Peace Corps Blog

This is a blog of my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer, working in South Africa. My job title is a capacity builder, which means I help increase the effectiveness of a local NGO that does AIDS/HIV related work.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Holidays in Mozambique

This past holiday season, a number of my fellow volunteers and I made a trip to Mozambique. This was my first significant trip outside of South Africa. We traveled north to a village on the beach, which also is a common destination for tourists (ranging from the increasingly popular volunteer-tourists to the guests of luxurious island houses with a private airstrip). From our beach-front hostel, we looked out to a scattering of moored boats, which often made early morning fishing excursions or day long trips out to the archipelago of islands. One of our days was spent taking a dhow (a type of sailboat) out to one of the closer islands, where we went snorkeling and had a lunch of calamari stew, crab and lots of fresh fruit.

The trip provided a fascinating glimpse at how much South Africa’s history of colonialism and apartheid have shaped its culture, values and society today. Once outside of South Africa, one becomes keenly aware of the racial tension that exists in and weighs on much of the country. In South Africa, much emphasis and attention are placed on skin color and a racial or tribal identity group, but while in Mozambique, such divisions and groupings are less apparent and less important. Riding around in the “chapa” taxis (much like the South African version, although often with many more people squeezed in), I felt less people observing me and less people questioning my presence and role in the country and society.

In addition, people demonstrated a remarkable level of hospitality and generosity. One evening, I went walking to a corner “shabeen” (bar), where a number of young men were sitting outside eating, drinking and talking. I was immediately offered a chair, as well as the calamari the men were already eating. As we sat, they kept encouraging me to eat more and one man ended up buying me several sodas (he was disappointed that I turned down the offer of beer).

Other highlights of the trip included:

  • Going sailing with a group of local fishers, who took us up the coastline and even let me steer the boat for a while. It was fantastically beautiful and peaceful on the water.
  • Traveling in buses filled with everything from chickens to televisions across roads like Swiss cheese (so many potholes). At one point, the road was washed out because of heavy rain, so we all had to get out, ford the little river and find a new bus on the opposite side.
  • An amazing meal at a little café south of where we were staying, which included homemade butternut squash ravioli topped with a sun-dried tomato parmesan pesto. Delicious!

All in all, it was an enjoyable trip and a great opportunity to see a different side of Africa, where commercialism has a less established grasp on the society. I have posted a handful of photos from the trip in my gallery.

Happy new year and I look forward to seeing friends and family on my upcoming visit home!

Labels: ,

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Lots More Photos

It's long overdue, but I have finally posted lots more photos. The dearth of photos has been due to two things. One, forgetting my camera in Durban over Christmas vacation. And two, the slow upload speed over the cellphone connection. But both problems have been remedied at this point. Amazingly, I managed to recover my camera four months after I left it in a backpackers in Durban. As for the internet speed, I believe the local cellphone tower was upgraded, because now I get a 3G connection (which is amazing for a rural village anywhere in the world, much less Africa).

My parents came to visit in April, and we spent a little over two weeks traveling around the eastern part of South Africa. Just a brief overview of our trips:
  • One night in my village, ga-Mathabatha, staying with Agnes (the head of my organization)
  • Over to Graskop and Sabie
  • A four night backpacking trip from Sabie over to Graskop (not really backpacking, as we got to stay in outstanding little huts along the way)
  • Into Kruger, the amazing game park here
  • South, around Swaziland (staying at a guesthouse on a pig farm along the way)
  • Two nights in St. Lucia, an estuary game park along the coast
  • One night in Durban, with a breathtaking view of the Indian Ocean from our room
  • Up to the Drakensberg mountain range, where we stayed in the Royal Natal park
  • And finally, returning to Pretoria before my parents headed off
My parents brought many books and other niceties for me to enjoy, but one of the best was my nicer camera, which I had originally decided to leave at home. So along the way, I was able to make up for the lack of photos and captured some of the beautiful places and things we saw. And I have selected a few the highlight places along our journey, and have posted 27 new photos! You can see them by going to:

Album: Traveling South Africa with my parents

Labels: ,

Monday, May 26, 2008

A Moment in Africa

South Africa hardly resembles the traditional images that come to mind when you think of Africa… the rolling savannahs and desserts, the tropical rain forest areas. In fact, the majority of the places I have visited thus far remind me more of home then of what I would envision when thinking of Africa. My site is nestled up against a mountain, which looks very much like New Mexico. Many of the open areas resemble the deserts of California. And as you climb into the mountains, such as the Drakensberg Range, you see rock formations that resemble Arizona and mountain lakes that bring back memories of Colorado.
Yet, every once and a while, there will be a view or a moment that resembles some traditional notion of what we expected South Africa to be like. Whether it is a stunning sunrise or the breathtaking moment when a herd of elephants crosses the road on all sides of our car. And when with other volunteers, we will pull out our cameras and comment that it truly looks like Africa. So I wanted to share one of those moments, when it was unequivocally a moment in Africa.

Three close friends and I were visiting Kruger National Park. Just to give a little background, Kruger is one of the largest game reserves in the world. It is about the size of Wales (and is now growing as fences between it and neighboring private reserves and other international reserves are being torn down). It is home to a vast variety of animal and plant life, scattered through out three major eco-zones and many sub eco-zones. Spending a day driving around Kruger, one will often pass from zone to zone and suddenly see a very different environment outside the window. Most of our time is spent driving around, looking for animals. But there are also well maintained rest camps, where you can stop for food or to stay the night.

