towns, the air became thicker, heavier, and more humid.  When we pulled in front of the Tunco Lodge, we were greeted with grass roofs, a shimmering blue pool, and hammocks stretching lazily across the wooden verandas.  When we migrated to the beach after settling in, I shocked my newly acquired friends by prancing gleefully towards the water and submerging my entire body in the crashing waves.  I didn’t even notice that, rather than mounding sand, the beach was plaited with knolls of rocks the size of my face.  I was so excited to replace the sweat melting from my face with salt water from the ocean that I splashed like a three-year-old in a baby pool. 

“Taking Janina to the ocean is like taking a puppy to a park” I heard my colleague say behind me.  And I didn’t even care, I was so happy to be on the beach again, I frolicked well into the sunset.

Although the beach itself is not beautiful, Tunco is a well-known location for the best left-hand break in the Americas and therefore recognized by surfers around the world.  During our four days there, we met people from Australia, Brazil, Israel, Spain, and Italy.  I practiced my Portuguese until I was blue in the face.  We spent our days absorbing the sun at the pool, only surfacing to eat some fresh fruit or seafood.  Turtles roamed freely around the Lodge, and hammocks harnessed our hangovers.  Our nights were spent swaying on the bar swings, quenching our voracious thirst for excitement, and dancing until our heartbeat pulsed through our thighs. 
One of the wild turtles coming to attack my foot.

Some of the group on the beach
 After the whirlwind of arriving to site, breaking down the barriers of discomfort when arriving to a new country, and breathing through varied adjustments, it was a much-needed break. 

Although my entire body creaked with exhaustion my first day back to La Palma, I awoke with a fright to my host sister banging on my door.  “No quieres ir con nosotros as Consuma?” (Would you like to come with us to Consuma?) escaped her mouth, each word decreasing in volume in response to my scorching, peevish glare.  “No, gracias,” I responded and rolled back into my caressing sheets.  Thinking about what I was going to be missing out on, I slowly picked myself out of the bed, each joint castigating me for my decision, and began to dress. 

Though I had no idea what “Consuma” was, I swallowed my sickness with every curve of the 2 hour car drive. Diego’s pressing questions and the girls’ aimless banter crept under my skin and gnawed on my last nerves.  I found myself regretting my decision for agreeing to go when we pulled up to a huge festival in Sal Salvador.

The rest of the day we spent immersed in crowds, waiting in lines, and enjoying amusement park rides. Consuma turned out to be the largest flea market I’ve ever been to.  I was jubilant to see the $1 bins spilling over with clothing and found myself pulling out my wallet for things that I didn’t even need.  I followed my host sisters onto the amusement park rides and had to stabilize myself as the blood drained from my face due to motion sickness. Any aches that I felt that morning quickly evaporated as I caught myself laughing and enjoying with my host family. In the evening, as a parade passed in front of us with masked performers and characters on stilts, I thanked my inner conscience for forcing me out of the bed that morning.

The following week, the students were on vacation from school, so I spent my days sleeping in and learning about life in El Salvador. I went to a few more gatherings for the Fiestas Patronales in the neighboring town of San Ignacio and relished at the comical costumes that pranced around me.

I started a daily trip to Entrepinos Lodge to go to the gym for one hour.  In the process, I met the owner and manager, Tito.  He took me to a wonderful spot where I could see bean farms, clouds blanketing the mountains of Honduras, jutting rocks in the distance from Guatemala, and a tree whose trunk was as large as a jeep. 

Although I noticed an unsettling body ache throughout the week, I ignored it and passed it off as soreness from the gym.  It wasn’t until that weekend that I awoke with a sweltering fever that I realized that something was really wrong.  I called the Peace Corps doctor and went through all of the motions of traveling to the local laboratory to do blood tests, reading the results to the doctor over the phone, and feeling miserable all the way.  The worry in the doctor’s voice became elevated as he heard my results and he told me to begin packing my bags immediately.  The next morning, he sent a driver to collect me from my house and take me to the hospital in San Salvador. 

