Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Paris in June

I recently returned from quite possibly the best holiday I’ve taken in my life.  It was the first time I’d ever travelled alone, without the purpose of studying.  Although friends were hosting me, they still had to go to work, so a large chunk of time during the day (about 10 hours) was spent alone.

I chose Paris, France, with one weekend in Belgium.  By now I’m completely used to life in a third world country (I'd like to think so at least), but it was absolutely invigorating to get out of Africa for two weeks, particularly during a very dusty and windy winter in Mokhotlong, Lesotho.  I was surprised upon arriving to find that, in June, it doesn't get dark in Paris until 10 pm, whereas in my village at this time of year, the sun goes down behind the mountains before 5 pm (very gloomy, lonely, and depressing at times, yes).

Simple things, like people watching while taking the metro, getting lost in small streets surrounded by charming cafes and old buildings, spending hours in parks, and wearing high-heeled shoes again brought me so much happiness.  I also indulged in quite a few three-course meals and ate at restaurants almost every night.  I managed to do two wine tastings and bought an expensive handbag.  Yes, I spent more money than I'd intended.  Oops!

Being anonymous in a large city again, grass free of animal poo, impeccably dressed people with fantastic shoes and hair, no stares or harassment from strangers, and dancing with friends until the sun came up were some of the other things that made this trip extremely pleasant.  There were just so many things to do and see!  Completely overwhelming, but in the best possible way.  For the first time in a long time, I was left alone to do and see what I wanted without any interference or questioning.  No one knew I was a foreigner and I relished the ability to blend in again in a Western culture.

My friends were so wonderful.  During the week they worked, which allowed me to wander around and explore the city by myself (this turned out to be quite a lot of fun). In the evenings we’d meet for dinner.  They always had a great restaurant booked so that I could get the complete French food and wine experience.  I had foie gras, confit de canard (duck), crepes, filet mignon, salmon, many cheeses, wines, and discovered Ricard, which is now my favorite liqueur.  I definitely didn’t get hungry or thirsty.  It was such a nice change from the standard boiled maize meal, cabbage, and stewed mystery meat combo that one finds when they go to a “restaurant” in Lesotho.  Sorry, I’ll stop being snobby now – it’s just that I adore nice food, and was really impressed by French food culture.  Indeed, I was very spoiled, and it made coming back to Lesotho a bit difficult, but it always takes about two days to adjust again after returning from a holiday.

In Belgium, I explored Antwerp with a friend by bike.  It was the first time I'd ridden a bicycle in two years.  I was nervous to ride alongside traffic, but it was easy to get used to again.  I also got to see Brussels and Gent, as well as eat waffles, fries, chocolates and drink varieties of Belgian beer.

I’ve been in Lesotho for a year and a half now, but probably couldn’t stay here permanently unless I lived in the capital and my standards of living were a lot higher.  I was in Paris for two weeks and totally felt as if I could live there.  However, I’d need to brush up on my rusty French first.  In a little over a week I’ll be out of Africa again, but this time I’ll be visiting with family in the U.S and attending the memorial of my great-grandmother, an incredible woman who recently passed away at the age of 104.  It’s going to be a strange summer/winter (I’m not sure what exactly to call it) straddled between two opposite hemispheres and seasons.  But it’s being spent in very good company, with good friends and a large family.

I’ll remain a Peace Corps volunteer for about five more months - July, August, September, October, November, and a little bit of December of this year.  Then I suppose I'll begin the next chapter in my life, which is turning out to be quite the adventure.  I just can’t seem to shake off my chronic wanderlust.  At least I won’t ever regret not seeing the world.

At Montmartre, in front of Sacre Coeur

Friday, May 24, 2013


Some pictures from when I first arrived in Lesotho and began pre-service training, about 19 months ago:

First steps into Lesotho after 24+ hours of travelling (freaking out)

Soon-to-be Mokhotlong inhabitants

Visiting some pre-schoolers

Official Peace Corps Volunteers at the Swearing-In Ceremony

Saturday, April 20, 2013

April Updates

It has been a long time since I’ve posted.  Actually it’s been a long time since I’ve used a computer.  It feels really nice to type once again on the smooth keys of a laptop that was recently brought to Africa by my mother, who visited over Easter holidays with my stepfather.  My banged-up Macbook from 2006 that survived a spillage of oatmeal on it, two study abroad trips, four years of college, and sixteen months in Africa, finally quit working.  Yeah, it sucked, but it crashed at a good time: a month before my parents’ trip to Africa.  They were able to buy a refurbished one exactly like the one I had for a very good price.  I hope that this computer too will last me seven years, or more.

