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Category Archives: Flashbacks

Flashback #2 – Welcome to PST

I stayed up far too late working on this, so enjoy the fruit of my labor. 🙂

When we touched down in Jo’burg (for the uninitiated, this is a very common nickname for Johannesburg), there was still a hint of daylight. Due to the six-hour time difference from Eastern Time, it was already evening on Thursday, 12 July. But we didn’t have time to enjoy that, because we quickly found ourselves rounding up luggage and standing in line to get our passports and visas checked out. When everyone made it through, we were greeted by some more new friends, including some of the PC-SA big wigs and a couple of volunteers named Chad and Jonelle. They and the drivers assisted us to our bus and the loading of the luggage onto the truck.

On the way to the training site, I remember thinking as we drove on a divided highway in the dark that the terrain didn’t seem too different from central Florida (other than the fact that we were on the wrong side of the freeway). We stopped at a truck-stop of sorts. Some of us – actually just those of us who had some SA currency (Rand), which trades at roughly 1/8th of the USD – bought some snacks (not me). Others of us used the restrooms (me). From then on, the view outside was very dark, and the roads much more narrow. A few hours later, we pulled into an Education College in the Mpumalanga province of SA, which was our main hub of Pre-Service Training (PST), and became known to all of the PCTs as M-hub.

As an aside, you may have noticed more and more abbreviations and acronyms popping up in this tale. Don’t worry, it bothers me, too. Try explaining to a non-native English speaker what M-hub means. It is so much easier to just say “I’ll be at the college today.” And how redundant is it to include “PC” in ANY of these abbreviations? We know what organization we joined. I’m fine with simply saying I’m a “trainee,” but apparently that isn’t good enough. I am literally a PCT going through PST who meets fellow PCTs at the M-hub. We are far from finished with the abbreviations; I’ve barely scratched the surface here, and I am sure there are plenty more I haven’t learned yet.

Back to our arrival … there were a bunch of young-ish looking South Africans (Host Country Nationals, as native folks are often referred to, at least by PC) singing to us in a language (or perhaps languages) that we didn’t understand. They started before the busses were even parked. We got off the busses and stood in a big group, and watched as they performed. It was equal parts exhilarating and awkward. They were really good. We were really tired. Every once in a while there would be words we could understand like “Peace Corps.” We didn’t know if we should clap our hands in time, attempt to sing along, or just stand there like deer in headlights. Most of us went for the third option.

Weeks later I was reminded of a particular song they sang that was entirely in English. That shows you how out of it I was.

It turns out that the majority of these folks were our Language and Culture Facilitators (you guessed it: LCFs). They weren’t supposed to speak to us in English for the first couple weeks of training, though we figured out later that they all can speak English well. It is supposed to immerse us to help us learn the local language. But I’m not sure how well that works when not all of the PCTs are learning the same language. To be honest, I would not have been able to tell you if they were speaking different languages from each other or not. It was all Greek to me. But more on language learning later.

We unloaded all the luggage into one room. This took more time than it seems like it should have. But all (or almost all) of us had three pieces of luggage each. The expectation is that at least one of your bags is your “non-essentials” bag that you don’t have access to throughout training. But, for the time being, we were lugging those, too.

We then regrouped to get the lowdown on sleeping arrangements and expectations for the next day. We gathered up our luggage (again) and found our rooms in the mostly vacant dorms of the college. This time I had two roommates: John and Will. The male trainees (who were outnumbered nearly 2 to 1 by women) were sent off to a separate building than the females. Married couples (of which we have two) slept on the first floor of the ladies’ dorm. By the way, each building is referred to as a block; this seems to be a SA thing (or perhaps Afrikaans or British). The guys’ block has three doors, but only one was unlocked. Of course it was the door that was the least convenient to the rest of the blocks in the college that we were actually using.

In our room were four beds. Since there were only three in our room, one of those beds was used for storage … and mostly storage of my stuff, to be honest. Each of the beds we used had a simple – yet very workable – foam mattress with a sheet, blanket, pillow, and very thick comforter.