It turns out, when I was in Tunco; I had been bitten by a mosquito infected with Dengue Fever and was now in the worst stage of the reaction. 
 

Boohoo, in pain

This was also the first time that I could remember that I had been admitted to a hospital as an adult. 
Sad to be all alone
Luckily for me, the hospital was EXTREMELY clean; we’re talking U.S.A.-standards clean.  I was assigned my own room with a television, and there was free wifi.  There wasn’t much to complain about here…besides the fact that I was put inside of a mosquito net and felt as if I was in quarantine and all alone.  The nights in the hospital were tumultuous, with nurses checking on me every hour, and I pined to leave.

Once the doctor verified that the worst of the Fever was over, he released me to La Palma again and ordered me to sleep for the next few days. 

The following week, I returned to school and began meeting the students for the choir.  And that brings us up to today, where I’m STILL sitting in a classroom learning about fire extinguishers and the difference between a gas fire and a wood fire…yes…four hours later. 

The air is blowing directly on my left shoulder and I am pausing every few minutes to warm my hands.  I wish I hadn’t worn a skirt today…I wish I had stayed in bed today…

In lighter news, my parents have verified that they’ll be visiting for 10 days in October!  What’s more, is that my good friend Annabelle from college is coming for 2 weeks in November! Although it has its own “catches”, it’s awfully nice living in a country with a beach that’s relatively close to the States.  

Next week I’ll be heading to a town called Ataco with the other Peace Corps Response volunteers from Monday-Wednesday.  There we will learn about the beloved Volunteer Report Form (good Lord…) and convene as a group for the first time since the arrival of the 6 volunteers of my group. 

Anyway, it seems like I’m just rambling now, so thanks for taking the time to read!

Enjoy the rest of your day, and enjoy every second of sunshine!

Until next time,

~Nina
 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Central American Moments

So…remember how I told you about my “African moments”…? Those particular moments that slapped me upside the head on a random day and reminded me that I was living in Africa? Yeah…well after today, I’ve learned that there are “Central American moments” too…

This evening, as I was lounging on my bed, accessing some of the Facebook, my host sister comes in my room and asks me, “Vienes con nosotros, Janina?” (Are you coming with us, Janina?) I’ve learned that when anyone asks me a question similar to this one, I always say yes, without any follow-up queries.  The mantra of “don’t ask questions” has led me to some very interesting places in my life…as was the case with tonight.

We sprinted to the car and the wiper blades were turned to their fastest mode as the rain splashed unforgivingly on the windshield.  I finally asked, “Entonces…adónde vamos pues?” (so…where are we going?) and I was answered with “La Carmen”, as if it was something I should have known. I nodded in blind agreement and drew a face with the fog on the window, with the passing palm trees and bucketing rain outside.

We made a few stops to pick up food, drove towards the Honduras border, up, down, left, and right on curvy cobblestone roads, and finally arrived at our final destination: a cement house wearing a tin roof cap, and siring a mane of lush greenery in the middle of the “campo” (rural village).  When we entered the house, hammocks hung like cobwebs around the room and we maneuvered our way to the back patio where there was a brick oven and children running everywhere. Chickens, turkeys, cats, and dogs waltzed their way in and out of conversations, and I was offered a seat next to a woman with a baby. To the left of me stood rows and rows of cornstalks for as far as the eye could see.

After some futile banter, the matriarch took me by the wrist and guided me deeper and deeper into the corn jungle.  We began picking lemons off the trees and she showed me how to choose the ears of corn that were still “baby corn” (as I always called them).  We spent the evening climbing our way through muddy passes, sheltered from the drizzle by towering banana trees, and finally arrived to the house where the oven was warming the faces and spaces of the patio.  I learned to take the freshly plucked chili peppers and combine them with garlic, onion, loroco (a local flower), and water to make the most delicious chili sauce imaginable.  Finally, we kissed cheeks of everyone farewell and departed with our arms encumbered by various fruits and vegetables. As we walked the cobbled road to the car, the smell of fresh earth and wet soil swarmed all around us and the aromas of the freshly picked goodies filled the car. 