Lately I’ve been quite happy and have been enjoying my Peace Corps experience a lot these past few months.  Maybe it’s because I know both what to expect and what is expected of me after over a year of experience as a science and mathematics teacher. Perhaps it’s that the students are more motivated this year or that I’ve changed my attitude or perspective.  It could be because I’m spending more weekend free time in village than ever before, or that it’s the last year I’ll work at Mabuleng Secondary School.  It’s probably a combination of all of those things.  I’m not sure what exactly has happened, but I’m liking my job a lot better than I did last year and I’m trying to soak up every last bit of my interactions with the community members, teachers, and students.

The African Library Project books that were donated by friends and family members in Raleigh, NC arrived a few days ago and are sitting in a storage facility in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho.  My community is still trying to work out how exactly we’re going to transport them up to the mountains and who is going to do it, but it will happen somehow, at some point.  I’ve been talking to people and have a few different options.  Cataloguing and shelving them is how I plan to stay occupied over winter break when I’m not on vacation.  I’m really excited to make this library happen, and now that the books have finally arrived, it seems as if a lot of other teachers and community members are becoming motivated as well.

My most recent trip out of the country was at the end of March/beginning of April.   I met me mom and stepdad in Johannesburg, where we rented a car, and drove to a tented safari camp in the middle of nowhere in the Timbavati Game Reserve (east of Kruger National Park) in a tiny Honda, which was definitely amusing but probably not the best vehicle choice, we later decided.  Every morning and evening for about three hours at a time, we went out into “the bush” in huge open Landrovers to look for animals, although often they would simply wander into our camp (especially the warthogs).   After about a week, we had seen plenty of lions, hippos, elephants, giraffes, monkeys, warthogs, impala, kudu, buffalo, zebras, baboons, hyenas, and more.  After our Safari, we spent some time in the Mpumalanga region looking at waterfalls, canyons, and crawling around in really old caves.  We had a great time and I’m happy to have had the opportunity to experience the quintessential Africa safari.

It’s really hard to believe that I have a bit less than eight months left in the place that I now call my home.  Thinking back, that first year I lived in Lesotho was really stressful because events, other people, and my feelings were so unpredictable.  For a long time I felt a very deep feeling of alienation from both Lesotho and American societies.  The feeling of being completely alone and not belonging anywhere is a strange one.  It was probably one of the most uncomfortable and insecure years of my life.  But at the same time, I learned a lot about myself and of what I am capable.  I think it’s a good thing that I pushed through the rough times, because they led to 2013, which has been a really good year so far.  Although it’s still a long time before I leave Lesotho, it seems that my time here has passed quickly, and I can’t help doing what I always do when things come to a close: thinking to myself something along the lines of “well, this is the last time _________ will happen.”  Some of the statements I’m happy to say, but most of them make me a bit sad. 

Here are some of these “last” experiences I’ve had so far:

The last time I’ll celebrate Christmas, the new year, and my birthday in Lesotho.

The last peach season, during which I can walk up to one of the peach trees at my home to pick a fresh peach at any time of the day for one whole month out of the year.

The last time I’ll struggle to remember 70 similar-sounding but really different Sesotho names like Nkeletseng, Ntsokeleng, Moleboheng, Nthabeleng, Ithapeleng, etc…

The last times I’ll be able to go to bed at 8 p.m. and sleep 10-12 hours without feeling like I’m missing out on something or being unproductive.

The last year I’ll be able to see the Southern Cross constellation in the night sky (unless I travel back to the Southern Hemisphere)

The last time I’ll sit through a four-hour parents’ meeting that’s conducted in Sesotho only.

The last time I’ll draw a penis and testicles on the chalkboard to teach the reproductive systems.

