Medevac….Going Home

As I write this, I’m sitting in my bed back home in America at 4:30 in the morning. I’ve officially been medevac’d back to the USA for continuing treatment for my arm and to explore the options for another condition I was diagnosed with last week. Clearly, considering the time in America and the fact that I’m wide awake, I’m struggling with jet lag a bit. ūüėČ

Medevac means I have 45 days in the USA to show enough improvement to go back to South Africa. If I am cleared medically sometime within that 45 days, Peace Corps will send me back to South Africa to finish out my third year. If I am not medically cleared by the end of 45 days, I will be medically separated, which means my service will officially end.

The decision was passed down from Washington DC last Wednesday, and after the Thanksgiving holiday (which PCSA staff gets off), I went up to site to say goodbye and pack anything I’d want to take home. I had to pack as if I’m not coming back, which is pretty stressful and emotional. I came back to Pretoria on Saturday afternoon, and flew out on Monday evening. After nearly 24 hours of solid travel and two delayed flights, I found myself hugging my Mom in the Des Moines airport, heading home for Christmas for the first time in two years. I flew with Delta, and considering my broken arm, they were wonderful the whole way, helping me preboard and stow luggage, get a seat where someone wouldn’t be bumping my arm, and helping navigate the Atlanta airport with two large checked bags. I was very thankful for all the help both Delta and random people gave me throughout the journey!

I’m home now, well, back in Iowa. It’s hard because I have a home in South Africa as well, and I’m not sure if I will be going back. It’s been an emotional week, after the decision was passed down, and I’m still trying to process everything. Once again, the readjustment is hard, made more difficult by the uncertainty of medevac and the cold Iowa winter. The first thing I did here in Iowa was buy a winter coat. It’s been nearly 3 years since I’ve dealt with an Iowa winter.

I will say that if I had to choose a time of year to be medevac’d, I nailed it. ūüôā I think only people who have lived abroad for an extended amount of time can understand what being home with family for the holidays means. Though I’ve celebrated holidays with friends and near-family back in SA, it also feels like I haven’t had a real holiday for two and a half years. I feel so blessed to be home for the holiday season, though the reason for me being back isn’t wonderful.

It’s still hard to believe I’m home though!
-Jen

Uniquely Peace Corps Experiences

Life as a PCV can be intriguing and unpredictable in some many ways, and there are many experiences that happen to be uniquely Peace Corps. ¬†Some are just so out of the ordinary that a US citizen living abroad still wouldn’t experience them, but Peace Corps Volunteers do. ¬† A lot of it comes down the community that is Peace Corps, worldwide.

Through Peace Corps, I have friends around the world: Peru, Jordan, Botswana, the Ukraine, Lesotho, Benin, Panama, Zambia, Azerbaijan, to name a few…countries that many Americans probably don’t even know are countries. ¬†Primarily we have been brought together via friends-of-friends, the internet, stumbling across blogs, or random encounters in airports, and some have become close friends. ¬†No matter what country, we are connected through our experiences with the Peace Corps. ¬†It’s a family. ¬†A very diverse, strange, open family that reaches to all corners of the world.

The past week has highlighted the connections I have with other volunteers. ¬†Last Monday, a site mate moved into my village. In many PC countries, site mates are common, but not in South Africa. ¬†The fact that we live maybe a mile apart, and that I can see her school from my house, is nothing short of amazing in SA. ¬†She contacted me just before moving to the village, and we made plans to meet up on Friday. ¬†Favi, as I’ll call her, was pretty much a stranger to me. ¬†I had spent two days training at their PST, but since there were about 40 PCTs, I didn’t catch many names, and I don’t think we ever chatted.

So, essentially I was meeting a new neighbor. ¬†Should be awkward, right? ¬†Well, remember we are both PCVs. ¬†So when we finally met up, it was like we were long lost friends. ¬†We literally couldn’t stop talking, and I’m sure anyone who saw us on the street were amazed by how fast we were talking, and how animated we were.

Later on, an RPCV (returned PCV…aka, finished with service) from Liberia called me up and stopped by my place. ¬†We had met through a PC couch surf group, and she was wanting to see what a PCV site in SA looked like. ¬†We had chatted quite a bit on Facebook, and I was delighted to show her and three of her friends what the rural areas of SA are like. ¬†She spent about an hour at my place, and we all had a great time learning about each other’s PC services. ¬†We talked about all manner of things, and it was fascinating to learn what PC Liberia is like.