We drove off, serene and smiling.  Though the moon was out now, the reflection of the light still shimmered off the wet leaves. 

In an instance, the tranquility of the moment was abruptly interrupted as a gobble erupted from the backseat of the car and a flash of feathers encircled us.  Juan, my host father, nonchalantly asked me to put the turkey back in the bag and my host sister Alejandra began yelping out of fear. 

After multiple tries, I finally got the stupid turkey (that I didn’t even know was there in the first place) back in the bag.  Margoth, my host mother, handed me the cup of chilis that I had practically thrown at her as if nothing had happened and we all settled into our seats. I kept looking around at them to see if there was any reaction…nothing. This was a typical Thursday night…

Only in Central America.

Later in the evening, I was motivated to make a chicken curry with yogurt.  As I stood in the kitchen, meticulously cutting the vegetables, screams began exploding from the sitting room.  When I turned to see what the hulabaloo was about, a rat the size of my foot drastically scampered towards me with its eyes bugging out of its sockets in fear.  My first reaction was to squeal out of surprise, but then I reined it in and jumped towards it with my arms extended yelling, “Wahh!” (Don’t ask me why, apparently I thought I was the boogeyrat or something…)

We spent the next hour chasing this stupid rat in and around the nooks and crevices of the kitchen.  I assisted with everything I could until the idea of a blowtorch was offered. 

“Nahhh, I’m sorry, I think I’m out on this one…” was followed by, “Yeah, you’re probably right. Burning it out isn’t such a great idea”.  

When we had finally cornered the monstrosity behind the refrigerator, I banged the side of the fridge and it flew for its life towards Juan until it met its inevitable demise at the sole of his flip flop.   

I was okay with the stupid rat until this part.  I cringed with the sounds that crept beneath the flip flop and with my eyes squeezed tightly shut, I made a noise similar to what the turkey made earlier in the car.

Within seconds, the dishes were finished, a cup of chocolate milk was made, and I booked it to my bed for some mindless media to get my mind off of the gruesome scene that had just taken place.

And now I bid you adeu, dear reader.  I hope you sleep better than I!

Last Days in Botswana

I sat on the earth, now warmed by the sizzling fire, outside Lorato’s house. I could sense my time in Botswana was coming to a close, but I still forbade the thought to manifest itself in my mind. This had been my home for the past two years, how could I simply pick up and leave? I turned to look at the kids who were playing and screaming, the same kids who had approached me as children with fervent curiosity 25 months earlier.  I had watched them grow, we had been there for one another during the extreme highs and the deep lows of life and now it was as if I had to accept that I may never see them again.  I had said many goodbyes before, but there was a sense of permanence to this one that it pierced my very soul. 

I fondly recollect my first few weeks at site and how I locked myself in the house, praying for the days to pass more quickly.  Everything had felt so scary and new and each step outside my front door was the bravest thing I had done that day.   Feelings of self-doubt and misdirection established themselves deep in my mind and I questioned my very decision to join the Peace Corps. 

It wasn’t until I slowly gained my footing that I began to fly.  As the previous entries in this blog entail, I had an inimitable experience and I think it is still too new to process and explain its longevity in every aspect of my life. I think as the newness of all of these changes wears off, I will finally be able to reflect upon my time in Bots and all the people who impacted my life; but for now, let’s fast forward.

The thing I remember most about my last weeks in Botswana was how quickly everything passed.  On the third of May, my clinic organized a farewell celebration.  As a team, they all chipped in and bought me a gorgeous, hand-made, traditional German-print dress. The night before, I was expecting my friends Claire and Ketnie to come over so we could have a nice, calm dinner.  Before I knew it, my house was exploding with people bringing cooler boxes with different types of alcohol, music was playing, and everyone was dancing! It felt like the haphazardness of all the people in my house resonated throughout the entire village and at long last, the crowd slowly dissipated and the three of us filtered into our beds.
Part of the hot mess that infested my house that night!