Swimming in Mac Mac pools, Graskop, Mpumalanga

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Stuff I Cook

I've always hated following recipes.  Luckily, living in Lesotho has caused me to get exceptionally creative and experimental, especially when it comes to food.  Despite only working with a few ingredients, I really enjoy cooking.  Because I am always cooking for myself, I notice my food, the spices, and what I did to prepare it a lot more than before.  After realizing that the smallest changes in ingredients or cooking methods can completely change the taste or texture of something, I've really refined my methods and have learned a lot of different techniques.  I've probably cooked swiss chard in at least eight different ways, and when I'm in town and am able to find the only red bell pepper or avocado I'll have for weeks (or even months), I devise ways I can incorporate it into my next meal and fantasize about eating it on the way home to my village.  Perhaps that seems strange to those of you who have always had avocados and red bell peppers at your fingertips, year-round, at the grocery store around the corner.

Now that I have a garden, I suppose I'm less creepy when it comes to thinking about fresh fruits and vegetables.  Here are some pictures of the more successful things I've cooked and eaten recently:

Sprouted lentil burgers and green beans

Snow peas, green beans, and chard from my garden

Salad with sauteed spinach, beet root, green beans, and garlic

Monday, January 21, 2013

Preparing for Year Two

Something I'm quite proud of is the quantity of books I’ve gone through during my time here.  I haven’t kept a list, but it’s probably between 50 and 75.  It almost seems as if number of novels read is now how I measure time.  It no longer surprises me if I finish a book in one day.  At times, I have far too much free time.  Teachers at my school will peer overwhelmingly at the small, single-spaced text of a book I’m reading as they flip through the pages and express their wonder.  Did I already finish the book of the same size I was reading three days ago? How does one read so fast?  And what could all of this possibly be about?

Although Lesotho has one of the highest literacy rates in Africa (85% of people over age 15), there doesn’t seem to be a culture of reading outside of the school environment.  Because people aren’t busy and being on time isn’t as important, I had expected to see a lot more people escaping into the worlds of novels, magazines, and newspapers in their free time.  Instead, Basotho seem to prefer socializing when they have a few minutes (or hours) to kill.  They make friends with anyone and everyone wherever they go.  Perhaps it’s a survival technique, but sometimes I wish Americans were more like this.  Instead of gluing your face to your iphone, for example, why not start a conversation with the person sitting next to you in the airport?  If Basotho had iphones or books in their native language at their fingertips, I suppose they would probably socialize less as well.  But this quality is something I really admire in them.  In this culture, two complete strangers sitting next to each other while waiting for their taxi to fill up are expected to at least greet one another.

Still, the deficit of a reading culture is something that worries me a little bit, especially because my school is creating a library with books that will arrive in March, all of which have been donated from a book drive in the U.S.  This means that they are all in English - hopefully at appropriate reading levels.  I aim to motivate students, teachers, and community members to read for pleasure, or at least look at some pictures.  In the process, maybe I can foster more of a joy of reading in my small community.  Setting up, managing, and getting people to actually use the library is probably what will occupy most of my time, in addition to teaching, for the first half of 2013.  I really don’t want to leave Lesotho with a pile of books collecting dust and eaten by silverfish.

I recently finished up my summer break appropriately at a mid-service conference near Maseru with 14 other Peace Corps volunteers in my group.  In October 2011, there were 23 of us, and now we’re down to just 17.  They are some of the most hilarious, inspiring, kind, and receptive people I know.  And they are doing great things in their communities.  After reflecting on our first year in Peace Corps, I realized that we are where we should be.  Lesotho may not be new and exciting anymore, and maybe the novelty of living in Africa has worn off, but this is still our home. I really hope that we can all stick it out for our last year and make it our best.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Reflections on my role as a PCV

Living in Africa for two years was probably the boldest and best decision I’ve ever made.  Although there have been times when I’ve doubted this, I know that all it takes is one trip to the capital and a bit of paperwork and I can be on a plane back to Raleigh the next day.  It’s comforting that this is an option if things get really tough.

What’s keeping me here exactly?  I’m not quite sure.  I’m certainly not saving the world or bringing entire African villages out of poverty.  Some people go into Peace Corps with huge ambitions and expectations.  After one year in Lesotho, I’ve learned to stop being so selfish.  This isn’t all about me.  I’ve learned to be satisfied with small achievements in my school and community and to focus on creating and maintaining relationships.  Focusing on things make my time here more enjoyable. 

I’ve always been a person with a plan.  I still am, but I don’t get upset as easily when things don’t happen as I anticipate, which is often the case in Lesotho, and probably other parts of Africa as well.  I’ve started to try a different approach here.  Instead of coming up with an idea and implementing it myself, I think Basotho should do it, and if they want my support, advice, and/or participation, I’m here for them.  I prefer to empower and motivate rather than taking charge and creating a relationship in which Basotho are dependent on me for success.  This is my overall philosophy about development. 