The college overall seems a bit neglected. Many of the buildings seem to be unused other than by PC. (I know there are classes there, but it seems far from a bustling hive of educational activity.) There is a high brick wall that seems to divide the college into two sections, with a big steel gate to go between the two halves of the campus. Naturally, the side we mainly used is the side in need of more attention. Falling apart sidewalks, ill kept landscaping, and broken windows are the norm. None of the buildings appear to have heat. (Thus, the very thick comforter is a necessity; keep in mind that this was the middle of winter for the Southern Hemisphere.)

The bathrooms in the dorms are pretty good, but they could also use some basic maintenance. Sinks with both cold and hot water are scarce. Shower curtains are more like nets that water passes right through. Next to each bathroom is a laundry room with two large basins and three ironing boards for doing all your laundry. (No washers or dryers, of course; hang your clothes to dry on the lines outside.) An iron would have come in handy if anyone had one.

On the other hand, peacocks and ostriches can be found running around the grounds throughout the mornings, and the college is situated high enough on a hill that you can view the neighborhoods down in the valley. And for the most part, it felt and looked as if we were somewhere on the outskirts of Phoenix, AZ in the winter. The ground looked very similar, the plants looked very similar, and the weather for winter (warm days and chilly nights) is just like that of the Sonoran Desert.

Sunset outside the college

We were very secure there, considering all the fences and security guards 24-7. There is an official looking (and decently kept) track and field with a large concrete grandstand and bleacher sections – local youth soccer teams came to play there while we were residents. Sunsets are pretty and the stars in the southern hemisphere are fantastic, especially during a new moon. And, running water and flush toilets are quite luxurious compared to the conditions in the surrounding villages, as we all found out later.

So, for over one week, this was our home.

Within the first couple of days we had the opportunity to reassess the contents of our non-essential bags, before having to relinquish them. I am happy to report that I decided to throw the dice and hold on to my laptop. (It turns out that – for me – having a computer IS essential, and in no way did I ever feel like it was ripe for theft.) My good camera I thought best to send off as a non-essential item. That may have been a mistake, but I was still able to take photos with my cell phone. Unfortunately, the Verizon Wireless Android I have doesn’t actually work as a phone in SA, but it is still handy as a camera, video recorder, voice recorder, MP3 player, and flashlight (or “torch” as they are called in SA – all the English here is very British).

Also within the first couple of days, we all seemed to form particular cliques. Not on purpose; I think these things just happen. It isn’t as if the cliques compete with each other or have any ill will towards each other. (That is, it isn’t like high school.) We all just ended up hanging around the same little groups of people, especially in our free time or during meals.

My free time clique included me, Vanessa and Laura. Vanessa and I are nearly the same age and Laura seems like she should be our age (even though she is in her early 20s and looks even younger). The free time we had at the college was mostly in the evenings and we filled it by playing Quidler and/or just talking. But we could be ourselves and decompress from the sensory overload that we were enduring.

Also because of these cliques, when we were all in the actual training sessions, more often than not everyone would end up sitting in roughly the same place in the room. Like some kind of psychology experiment, we were proving how humans are creatures of habit. So much so with me, Laura and Vanessa, that later on in training, Ted (who was always sitting almost directly across from us) decided that the three of us looked like a small family: Vanessa and I being the parents, and Laura our daughter. Of course, this family notion stuck, and was even extended to include Briana and Brandon as the aunt and uncle, since they would almost always be sitting next to us. But at meal time, I usually made it a point to move around and mingle more.

Which brings me to food. Of the ingredients in the food we were introduced to at the college, none were particularly exotic. However, their preparation at times was uncommon to the Americans, like cheese and butter sandwiches on white bread, or this interesting concoction called “pap” (pronounced like “pop” – and the English word they use for it is porridge). It is a maize-meal based food that is essentially a less moist version of grits. It is very common across SA, but can differ in its preparation depending on the region.

Having a strong British influence, the South Africans that planned and conducted our training were always good about leaving time for us to “take tea” every day between breakfast and lunch. This was usually just your choice of tea or instant coffee with exceptionally dry cookies (“biscuits,” if you prefer). Sometimes they had small sandwiches, like the aforementioned cheese and butter on white bread. We were never in danger of going hungry.