The next day, we were up and about early enough to prepare ourselves and walk over to the clinic, where the event was supposed to start at noon.  11:50am struck and only one or two of the individuals responsible for setting up the party had arrived.  Since we were all feeling a bit sick to our stomachs, we decided to go my coworker Thabang’s house and take cat naps. Around 2pm we were informed that the party was ready to start. As we walked into the clinic compound, Lentho (my friend and coworker) told me I could not sit down until they "sang me in". I waited as my friends got settled and then the entire Home Based Care staff as well as some women who worked for the Ipelegeng government program all lined up behind me and started singing, "Kitso ya rona, ngwana ya Gobase" (Our Kitso, child from Gobojango). As I tried to swallow my surprise, I was then approached by Mma Lenatsho (the child welfare nurse) who opened up a plaid blanket and fastened it across my shoulders.
 
The group of ladies singing me in

This was quite the display of respect. Later, as we were all eating, Lentho informed me that the blanket was to symbolize their constant embrace of me as I have embraced their culture as my own. 


Here I come!
 
The blanket that was fastened over my shoulders as a sign of respect.
 
The rest of the party consisted of dancing, speeches, and a delicious array of traditional foods including goat meat, sorghum, thopi (bojobe jwa lerotse), and the most delectable phane worms I've ever tasted. They even unveiled the tree vase wearing "WE <3 KiTSO" painted on its face in white.

The painted tree planter

Later that night, a handful of other volunteers came to celebrate and we ate some more, played some drinking games, and danced to a local dj's rhythms. The entire party was an all-around success and it would not have been possible without the assistance of all of my colleagues as well as my amazing boyfriend Duncan.
Only some of my amazing colleagues.

I opened my eyes again and was brought back to the speckled stars overhead and the smoke billowing into infinity from the fire. This time I was not in Gobojango, but rather at Duncan's family home in Nlapkhwane. I looked around reminiscing about how I spent my first Christmas on my own on this very compound, biting back the swelling lump in my throat as everyone wiped the sweat off their brows and sang the Carols I grew up with during my childhood; the same ones my cousins were probably singing at that very moment. During that time, I wanted nothing more than to be with my boisterous, rambunctious family in the nipping cold of Colorado, but I now realized how fortunate I was to spend the holiday and this time in Botswana. In Africa. On this compound I learned how to plow and harvest peanuts with Duncan's mother. I hauled water and took my first official bucket bath with the guidance of his sister, and I learned yet another language (Kalanga) by playing with his nieces and nephews in the soil. 
 
Duncan's niece and nephews in Nlapkhwane
This isn't to say that the whole time I learned these things was sunshine and roses. Just as I struggled to learn how to adjust to an ever changing, constantly new environment, Duncan and I had to adjust and readjust ourselves to make sense of what we had...and what we now have. In short, being with him has not only brought out my strengths and confidences, but it has also dredged out my fears and self-consciousness. I feel like it is rare in life to find someone as patient and willing to learn so much about you, and we are still discovering the balance. Just as I'm not quick to forget the feeling of satisfaction after bathing with a bucket of fire-warmed water, I am in no place ready to close my eyes to the effort we have put into this relationship, or to the amount of love and support I feel, even after all this time and with all this distance. 
 
We've come too far to say goodbye

Now, let's fast forward my second (yes, that's right, SECOND) farewell party. I had never seen Lorato flustered before. In the two years that I had known this admirable woman, she seemed to always keep her cool and act as level-headed as a a buoey on water. However, the second we left the clinic party, she angrily shook her head and told me, "Kitso, you deserve better. You work with the schools and the community, not just the clinic. I am going to throw a better party, and this time, EVERYONE is invited!"
 