PC is a very unique experience. ¬†Very few organizations send Americans abroad for such a long amount of time, and to be completely integrated into a new culture and language. ¬†PCVs are trained to speak the target language, and embrace the culture of their host countries. ¬†Typically, volunteers live at the level of the people in their community, and give up many comforts of modern life. ¬†Of course, each county is different, but the highs and lows, joys and sorrows, struggles and successes, are relatively the same. ¬†They’ve even worked out a graph depicting the mental state of volunteers over their two years of service-worldwide, not country specific. ¬†PC can identify when volunteers will hit their highs and lows in service, based on a worldwide average, and it’s pretty darn accurate.

When I met with my cohort in Washington DC two years ago for staging, it was like I was meeting a group of friends I had known for years. ¬†We didn’t know anything about one another, or even our names, but we had a strong connection already. ¬†Each one of us had spent months (or years) applying for PC, and had fought through challenges to get there. ¬†After two years, we are still a closely connected group. ¬†We’ve been through some much while serving in PC, and there are some things that only other PCVs can understand. ¬†It has been like this with every other volunteer I’ve met. ¬†We understand each other on a deeper level.

Being a part of the PC community is amazing.  I look forward to returning to the states next year and getting involved with the Peace Corps community there, and for the random encounters with other volunteers in the future.

-Jen

PS…..random fact, but this is my 300th post. ¬†I thought about doing something special for it, but then decided the PC community was special enough. ūüôā

And It’s Back to the Grind!

I can safely say I am not good at posting when I’m on holiday in the USA (and that people laugh at me in the States when I say I’m “on holiday”).

I’m sitting in the Des Moines airport now, about an hour away from flying back from my holiday in the States. ¬†It has been a crazy, busy, wonderful month home. ¬†I saw so many good friends and family, though of course not as many as I’d like. ¬†I had amazing Mexican food, delicious cupcakes, tasty ice cream, and all sorts of other great foods. ¬†Including a deep fried Snickers bar on a stick at the Iowa State Fair.

Dad and I spent a weekend in Chicago. Oddly enough, I have flown, driven, and even taken a train through Chicago, but I have never actually “been” to Chicago. ¬†So we “tourist’d” up and set out to hit all the sites: Shedd Aquarium, the Soldier’s Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, the John Hancock Observatory (with an open air balcony….94 floors high), Navy Pier, and the Skydeck at the Willis Tower…aka Sears Tower. ¬†The Skydeck is 1,353 feet (412 meters) in the air, or 103 floors. ¬†It was a fun stop….you can see 4 flights from that high! ¬†We only got a little bit lost driving around Chicago (did you know there’s like an underground highway under downtown Chicago….not sure if we were supposed to be there, but….)

My parents thought it would be fun to move houses while I was back. ¬†So my last week went like this: Friday-get a new dog,Saturday-have Dad’s 50th birthday party at the new house with about 40 people, Sunday-PACK, Monday-move the old house to the new house, Tuesday-pack my bags and have Graham’s ice cream one last time, Wednesday-Leavin’ on a jet place. ¬†Crazy, right? ¬†Notice how we had a party at the new house BEFORE we actually moved. ¬†We like to live life on the edge.

And now I’m looking forward to sleeping for the next 16 hours. ¬†On a plane. ¬†Yeah, right. ¬†But at least I can watch some good movies!

 

And I have a province-wide Permagarden workshop I’m cofacilitating in 3 days. ¬†That’ll be an interesting experience, with jet lag and all!

-Jen

The Biggest Surprise Ever!

I know I’ve been silent the past few weeks, and there’s a very good reason for that. ¬†You see, I’ve been in the USA!

I’ve known for a few months that I would be going home to Iowa in July/August, but I chose to keep it a secret so I could surprise all my friends and family, primarily my father. ¬†Only my Mom and sister were in on the surprise. ¬†On the 25th of July, I border my flight in Johannesburg, landing back home in Iowa on the 26th, where my Mom kept me sequestered at home for the day. ¬†On the 27th, my Mom and I drove to meet my Dad at the end of RAGBRAI, which is a bike ride across Iowa. ¬†I surprised him at the finish line, which was an incredible experience. ¬†He certainly didn’t expect to see his daughter from South Africa at the end of RAGBRAI….speechless for sure!!