What we learned while we were living at the college is a bit of a blur. We started getting inoculations and vaccines. We started getting scared by the safety and security coordinator about crime, violence, public transportation issues, sexual assault, etc. We started to hear about volunteer diversity. We started getting stuff, like our own medical kit and our own mosquito net. We started to get interviewed individually about our health backgrounds and where we might be best placed in the country. And we started learning important education, culture and language lessons.

Well, for language at this point we were mostly given standard greetings in five of the eleven official SA languages: IsiZulu, IsiNdebele, SiSwati, Afrikaans, and Xitsonga.

It was originally assumed that any of us may be assigned any of these languages, except for Afrikaans. Afrikaans greetings are taught because it is quite common in the country and many of the blacks were taught this in school during apartheid. As a matter of fact, we were told that there is an assumption on the part of older blacks (especially since most of the PCTs are white) that we will know how to speak it. So we learned how to say “good morning,” “good afternoon,” and “good night.” Then we learned how to say “How are you?” “I’m fine, thanks.” Then we learned how to say “I don’t speak Afrikaans.”

I found out recently that Xitsonga was cut from the list of possibilities because there were no suitable sites to send any of us in the regions that speak that language. So, we were down to three possibilities, and most of us got assigned IsiZulu.

The language assignments were a pretty big deal and they took place on Wednesday, 18 July. Not only did we find out what language we were to learn, but we were broken into groups of about four to six trainees and found out which LCF was assigned to our group. Additionally, the people comprising a group would most likely be located in close proximity to each other when we got assigned our permanent sites. So you’ll want to know them pretty well and you’ll want them to be people you get along with fairly easily.

Brandon, Katrina, Michael and I were assigned to a group to study IsiZulu, with Minky assigned as our LCF. I’m not sure how long it took, but within a very short amount of time most in our group were referring to us as “Team Awesome.”

Team Awesome makes me feel a little old, and in more than one way. For starters, I’m not crazy about the name. It sounds more appropriate coming from the mouth of someone in their early 20s than it does from me. Secondly, I make many jokes and/or references that none of them get. For example, I don’t expect Minky (being a black South African) to get references from Family Ties, but the fact that Family Ties was cancelled before anyone else on the team was born makes me look ancient. As a matter of fact, at one point I referred to myself as the Dennis Miller of the team because my references are too obscure for all of them. Fittingly, none of them knew who Dennis Miller is (and they were more than happy to tell me so).

Minky was instantly like our mom. She had held the position of LCF before, so she knows well how to navigate the Peace Corps training universe. And we couldn’t ask for someone who was more dedicated to our team. She can be sassy, but she knows her stuff so well that she is entitled to some sass. She is especially good at knowing how to focus on the important stuff we needed to learn. And, she is an example of how Peace Corps can have a positive influence – even just in training – as we were having daily cultural exchanges. Even when we weren’t trying, cultural exchanges were happening because we were all committed to communicating with each other. It is simple, but effective.

And overall, Team Awesome was a really good team to be on. They are all bright, highly motivated, and way better at learning a second language than I am. They are the type of people who I think most Americans picture when they think of Peace Corps volunteers. I appreciate them. Even though PST is over, we’re still a team. And most of the time I do feel like I’m in their same age group.

 
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Posted by on 17 September 2012 in Cultural Experiences, Flashbacks

 

Flashback #1 – Taking Off

It is still raining. A thatch roof is only so leak-proof.

Little drips from the ceiling.

And I seem to have some time for more blog updates. So let’s take time to paint some of the background …

The beginning of my Peace Corps journey takes place, of course, in the USA. There was much I had to do just to get an invitation to PC, including all the times I had to run through the reasons one might want to actually go through with such a thing at age 34. Then there were all the preparations and goodbyes to my friends and family in Phoenix, Arizona (my “home of record” and where I’ve lived for the nearly nine years leading up to PC), and all the fun one can have on a week-long solo road trip across the US. But we’ll skip all that for now and just focus on the time spent right before departing for South Africa.

