Thursday, September 20, 2012

Time to Ramble On

As a total Game of Thrones nerd (it is known...), I’d like to share a quote a friend of mine reminded me of when I told her the news: As Daenerys said,"If I look back, I am lost”.

All PCVs become huge nerds. It is known.
Look back from where? Well I am on a precipice...again. I seem to end up on them a lot, probably because of my terrible sense of direction and/or lackadaisical approach to my life. About to jump into something totally foreign and new: the world of shopping malls, democracy, fireplaces, running water that is always hot, cul-de-sac’s, Cat Country 107.3, the English language…the land of Wawa (which I hope to be my first stop off the plane). I can’t even explain how exotic the quotidian changes like sitting on my deck drinking a cup of coffee and reading the Philadelphia Inquire sounds, and how commonplace picking guavas off the tree and chasing chickens off my porch is right now, but I know that won’t take long to change.
It absolutely amazes me how adaptable human beings are, and how quick we are to acclimate to new environments, to change, and make things work (maybe I have been watching too much Human Planet but still). Even, for instance, the body’s ability to heal itself, the 8 inch incision on my abdomen and the other two smaller ones are now fully closed and hopefully in time won’t resemble some pagan symbol from the next Da Vinci Code book (please pray Kerry was right by saying when it heals, it will actually improve my ability to do "the worm"). So I am sure that being Medically Evacuated from Peace Corps, while deeply saddening to the core, will inevitably work out for the best. I am at peace with the reality that I am going home, a fact that is completely out of my hands.  The one thing that absolutely breaks my heart is not being able to go back to say goodbye to my host family or to my PCV friends.

Like I said, human-beings are very adaptable when it comes to the big stuff, but it is the minutiae that for me, have always been the most nostalgia-inducing and the most hard to accept change from. Here are some of the little, random things about Swaziland that I will always appreciate and miss: eating mangos and avocados (and things I never knew the names of) off the tree, the Swazi handshake, rain on the tin roof, the insane electrical storms that irrationally prompt you to put on rubber boots, Dairymilk bar(s) after a bad day, Jazz Bar, Mozambique radio, the boys doing traditional “high kicks” every time we go out (or go anywhere), greeting every single person that you see, Pick N Pay “No Name” boxed wine, guava season, House on Fire, the random and often very deep conversations that occur on public transport, all that is encompassed by the word “Bombaso’s”, chicken stew (especially with a chicken you killed yourself), chicken dust (especially from the Rasta guy at Mahlanya), gnawing on endless stalks of sugar cane, City Jive, khumbi’s named “Latino Heat” “Shalom” and always “Jersey Queen”, not having electricity, not needing a headlamp when the moon is full, Sundays sitting outside with the family and following the shade, Babe telling funny stories around the fire, ordering the large Take-Away with pap because you are starving, "shooting the moon" during a particularly intense Hearts game, Coca-Cola with cane sugar in glass bottles, Mephaquine dreams, watching Disney movies with the kids, the kids running out to meet me when my bus brings me home, businessmen in traditional regalia but holding brief cases, Bushfire, people shunning/asking if my snake bracelet is muthi nyama (black magic), pub night, staring at Maputo’s skyline every night, praise names, bargaining my worth in cows, braii, having children play with my hair at will, my totally tricked-out hut and mural, seeing elephants, giraffes and impala on the side of the road near my shopping town, using the term “shopping town”, sharing books with my BFF at the country-club, Zahara, running into acquaintances everywhere you go because there are only 1 million people in the country…and the people themselves especially.

Obviously, I won’t miss having black mambas in my front yard or sweating bullets for the entire 6 month summer because I have no fan (and am too afraid to sleep with windows open because of said snakes), or a lot of the things that made life very difficult but were a part of life. Those are the things that make Peace Corps what it is, and made me better for it. Facing fears you didn’t even know you had, putting up with extreme discomfort, inconvenience and a bus preacher while wanting nothing more than to be home or alone, being sick and having only a pit latrine in complete darkness, being out of money halfway through the month, these are rights of passage for us. Some PCV's were asked a common question "What do you get for doing Peace Corps", and though most expect a dollar amount or some lined-up job for afterwards for an answer, my friends answered jokingly, "therapy". What you get is much more abstract and that's hard for many people, even many Americans, to understand. There is no “going home” after work, you live at your work, you have to alter your behavior to match the identity that is appropriate for that. Compromise, patience, frustration, starting from scratch (again and again), learning a literal language and even harder, the cultural language, these are parts of a Peace Corps volunteer's job that constantly test your ego and break down your self-esteem. They make Peace Corps awesome and make our stories ridiculous and maybe (hopefully) even worth listening to. Who knows, maybe I can even convince people my scar is the result of fending off a puff adder or a crocodile.

