Where have I been? If it wasn’t for the video I recently posted, this blog would have grown mold. So, back to the continuing saga. And, since this is titled December 2012, Part I, it is only fitting to start in November.
My last day working at the school for 2012 was also the last day of November: Friday, November 30. I had packed my bags the night before so that I could leave directly after school for In-Service Training (IST), the first of my Peace Corps trainings since Pre-Service Training (PST) in Mpumalanga. The school year hadn’t officially ended yet for everyone else, but everything was pretty much wrapped up by then anyway.
Notable differences between PST and IST are that IST includes people we work with in the communities as participants in the training sessions and that instead of being held in a rundown college, it is held in fancy hotels. (Maybe not officially “luxury” hotels by American standards, but the level of luxury we experienced was far beyond what has become the norm for any of us volunteers.)
IST was split into two sections. The first was a regionally held workshop for volunteers and their supervisors (in most cases, they are the principals of the schools where we work). My regional workshop was held in Richard’s Bay.
My supervisor was gracious enough to drive the two of us there, plus my local PCV friend Briana and her supervisor. The principals were buddies, too, so we never had to worry about awkward stretches of silence during the 3+ hour ride. Everyone had someone to talk to and something to talk about and a native tongue to say it in.
Of course, the cookies had to be introduced to the principals on the ride there. And, of course, neither of them were content to eat just one.
Thinking about it now, this ride really illustrates the duality of South Africa, simultaneously living within the first and third world. At one point while sitting in a traffic jam, Briana was able to purchase a fresh pineapple from a lady hawking them from the side of the road; she just rolled down the window and bought it for the equivalent of about $.50 USD. At a different point in this short journey, we stopped at a large rest stop/petrol station where I purchased a bottle of water and mocha latte.
We arrived at the the hotel, checked in, and got caught up with the dozen or so PCVs participating in this regional meeting as they all trickled in to the hotel over a buffet dinner. I was rooming with Will, which was cool since we had roomed together for the first part of PST. And the “family” I was part of in PST, with Vanessa and Laura, was reunited again. And it really did feel like a family reunion overall, with all the other volunteers there. I could see marked changes in people even though it hadn’t been too terribly long since I had seen them. After all, people will change in demeanor and appearance over time, but I think PC service in rural Africa amplifies and speeds that process along.
During the days, we had sessions reviewing Peace Corps policies and covering our expectations for the upcoming school year, not to mention some discussion on alternatives to corporal punishment. Nothing too groundbreaking, but it was helpful to make sure everyone is still following the program. At night, there was much socializing and file-sharing and laughing and enjoying free wifi … and EATING! The variety of foods in the bounty laid before us everyday in the buffet was something that none of us were accustomed to, and little did we know how much better things would get in the next part of IST.
But first, we had to be our American selves. You can probably tell by the name of the town – Richard’s Bay – that we were close to the ocean. So, the majority of the volunteers made it a point one evening, just before dark, to get to the beach. It was a little chilly for swimming, but none of us wanted to miss an opportunity to see the ocean, being as close as we were. So, on foot, in around twenty minutes of walking, we found a public beach, dipped our feet in the water and took some photographs of the event for posterity.
By Sunday, 2 December, we were checking out of the hotel in Richard’s Bay, saying goodbye to our supervisors, and boarding vans to take us to part two of IST, held in Pietermaritzburg.
After another three or so hour van ride, we pulled in the parking lot of the hotel we were about to spend the better part of the next two weeks. There was a collective resonance of excitement and bewilderment. If we thought we had it good for the weekend, the next week and a half would truly be luxurious.
Having never been to Europe, my only points of reference for what Europe looks like come from TV, movies, and books. But just looking at the building against the backdrop of the rolling green hills of the Hilton area of Pietermaritzburg, I couldn’t help thinking of the theme from The Sound of Music (“The hills are alive …”). I’m far from an authority on architecture or ethnography, but when some decidedly European looking folks were walking through the parking lot (probably on their way to tea or a tennis match), I exclaimed “This place looks as European as … those people over there!”