For a week and a half leading up to my departure, I was staying with my parents in my hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. It was great. I visited all the friends and family that I could. I got to visit Gramma Lil, in lieu of attending her 80th birthday party, which occurred about one month after I left. Grandma and Grandpa Hendel were in town from Florida in time to see me before I left, too (which was a nice surprise to me). They were there to attend the Hendel family reunion in Pennsylvania — another event I had to miss, as it took place the weekend after I left.

There were a bunch of little tasks, errands and research I wanted to squeeze in during my time in Ohio, but most of them just didn’t happen. When I get to talking with my mom or my dad (or both) or anyone in my family or close friends, time just disappears. But I am more than ok with that. I’m sure I really needed to do so before being away from all of them for a couple of years. Time is our most precious commodity, and I think that is one of the best ways to spend it.

And then there was the task of packing. My sister, Sara, was instrumental in the packing of the suitcases that came with me to SA. We tried at least three configurations of the cases before settling on what actually flew. I was disappointed that the little guitar I bought for the journey couldn’t make it, but with her help (and one of her suitcases) we managed to get a lot of stuff in three suitcases within the weight and size restrictions. But better than that, my dress shirts, dress pants and suit coat had nary a wrinkle by the time I got to my host family’s house over a week later. Sara is truly gifted in the art of packing luggage. To be honest, I’d say she was in charge of this task, and I was merely an apprentice.

So, at that point I was ready for “Staging.” Staging is a day of training in the US to make sure everybody who accepted their PC invitation has all of their affairs in order and really wants to take this plunge before they sit on a plane for 16 hours. They answer lots of questions and give you plenty of opportunity to get to know your fellow trainees. Plus, there is plenty of opportunity to enjoy hot showers, warm-seated flush toilets and American meals before our extended period of “roughing it”.

The Staging event took place in Atlanta on 10 July, and my travel arrangements were made several weeks in advance through a particular company that does Peace Corps travel arrangements (as well as arrangements for other US government agencies). I was set to fly from Pittsburgh to Atlanta that morning.

Registration at Staging was supposed to start in the early afternoon that day, and the flight they arranged for me was cutting it very close for me to get to the hotel/conference center within the time allotted for registration. I really didn’t want to be late. I would have preferred to have been there early, but the person I spoke with that made the travel arrangements assured me it would not be a problem. I sent an email to the person in charge of staging so she knew there would be a possibility of me being late.

My parents drove me to the airport. That ride was very nerve-wracking. I’m not sure why, but that was the most nervous I’ve been about this entire endeavor so far. I felt like my parents were nervous for me, too. Maybe their nervousness was being projected onto me. Maybe my nervousness was being projected onto them, in turn amplified by them and projected back on me, creating a huge cycle of nervousness. Maybe this is all in my head. I just remember trying not to think too much about what I was about to do and instead focus on the music and chatter on the radio (the WDVE morning show!). And then, when that didn’t work, I remember thinking to myself “Being nervous is a perfectly normal human reaction; embrace this perfectly human moment.”

After smiling my way through getting my baggage fees waived at the airport and more hugs and goodbyes with mom and dad, my flight to Atlanta took-off and landed without incident. I quickly grabbed my luggage and found a taxi to the hotel/conference center. For some reason – probably cost – Staging was held at a location that was in an Atlanta suburb about 30 minutes drive from the airport (which seems crazy when you consider how many hotels are right by the airport). I arrived with about 30 minutes to spare before the end of the time designated for registration. And then I got in a line that was about twenty people deep and started introducing myself to my fellow Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs).

So, now it started to feel real. And I didn’t feel so nervous anymore – mostly just excited. Of course I had nothing to worry about as far as time was concerned; the entire registration process for everyone took at least an hour more than they had allotted. Little did I know how much this was to serve as foreshadowing of things to come. (Stated times are often merely suggestions in SA, and I’m told this holds true throughout the continent.)

As we individually completed our registration in the hallway, we joined the freshly registered in a conference room and began our “ice-breaker” exercise. It consisted of finding people in the room who fit particular descriptions or had previously performed particular jobs. This served as a way to talk to as many people in the room as possible and ask them questions about themselves. I didn’t even come close to completing the exercise, but I feel it worked well. I was doing my best to remember the names of everyone I was meeting, and I think I did ok with that, too.