Since then I’ve been enjoying life in the States. ¬†I have a month at home before I head back for my third year of service, designated Home Leave by Peace Corps. ¬†PC bought my ticket and granted me 30 days of leave, which I am exceedingly grateful for. ¬†Good food, family, friends, and all the familiarity of home….I’ll post some pictures in the coming days!

-Jen

Morning Commute

I’m officially a commuter, again. ¬†It’s been a few years since I’ve had to endure the morning commute. ¬†The most I’ve had to deal with during my walks to school in the village was weaving through the congested cow traffic. ¬†Seriously.

But as of last week, having officially moved from one village to the next village over, I’m a commuter. ¬†This morning I walked out my front door with my travel mug of coffee, went out the gate, and waited for a ride to the next village over. ¬†It reminded me of my semester living in Washington, DC, oddly enough. ¬†There, I left my apartment and either walked 2 blocks to the metro, or took a shuttle to Union Station to catch the bus. ¬†Usually I took the bus because it was half the price, although much longer timewise.

Really, nothing about my new morning commute should remind me of commuting in the capital of the Good Ole US of A. ¬†I stood on the dusty sidewalk along the tarred road, greeting learners on their walk to school. ¬†I watched a cow cause a traffic jam as I waited about 15 minutes for a junky bush taxi to come by, then hopped on for the short ride. ¬†I passed my 7 rand fare up to the driver when I hopped out, then walked across the road to the the Xitsavi centre. ¬†In DC, I waited alongside other interns, DC professionals, tourists, and homeless people at Union Station for the bus. ¬†The distance I rode (a few miles) was the same as I’m taking here, but it usually took an hour as we chugged through DC traffic. ¬†I usually read on my kindle during the ride, snatching up a seat if possible, but often standing. ¬†Ironically enough, my bus dropped me off outside the Peace Corps HQ, and I walked a block to my internship.

I am enjoying my new morning commute, as it gets me more visible in the community, and the taxi drivers will soon know who I am. ¬†And it’s nice to be in a more professional work setting than I have been the past two years. ¬†I’m sure some days I’ll hate my morning commute (rainy season, anyone?) or fail to have the correct change. ¬†But for now, it’s nice to be out and about so early in the morning, interacting with the community and learning how to navigate the taxi system in my new village. ¬†Believe it or not, it’s quite different than in my old village!

-Jen

Culture Shock….Again

When I decided to extend for a third year, I gave no thought to culture shock. ¬†After all, I had been living in this country for two years, had traveled extensively, and felt prepared for what was coming. ¬†I was adjusted, integrated, and all those other Peace Corps words that meant I generally knew what I was doing. ¬†I wasn’t moving to a new country, so I gave absolutely no consideration to the possibility of facing culture shock.

And therefore, I was shocked.

Seriously, I don’t know how I never considered it. ¬†I mean, I was moving to the other side of a very diverse country. ¬†A new climate, culture, language, job description….basically everything was new, except for the rooster which likes to crow at 3am. ¬†I could have seriously moved to another country (Botswana) with less changes than I face now. No, having to take a bucket bath no longer filled me with trepidation, and I knew how to use the kombis. ¬†But I’ve certainly faced a bit of culture shock in the past two weeks, since moving to my new site. ¬†And I only recently figured out that this was the problem.

On the other hand, I am unreasonably annoyed at the amount of coddling I’m facing in my new village. ¬†I say unreasonably, because I really should appreciate the fact that my new community is bending over backwards to make me feel safe and comfortable. ¬†But after living independently in the village reality for the past 2 years, it’s a little annoying to be told to call someone after a short taxi ride from town to be sure I made it safe, or to be asked if I will get lost when I can see my destination up ahead. ¬†I suppose this might be a side effect of culture shock: being easily annoyed at things I should be grateful for. ¬†But it’s difficult to be treated much like a child when I feel comfortable walking around on my own or cooking food for myself.