"From a public health standpoint" (gosh, how many times have I annoyingly said that), I believe in the type of development work being accomplished by Peace Corps and their overall philosophy of sustainable development and capacity-building. Peace Corps invests in human capitol, relying on people building relationships and the mutual exchange of knowledge with other people, it's not about handouts or grandiose projects that are pushed through without gaining a thorough understanding of your community's inner-workings or the trust of your counterparts. I still love Public Health after being a Health Education Volunteer but can’t believe how much more I learned in my community compared to a classroom setting. Taking classes about "Traditional Healing" is nothing compared to having a sangoma for a host brother. Writing a policy paper on what a community’s health “needs”  are and how best to implement a culturally appropriate project are very different to actually living that reality and encountering challenges you never could have known existed by research alone. The beauty of Peace Corps is any American over the age of 18 can apply for it, so while my experiences feel like they have been a huge privilege, they can be a privilege to anyone that makes it through the application process, and have been for over 50 years. While I have enjoyed being a part of it all, the reason I fell in love with Peace Corps is Swaziland itself.

I will always be proud to say I am an RPCV of Swaziland and hope I can find occasions to wear my emahiya. I am already concerned I won’t be able to find mealie-meal anywhere in America, but I suppose there is always the Internet.

I am so grateful for everyone that has been a part of this journey with me, everything I have learned, and the new experiences I have had, ngiyabonga kakhulu.
Sala Kahle, eSwatini. Ntfombitanele Shongwe, OUT!

G9 crammed into one roundavel hut during training

View from Jazz Bar, Mbabane Bus Rank

The worst seat in the khumbi, back row. Probably 110 degrees that day.

Frangipani tree blooming

Make and I dancing at a wedding

My family

The gorge
First (of many) delicious PCV cooked dinners
Some of my favorites at July 4th being silly

Cooking with Make

"Jersey girls lost in the bush"

Taking a break at standard bank from all our baggage

bosisi playing with my hair

23rd Birthday = Bushfire!!!

The newest addition to Phillies Nation
My source of light/primary disposal of wine bottles

Worst day ever. Until we got some Take Away.

Team Amurrca at the PST cooking competition

Home Depot should offer this

Happy to be in Mozambique, until 600 other people got on this vehicle

End of a 5 hour dance party, Babe just gave a speech about having to wake up early for firewood and weeding and everyone is chanting "no fields, no forest" here.

Rainwater collection/Mouse trap

Malendela's. I can almost hear the angels singing.

Lion at Hlane Royal National Park

Sangoma bhuti reading my bones

Lunkha likes my headphones
Typical day breaking out into dance
Cow in a wheel barrow at Anna Mae's homestead

House on Fire fun times
If you ever called me while I was in Swaziland, this is the famous "Tree of Reception" 20 minutes down the road

View from Mambane with Dhuha's babe

Inducting the little ones to glow sticks

The large stew with pap, only cure for a very hungry or frustrating day

Swazi Times

Yet another clothes washing and BBC day

Surprise! One of my six awesome bobhuti, Don Williams or bust.

High kicks and traditional dancing time

A small but poisonous green mamba at my stesh
Danni's photo of my favorite tree outside my house

Some PCV's learning traditional dancing

Sunrise from my homestead, Maputo city lights and Indian Ocean on the horizon

My backyard

Last Random Fact of the Week: I will definitely be back to Swaziland one day.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Rogue Appendix

(I wrote this blog while still in the hospital and since so many people have asked what happened, and since this could really happen to anyone, at any time, I thought I'd share the story. This was one of my more dramatic episodes of the last 15 months, so enjoy:)

Robyn. Can't be sure but I am making an educated guess I didn't look anything like this.