And so it went, the following weeks I visited some other volunteers and attended their farewell parties. It started to hit me that I wasn't only bidding farewell to my Batswana colleagues and family but my Peace Corps family as well.
Though we're all so different, we have so much in common
 

 

 
These same people who I had often leaned entirely upon for support and had been uplifted by their patience and understanding. Although I attempted to live every single moment to its fullest, I was shocked and overcome by defeat when I watched the time dwindling from underneath me. 
Peace Corps volunteers are some of the most fun-loving, open-minded people I've ever met
 
In those last few weeks, my dog Cleo had five puppies and I witnessed in horror as the slimy, breathing objects slid out from inside her. Lorato's nephew Jonjo had told me that if the dogs are not ready to be parents then they'll often eat their young, so I practically lunged at Cleo when she started snacking on their umbillacle chords. (Gross, I know, I'm sorry for the visual). The newborn stages weren't as fun, but the second the puppies became curious and started walking around on their unsure legs, I loved that my house transformed itself into a puppy hotel. When I was sick with pharyngitis, I only opened my door and allowed the little buggers to snooze and cuddle me on my floor mattress. Volunteers would come from kilometers away just to hug one of the smoochy balls of fur. And, now I had five gifts for the people who had impacted my life the most.


 
Almost as quickly as the first party came and went, the date for the second party snuck up on us. My closest friends Stacey and Claire came all the way from their villages to share the weekend with me. It was to be my last weekend in Gobojango, so an overall sentiment of nostalgia and excitement swept the compound. The morning of the party, I awoke with a start to hear a noise that i had grown accustomed to over the past couple years: the screaming of a goat being sacrificed for festivial purposes...only this time, the baying was right outside my window. 
 
I begrudgingly crawled out of bed and opened the back door of the house where I found three friends of mine tying a bleeding goat to the tree. "O tsogile jang, Kitso!?" (how are you this morning?). I lept for my camera and began snapping the gruesome scene.

On the other side of my house I heard laughter, as I turned the corner I was instantly surrounded by women clad in blankets, either stoking the fire, drinking tea, or cutting some sort of vegetable in preparation for the party. In the course of one night, my compound grew a heartbeat and life pulsed through the veins of its entirety; it stayed this way for the whole weekend. 
 


The party was beautiful. The amount of people that attended was plentiful, and the smiles that surrounded us were enough to make even the firmest face melt. People from every aspect of my work in Botswana attended; there was a speech by Lentho from the clinic, Claire gave a tearful account of our friendship, Sheriff a teacher from the primary school spoke, police officers and teachers from my shopping village of Bobonong stood in recognition, even the owners of the compound where I lived gave a heartfelt speech.

Trying not to cry during my speech
After I was awarded with beautiful clothes and gifts of money, it was then my turn to speak. "How can I be excited to go home when I have to say goodbye to my home in Botswana?" No words could encompass my solemnity at the thought of leaving, and my gratitude for the grand show of appreciation they had put on. 
They even hired a man from Semolale (the nearby village) to take us on a horse-drawn donkey-cart parade around Gobas.

Enjoying the ride
 When speeches had finished and the crowd started getting restless, Lorato and all the kids began serving the meals. I was honored to find that each server and usher was wearing a jersey that had been donated to the Gobas Big Sisters Football Club the winter prior. My absolute favorite part of the party was, as the sun set (and well into the night) we danced. Not just the adults, and not just the children, but everyone. Together. We laughed and danced in the cold moonlight and one by one people slowly filtered into their own homes as the night stretched deep into midnight.

We danced. And it was glorious.



Even Lorato got down and boogeyed!
Stacey and I humored a group of neighbors by drinking the traditional beer straight out of the bucket, and made another group double over with fits of giggles after showing them (and eating) the phane worms that I harvested myself.
 
It was a night that has permanently imprinted itself in my heart.
 
The following morning, the heartbeat pulsated again outside my window as the family and neighbors came from all over for tea and to help clean up. I walked into the sunlight and the smell of the fire boiling the bush tea filled my nose and I escorted Claire, Stacey, and Lissa to say their goodbyes. I stifled the swelling tears behind my eyes and watched them embark a minibus to Bobonong. It wasn't until I saw the bus get smaller in the distance that I really lost it.
Stacey, one of the most open-minded, joyful persons I've ever met
I arrived to the hustle of my home again, heaving with sobs and wanting nothing more than to crawl into bed and sleep the day away. Samantha, Jonjo, and all the kids weren't going to let that happen. They spent the day lounging around my house, watching movies, asking me questions...as if it were any other day.