I had assumed that moving to my new site would be pretty smooth, but it’s been a rough few weeks. ¬†Part of that is because I thought it would go smoothly….never have expectations in the Peace Corps! ¬†Dealing with culture shock when I’ve been living in a country for two years was unexpected and difficult. ¬†That was compounded by a situation at my host family which means I must move again (at least only within the village). ¬†So while I’m trying to settle in to my new village, I still feel very tossed about and my future seems uncertain.

At least my supervisor has identified a new house for me, and I’ll have a lot more answers come Tuesday next week. ¬†In the meantime, I am enjoying my new Peace Corps life as my culture shock turns into intrigue and curiosity.

-Jen

Planting Gardens Here and There

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The start of a trench bed!

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The past few weeks have been pretty crazy in my normally slow-paced African life.¬† I was out of the village from April 11-28th, travelling here there and everywhere on Peace Corps business.¬† It‚Äôs actually pretty unusual for an education PCV to be out of the village during the school term for so long, but lest anyone think I was slacking-it was all PC approved!¬† ūüôā

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Planting seedlings.

Back in February, I was invited to help facilitate one of the PC Permagarden trainings with the newest education group, SA26.  The workshop was held in KwaZulu Natal, the home of the Zulu people and 100% different than my Kalahari home.  Mountains, trees, long grass, rain, fog, fertile soil….what a beautiful area!  The workshop was held in the Sisonke district, and about 7 PCVs and their counterparts attended.  I hold this group of PCVs in high regard: almost all of them teach 15-20 hours a week, and some are so rural that they don’t have electricity at home.  Woah.  I had a lot of fun working with this group, and LOVED getting to see real KZN…I had been down to Durban last year, but Durban doesn’t even come close to showing the beauty of KwaZulu Natal.

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I've gotten good at carrying things on my head like the locals. I'm on the right.

Fun thing: we stayed in a haunted hotel.  I was on the fourth floor (aka attic), in a room alone, in a creaky, Victorian style house.  It was creepy to say the least.  No, I don’t think they had 8 ghostly visitors, but it was still pretty creepy. 

The two day workshop went remarkably well, and some of the participants have already started their own gardens since then.¬† They learned some basic permaculture methods, and several have already contacted me for more information.¬† I‚Äôd love to visit some of their gardens sometime, but I have no clue if that is in the cards!¬† It was definitely fun to interact with some Zulu people, and hear this 100% foreign-to-me language‚Ķ.we didn‚Äôt even learn Zulu greetings in PST, so I was at a loss besides ‚ÄúSanibonani!‚ÄĚ

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One of the covered seed beds.

After that workshop, I spent a day in Pretoria, then headed back across North West, through half of Northern Cape, to a remote village on the SA-Botswana border.¬† I had been planning a workshop with 3 (three!) PCVs who live in this village for awhile, and was excited to visit their unique home.¬† This village is home to a fairly large white and coloured population (not an offensive term here!), along with a large black population (who still live off in the ‚Äúlocation‚ÄĚ on the dune‚Ķrelic of Apartheid).¬† However, no white children attend the school, only coloured and black kids.¬† This school, due to the ‚Äúdiversity‚ÄĚ, is dual-medium, meaning they have an Afrikaans track and an English track.¬†

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Some of the ABET learners with their tire gardens.

Obviously, this was not the normal village experience.  This was easily the nicest rural school I had been in, and honestly could have been mistaken for an American school, albeit low-income and pretty under-resourced.  There were the typical South African education problems, such as overcrowding, corporal punishment, absenteeism, few resources, and the numerous other problems found in village schools.  However, the staff was pretty motivated, and wanted to have a workshop for their ABET ( Adult Based Education and Training) class, comprised of about 25 Grade 7 learners.  Yes, an adult education class for Grade 7 kids….some of whom were almost my age! 

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The finished garden!

I was a little leery about working with the most troublesome and struggling learners at this school, but I was pleasantly surprised.  For most of the workshop, they were attentive, involved, and asking/answering questions.  They were clearly excited to be out of the classroom and learning in a different way.  I spoke with one of the volunteers, and he said they might try to have a gardening period every day, since they learners were actually involved in their learning during this workshop.  Just goes to show that sometimes learners need to be out of class to learn!

My next leg of this journey involved another cross-country trip to see my third year site, but that is definitely worthy of its own post.
-Jen