So, we checked in and continued reuniting with the volunteers as they arrived from the other regional meetings. After some confusion about roommates, it was determined that I would room with George. This was more than fine by me, and he knew nothing of the confusion until I explained it to him when he arrived. He was part of the group that showed up last (and very late actually).
Settling in to these new digs was pretty easy. Over the next week and a half, we ate like royalty from a fancy buffet. Some of us had drinks at the bar like we were corporate mucky mucks on an important business trip. Others continually broke the hotel’s rule of playing the grand piano in the lobby. Many of us made friends with the folks who work there, be they in reception or in the kitchen or at the bar.
I was happy to let the hotel do my laundry, even though it was at my own expense. The price per item was cheaper than what you would pay in a similar hotel in the States, but most of the PCVs still found it to be too expensive. So, as we are all now accustomed to hand washing our clothes, many of them found themselves washing their laundry in their hotel room bathtub and hanging their clothes throughout their rooms to dry. I guess you can take the volunteer out of the village, but in some ways you can’t take the village out of the volunteer.
Most of us had two counterparts from our villages for the remainder of the training sessions: a teacher counterpart from our school for the sessions covering teaching in South African schools and a community counterpart for the sessions covering secondary community projects. In my case, both were teachers from my school. There were volunteers from previous groups to train and help facilitate some of the sessions, Peace Corps staff for other sessions, and Peace Corps brought in some experts for what turned out to be the most educational and engaging sessions. Not all of it was great, but I feel like overall it was well worth the time.
And the evenings continued to be a festival of socializing, whether at the bar or whoever’s room ended up being the center of activity. It was not uncommon on any given night to have ten or so of us piled into a room. But we were responsible, and only once do I recall the hotel telling us to quiet down. My friend, Rakeesha, being a part-time beautician, set up a makeshift shop in her room for haircuts, manicures and pedicures. I happily stopped in for a chat and a haircut.
In the midst of all of that, we were making frequent trips on foot, down the road to a shopping center. Because a Secret Santa gift exchange amongst the volunteers was organized, many of us were getting last minute Christmas gifts, essentials that may be hard to find in our respective shopping towns, or just a cup of coffee from the coffee shop there.
However, as we neared the end of our stay there, I started to get antsy. I knew I was starting to lose patience with just about everyone. It is funny how even a luxury hotel can start to feel constricting if you have limited options and resources for alternatives. Luckily, my friend Amy suggested going out to dinner for one of our last nights there. Surprisingly, the only other taker on that offer (besides me) was Rakeesha. To be honest, I’m not even sure who the invitation was extended to, but in the long run, it was probably better that it was a small group. The hotel staff helped us arrange a taxi and we went to a brew-pub, Old Main Brewery, a short distance away.
This was a truly great time. I felt like I got to know the two of them much better. Just being in a different environment with a specific small group of people can totally change your attitude, and I really needed it.
And it was excellent to have nachos. It was even better to sample the pub’s three beers, all brewed right there. Of the three, I really like their Imperial Stout (so much so, that I walked back the next day for another).
On our last full day there, Amy was again instrumental in arranging a trip to a local mall. Since many volunteers were gearing up for camping trips immediately following the training, for some this trip to the mall was essential. On the other hand, I was trying to keep my load as light as possible since my next trip after IST was all the way to Mpumalanga to visit my host family from Pre-Service Training. I was happy to go to the mall, though, for another change of scenery and a different choice of restaurants.
The next day, Thursday, 13 December, after eleven nights of luxury, all of the volunteers were heading out at different times throughout the morning for catching their transportation to wherever they were headed next. There were lots of hugs with each group that left. It will be three months or more before some of us see each other again, and the better part of a year until we are all together at the same time.
Since the Peace Corps office is in Pretoria, and I would have to pass through Pretoria to get to Mpumalanga, I was catching a ride on a Peace Corps van. The other PCVs traveling with me were Holly, Sharon and Linda, with each of us having to pass through Pretoria to get where we were going. But what was in store for me in Pretoria began a whole new adventure unto itself.
To be continued …