Then the official program had begun. In retrospect I feel it fits my description of all the PC training I’ve been through to this point. You can break it into thirds: one-third is worst-case scenarios so that we’ll be “scared straight” into following rules, regulations, and guidelines; one-third is a CYA on the part of PC so if anything bad happens PC can say “we told you so – it was in the training – don’t blame us”; and one-third is actually really useful things we need to know.

It also became very evident who of the new trainees had read all the important materials, based on some of the questions that were asked. This sounds like a criticism of the PCTs (well, in some cases it is), but it is really a criticism of PC. They gave us so much to read before we got there it was hard to know which of it was really helpful. Also, some of the different documents were contradictory (like how one document discourages bringing a laptop due to it being a target of theft, while other documents encourage doing so for assisting with work and as entertainment in your downtime). However, in some cases I feel these types of contradictory situations are inevitable. The longer I am here, the more I see how this entire situation is – and will be – highly individualized.

In the midst of Staging it was explained that we are SA-26. In other words, I am part of the 26th group Peace Corps has sent to South Africa since Nelson Mandela officially asked the US for help. It seems that the even-numbered groups are education volunteers and the odd-numbered groups are health volunteers. Or at least that is how it has gone since SA-22 (I think). I’ve now met folks from 20, 22, 24, and 25.

At the end of that day’s training we had lots of time for a good dinner. A bunch of us went for seafood, where we were also greeted with a really talented, upbeat jazz band playing a lot of standards. This was a really cool, serendipitous American sendoff, especially considering they had live music on a Tuesday evening in an Atlanta suburb. (Who’d have guessed that?) We splurged on deserts. Then, we went back to the hotel bar and played pool and Foosball. And we didn’t have to get up extra early the next day, since we didn’t have to leave the hotel until the early afternoon. PC staff were sure to tell us that this wasn’t common and that usually PCTs had to get to bed early for 3 AM wakeup calls.

I shared a room with Jonathan H. He was a good roommate, as he opted for sleeping while most of us partied, and I didn’t seem to disturb him when I came back to the room late. The morning of Wednesday, 11 July included a short walk to McDonald’s for breakfast (it was that or Chic-filet), since I missed the hotel restaurant’s breakfast time frame. After checking out of the hotel room, most of us continued getting to know each other in the hotel lobby. I also made some last-minute calls, texts and emails to friends. I found out there was already a Facebook group for us (I wish I had known sooner), so I managed to join that and friend a couple of my fellow PCTs. Then we loaded up a couple of busses.

We got to the airport with what seemed like plenty of time to spare. Then, we rounded up all of our luggage and waited in line at the ticket counter for what seemed like an eternity. Nothing about international travel seems to happen with any amount of expediency. (Or maybe that is just my limited international travel experience talking.) We finally got everything sorted and made our way through security. It turned out to be a much shorter wait to get on the plane than I had anticipated, but that is just because of how long it took the 44 of us to get to the gate.

Then, the plane: it is easily the largest and poshest aircraft I have had the pleasure of riding. Once we passed first class and business class (which had funky – yet comfy looking – reclining pod type seats) we were greeted in the coach section with three rows of three seats each. I had an aisle seat on the right of the middle row. I quickly traded seats with the man across the aisle from me so I could sit next to two other PCTs (Andrea and Katie R.). Even though I barely knew these folks at the time, we definitely had plenty to talk about (of course)!

When we weren’t talking to each other, there was plenty of time for other activities, like watching TV and movies on the built-in screen in front of each of us. I watched three movies: Exporting Raymond (a documentary about the Russian version of Everybody Loves Raymond), Good Fellas, and True Grit (the new one). There was plenty of food served, and – I’m not sure if they do this on purpose – it seemed less and less American as we got further from the States. Intertwined with all of that fun, I did a fair amount of sleeping.

And then, as easily as we took off, we touched down in Johannesburg, South Africa.

 
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Posted by on 16 September 2012 in Flashbacks