Here I am in Pretoria’s Life Wilgers (pronounced in Afrikaans Vell-Hers, bru) Hospital. I have been here for 4 days. Today is by far the best day, I am sitting in a chair and not in a bed, and even got to walk around a little today with the physical therapist. The feeding tube and some other robot-like apparatuses are still in, making me look like (a completely unsexy version of) Robyn in the Indestructible video, and I am still in quite a bit of pain. I haven’t acquired a machine gun-prosthetic leg or anything cool like that (yet). But how did I go from a p90x-doing, boMake-bag-carrying, mountain-biking person to this weak creature who can hardly walk or eat bathe on their own? I’ll start at the beginning.

As a self-aware hypochondriac, I dismiss most of the health concerns as my own anxiety taking over. At the end of August, I went in for my Mid-Service Medical Review with a group of others. It was right after Swear-In, which burnt out those of us who helped with it and we were glad for the respite of 3 days of chilling. When we weren’t discussing bodily functions in great detail (#peacecorpsproblems), one of the boys entertained us by reading passages from romance novels found on the shelves of the PC library in his extremely dramatic voice and inflection, “AND THEN, she laid before him like a pagan sacrifice, he was LITERALLY a God”. They were hilarious and almost made us forget we were being tested for various types of helminthes, HIV and other diseases. Happy to be healthy, but worn out, possibly from missing an entire night’s sleep watching Game of Thrones Season 2 being social, two of my friends were crashing at my place on their way to Mozambique. I was excited for this but also not feeling great. That night my abdominal pain I’d been having in waves for months began and wouldn’t relent. I have had a history of stomach ulcers, glutenings (In case you were wondering, I describe ‘being glutened’ as a similar phenomenon to when Bella in Twilight gets knocked up with the mutant vampire baby) but this was a different thing entirely. Nothing helped. I curled into a ball to try and sleep and it wouldn’t abet. I finally got to sleep, only to wake up at 2:30 crying out in urgently-bad, God-awful, WFT pain. Thankfully my two friends were there who encouraged me to call for help, and by chance, my friend Stephanie had leant me her computer for the week so I had a way to charge my phone to make the call. If those things hadn’t occurred, I don’t know what I would have done.

What you have to understand is that I was keenly aware from the moment I made the call, I had to wait for a response and then wait for the ambulance/drivers to get all the way out to me. Instant relief or even help was just not in the realm of possibilities. I live so far in the rural area (up a rocky dirt road, on top of the plateau) that it would take, I figured, at least 3 hours full-speed to reach me. Thankfully, I received a response very quickly, but waiting for an ambulance was beyond brutal. At 6:30, a Peace Corps driver made it to my homestead but the ambulance was lost. Thank God for Babe Norman! He drove me to where the ambulance was and they took my vitals and calmed me down. No pain medication could be administered because the doctors didn’t want the pain to be masked. As a wannabe nurse, I understood this and took it as stoically as possible, Lamaze breathing for most of the 4 hour ride, but relieved to be in good hands. In the last stretch between Manzini and Mbabane, there was some sort of accident and traffic was at a standstill, unheard of for Swaziland. At this point my pain was a 9 on a 1-10 scale and I couldn’t hold back the tears, and kept saying “I will never have children!”. The driver turned on the lights and maneuvered through the cars to finally get there. After seeing how much pain I was in, I quickly got a shot of morphine at the hospital. Thank God for that stuff, if it helped the civil war soldiers I was sure it would help me. They quickly decided to send me to Pretoria, which is the capitol of South Africa, 3 hours from Swaziland because an appendectomy was likely. 