My primary job in my community is teaching.  Every day at school, I make an effort to remind myself that I’m transferring valuable knowledge and skills to my students, which they can later apply to their own country to improve the quality of life.  Some days I lose my grasp of this “big picture.” At times it’s very difficult when no one wants to participate, many do not understand (English), half the class is absent because they didn’t pay their school fees, or my lesson doesn’t work out as well as I’d thought.  But just when I think I can’t take it anymore, something beautiful happens that both surprises me and jerks me out of my slump.  This past year I loved Fridays because after lunch, all of the students would gather in one classroom and sing.  Basotho sing throughout their entire lives.  Harmonizing comes so naturally to them and they all seem to know the same songs.  I could sit there for hours while their voices carried all of my anxieties and disappointments away.

Africa can be beautiful, but life here can also be harsh.  This is the first time in my life that I’ve been completely alone.  No one is going to coddle and comfort me if am feeling lonely or sad.  Why should they when there are dealing with problems like feeding the family for the next few days or ensuring access to anti-retroviral therapy (to treat HIV/AIDS) from the local clinic that’s struggling to give help to everyone who needs it? These are real problems.  I didn’t think about it much before, but I now think it’s very important to know how to be by one’s self.  Even if people in industrialized countries are alone, they still have the Internet as a form of social interaction.  Here, most of us have to rely on our host families, neighbors, community members, and fellow Peace Corps volunteers, many of which do not speak much English, if any (with the exception of other volunteers).  They don't speak my language, so I have to speak theirs.  It’s amazing how much is added to life when I slow down and devote more of my time to getting to know people, rather than “hanging out” while actually doing something else like watching television, listening to music, dancing, drinking, or any other sort of distraction that hinders good conversation (not that I don’t like engaging in these activities too).  I really have to make an effort here.

It’s not easy living in Africa, but I’m doing it!  I can never answer properly when people ask me a general question about what life in Lesotho is like.  Whatever image of me you have in your head, it's probably not right.  I don’t think I’ll ever be able to adequately explain life here due to the range of experiences I’ve had.  If you want to know, come see for yourself!  I would love to host you!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Holidays

It’s the holiday season again.  I’ve experienced all four seasons in Lesotho and I must say, although two feet of snow in August was amazing, summer’s my favorite.

As it’s getting colder in North Carolina, the days are getting hotter and longer in the other hemisphere as we progress into December.  Riding through the mountains early this morning with the fresh air blowing in my face, I marveled at the bright green grass blanketing the mountains, the river that is full and sparkling from recent rain showers, and the once spindly trees on its banks that are now lush with new leaves.  Vegetables in my garden are sprouting, and I found a caterpillar crawling up the wall in my room yesterday.  After a very harsh and frigid winter in the Mokhotlong district, everything is impatiently exploding with life.  Perhaps it’s a result of me living all year without air conditioning or indoor heating, but Lesotho’s climate fascinates me with its bipolarity.  There’s beauty to be found in all of the seasons, but most of all summer.

Growing up in North America, it can be a bit strange celebrating Christmas at this time of year and at this location on the Earth.  It’s definitely more difficult to get in the holiday spirit when the temperature is so high and none of my family is around to listen to Brenda Lee and Mannheim Steamroller (my favorite Christmas artists) with me.  It’s also weird to cook and eat such rich food when it’s sweltering outside under the hot African sun.  It only takes about ten minutes for me to get a sunburn here.  However, it’s important to cook a large, delicious meal and share it with others on Christmas, and I think Basotho would agree.  I can’t write much about Basotho Christmas traditions, because I was with other Peace Corps volunteers last year and will be again this year.  But because many Basotho are Christians, I know it is an important holiday for them as well.

I hope you all have an enjoyable and relaxing holiday season with the people you love most.  And when you think you can’t spend another day with certain family members because they are stressing you out or driving you crazy, take a moment and remember us Peace Corps Volunteers.  I think all of us will value the time spent with our families a lot more after the two years we’ve been apart from them.  

Our home-made Thanksgiving place mats.  Yes, that's a quart of beer in the right-hand corner.  Happy holidays!