After the party that they threw me the night prior, I didn't have the heart to ask them to leave...and thank goodness for that. My last full day in Gobojango was spent with the people I love the most, and I couldn't have imagined a better way to spend it.
 
Our final "fashion show"
Kesa (Loratos niece) walked me around the village so I could say my final goodbyes to shop owners and friends as the day yawned to a close. We couldn't look at each other once we realized that this was going to be my last official night in Gobojango. I hadn't even packed my clothes. My procrastination now meant that I was to get no sleep that night. 
 
I closed my eyes again. The heartbeat that once pulsated outside my bedroom window now lay as flat as an unmoving heart monitor. I looked around my empty house, the one that only hours ago was filled with curiosity and laughter. It now looked like a skeleton picked over by vultures. There was no longer any sign of Kitso in the house, just nameless furniture and characterless, eggshell walls. The day that I had dreaded was finally here and I didn't think I could manage to even stand, let alone to bring myself to say goodbye to Lorato and the kids. I had said many goodbyes before, but there was a sense of permanence to this one that it pierced my very soul. 
 
The day passed as if in a mirage. Opaque smiles and splashing tears filled my eyesight and I loaded my two bags onto the ambulance.
 
"So Kitso," the driver asked me after we had taken off, "are you going to miss living in this tiny village?" 
"Absolutely. I'm going to miss Africa. And the brief but constant reminders that I'm living here." I replied, looking out the window and biting my lip to keep from bursting into tears again.
"What do you mean?" 
"I can't explain it," I paused, "Africa moments". 
At the sight of me getting upset again the driver uncomfortably turned on the radio and shrugged me off, still not understanding what I meant by 'Africa moments'.
 
Literally moments later...(and I kid you not)...a black monkey with a white face jumped from an overhanging tree onto the hood of the ambulance, stared at us with wide eyes as if we had startled his afternoon, and sprung off disparingly into the bush again.
 
I managed a hysterical laugh through my sobs and exclaimed, "This! Like this! Africa moments!"
 
The perpetrator of my last African moment!!
Now that I've been gone for over 7 weeks, my whole time in Botswana feels like a very vivid dream. During that time I learned more about myself and the world than I have in my whole 25 years on this earth. I have met people who would offer me their shoes even if they had no clothes on their back, and I have fallen love with the diversity and lessons this life offers if one is willing to open their mind and be patient to learn them. I know there were days where I literally felt so lonesome I wanted nothing more than to be back in the United States, with all of her amenities and privileges...but those days in particular, where I struggled to learn to bake my own bread and roll my own pasta noodles, were what made this journey so unique. So significant. 
Lorato helping me clear my yard for the farewell party
 
Although I still feel the pang of permanence over those goodbyes I'm clutching onto the small shreds of hope that I will return. I still maintain contact with Lorato who tells me that many children, including Samantha (my adoptive "daughter") continue to visit my house with hopes that one day I'll answer their knocks. 
Samantha and Kamogelo at my farewell party
 
Home. This is the notion that I've been struggling with ever since that very first farewell party. Where is my home? Was I leaving or coming home? What does this simple word, that encompasses so much, even mean? 
 Home is not where my heart is, because I feel as if I leave bits of my heart scattered around the world, with every human who opens their soul to me and who I trust enough to do the same 
 
Home is not where I rest my feet because I'm in a constant state of motion.
 
Home I've concluded is everywhere that I am able to feel welcomed and at peace. 
 
Forever will I find solace in front if Loratos house, by the fire in Gobas. Or listening to the chatter and banter outside my bedroom window. Chasing after donkeys after ploughing corn in Nlapkhwane or simply listening to the cicadas in the Botswana bush. 
My home away from home: the Mmapetla household
  Home is my Africa moments. 
Until next time.