So upon spotting a turn off for a baobab tree, we decided to go off and explore. The trees are stunning in size, and in formation, with extremely thick trunks (usually about 23ft wide). The trunks are used to store water (up to 32,000 gallons), allowing it to survive through the periods of intense drought. The one in Kruger did not appear to be in the greatest health, but gathering at the base, we were able to appreciate the magnificent size and stature of the tree.

We continued on the curvy dirt road, hoping to make our way back to the main paved road. Coming around a corner, we saw a feline approaching us. And three cars in the opposite direction crowding in to try and get a view of the animal who was walking straight towards our car. We had the good fortune to be the only car coming from our direction, so we had a stunning view. It was a mother leopard, and shortly after, we saw her little cub following behind in a shy manner. Although she seemed quite unfazed by the gathering cars, the cub would run off into the tall grass on the side of the road to hide every so often. The mother would stop and look back impatiently, waiting as the cub got its courage together to walk a little further along the road. You could even here it cry out – little meows emanating from the deep grass, where it hid. The pair walked right by our car, reaching distance from the window and continued on down the road. Simply said, we were awe struck. It had a beautiful body, dotted by rosettes of black spots on a whitish golden background. Its movements were quiet and full of grace. And interestingly, since then, I have learned that it is second most effective predator in Kruger (only outdone by the African Hunting Dog).

The leopard spotting completed the Big Five for us (well, three of us). We’d already seen lions, elephants, African Buffalo and a few rhinoceroses. And of course, we’d also seen giraffes, hippos, baboons, zebras, all sorts of gazelles and amazing birds of all varieties. While wandering the roads of Kruger, the amazing sights and beautiful landscape offer a strong reminder of the fact that we are living in Africa – in some ways, it is not so foreign feeling as we often think, but at the same time, there are some special, beautiful moments that are unique to Africa.

Photos (taken by my friends Abby and Megan)


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Christmas on the Beach

For Christmas this year, I took my first vacation in South Africa. After being at site for three months, we were allowed to begin traveling and seeing more of the country (the rule is in place to help encourage us to fully integrate into our community and not run off in the beginning). And so for my first vacation, I decided to head to Durban, a costal city on the Indian Ocean in the southeast of South Africa. A number of other volunteers were also going to head to Durban (the beach is a pretty attractive first vacation).

I ended up arriving a day earlier then the other volunteers, because of complications in travel plans, so I stayed at a hotel in downtown for the first night. It was nice to have some time to myself and to unwind before meeting up with everyone. In the afternoon I headed down to the beach, which reminded me how much I love the ocean and how I hope to spend most of my life living near it. And I enjoyed a dinner at a place that essentially does Indian tapas, so you order a number of different main courses and each is a little serving. The night was topped off by a swim in the pool on the top floor of the hotel, under the stars, with a remarkable view out at the city (best of all, I had the whole place to myself).

For the first week of the vacation, eleven of us stayed at a house in Amanzimtoti (essentially a suburb thirty minutes from the city). From the house, you could walk down a long set of stairs and in five minutes, be standing on the beach. So, that is exactly what we did for everyday of that week… sat on the beach, under a big umbrella, and got up every few hours to hop in the water. The whole while, we ate good food. A few blocks from the house was a Woolworths Food (a higher end grocery store, similar to Marks & Spencer in London – in fact, owned by Marks & Spencer), a Fruit and Veg City (delicious fresh fruit, very inexpensive) and an Indian Bunny Chow place. Bunny Chow is essentially a half loaf of bread, partially hollowed out and filled with curry and vegetables (delicious, spicy, and it only costs $1.50 for meal’s worth). So one day, we spend a whole nine hours on the beach, with a group going up to get Bunny Chow, drinks and chocolate around lunch time.

On Christmas morning, Erin (the volunteer who found and arranged for the house) surprised us with decorations, including Christmas lights, a paper tree and a Santa hats (instead of stockings) with each of our names in glitter on them. It was such a nice way to start out the day. And then she went on to cook delicious eggs benedict, while Paul cooked pancakes. Before heading to the beach, we did a gift exchange. For a Christmas away from home, you couldn’t ask for much more.

On the last night at the house, we all decided to go out to do karaoke at a local bar (primarily Afrikaner). At the beginning of the night, I felt like we were annoying most of the people, being the typical Americans. But by the end, everyone seemed to be loving it. People were dancing on the tables. One volunteer was even going up to strangers and pulling them up to dance. And when the KJ (like a DJ, but for karaoke) announced the last song, the whole bar started chanting “one more!”

Justin and I departed the house the day before New Years Eve (it was sad to leave that great group), and headed into Durban on a very sketchy train. Probably not the safest means of travel, but it was cheap. For the next few nights, we stayed at a backpackers in Morningside (a rather fancy neighborhood, with everyone dressed nice, felt almost like Los Angeles). There were lots of good restaurants, bars and we were near an apartment where four other volunteers were staying, so we spent a lot of time with them. And for New Years Eve night, we ate Thai food and headed to a huge club with lots of people and danced well into the morning.

All in all, it was an outstanding vacation - so nice to have some down time and so nice to hang out with other volunteers. Now I have been back at site for a while, I am settling back into things here and am already feeling busy.