After a night of no improvement, the surgeon told me he would operate in one hour. He explained everything to me, but its very difficult being completely alone at a time like that. What can you do but nod when you hear about the possible complications you don’t even understand? I had never had surgery before and never had general anesthesia. I talked to my mom on the phone until it was time. I signed the waivers and laid on the tiny table in the ‘theater’. It was supposed to be a 45 minute, minimally invasive procedure. The anesthesia hit my veins and for some reason a cover of “Seven Nation Army” was playing in the theater, which felt appropriately trippy. When I woke up, I looked up at the clock and 3 extra hours had gone by, I was in a lot of pain and all sorts of tubes were in. I was so confused by the anesthesia, that when the doctor told me they encountered a complication that they had to take care of by opening up my abdomen, I was understandably freaking out. Interestingly, what the doctor could not know, is that my only prior knowledge with the aforementioned complication was when a family member died because of it years earlier. Different circumstances, but I had no other frame of reference and was scared. Because I was in the High Care ward, I couldn’t use my phone or receive any calls. The pain was awful but the lady assigned to me was awesome and my pain medication "button" was never far from my thumb. Unfortunately for me, real hospitals are absolutely nothing like General Hospital or any other show I have seen. I am shocked they manage to make the hospital setting into so many riveting television dramas because they are probably the most boring place on earth.

Approximately 0% like my hospital experience
After a few days, I got moved to the regular surgical ward. I was happy because I got my phone and (Stephanie’s) computer back, and also the High Care ward makes you feel like a cross between an infant and a lab mouse, lights constantly on, constantly being prodded and poked, etc. I am definitely on the mend now, but because they had to cut through my abdomen, the recovery time will be a deal longer. I am worried about how I will be able to fetch water, wash my clothes, polish my floor, ride my bike or even walk the long distance to work. Obviously both my American and Swazi families are worried. But at least the worst part is over. Yeah, I am a little shocked at how fast all of this happened and how the day before everything was going great, but that kind of blah-blah-blah-woe-is-me BS is lame. And crying is actually really painful on the wound, so its best to avoid that. So is laughing, thus I had to turn off Role Models about 20 seconds in. I have resigned myself to the notion that whatever happens from here is completely out of my hands, and whatever is supposed to happen will. So until then, I will just lie in the hospital and do what I am told (and watch Human Planet). Although it is becoming increasingly tempting to rip out this feeding tube and start threatening people for solid food (chocolate).

Thank you everyone for your support during this time and continued love and prayers. They are so appreciated, and make me feel much less lonely. I know you are visiting in spirit J.

Random SA Fact of the Week: It's actually better to lay in silence staring at the ceiling than try to watch South African Idol.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Sit, Sweat, Roll

Swaziland isn't exactly Bali but this seems familiar
Here I am at Mid-Service Medical, absolutely astonished and pleasantly surprised I have made it 15 months into my Peace Corps Service with (hopefully) minor damage done to my body/spirit.
I have been re-reading Liz Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love lately. If you are not familiar with the story, its about a recently-divorced woman in her 30's who gets a writing opportunity allowing her to live for a year in Italy, India and Indonesia learning about the pursuit of pleasure, devotion and balance, respectively. It's also about taking responsibility for your happiness and finding your own path through the world despite what society expects. It's not a road map to how to be happy, just like Into the Wild isn't a how-to guide on how to become self-sufficient, but it's an interesting memoir which I found funny and uplifting without being too Self-Helpy.

Ever since I gave up the pursuit of being a size 0 and 4.0-having Type A, I have been a pleasure-seeking creature who never says no to dessert. Life is short right? So, I felt like I had the lessons of "Eat" down pat, and joked that Peace Corps was going to be one long "Pray" phase. In "Pray", Gilbert lives in an Ashram for 4 months learning meditation and begins to break down mentally. All of her insecurities, "residual demons" and other emoitonal vomit starts coming up, and she feels like she is regressing, not progressing, as a human. I used to think this was the hardest (read: most boring) chapter to read, but now I identify with it completely. And the beauty of it is, I think I, and many other volunteers I have spoken with, have kind of gotten past all that. You kind of have to break to rebuild. As a friend and I were recently joking about, It's not that we feel we have more issues than before coming, we are just aware of them. Does that mean we are ready for the pursuit of Balance? I hope so. A few of us were joking that Peace Corps is also three stages, which we dubbed "Sit", "Sweat", and "Roll". A lot of names got thrown out for being too crass (you can use your imagination), too self-deprecating ("Cry", "Complain", "Binge") or too cloying ("Succeed", "Grow"). I think our choices are totally accurate for the main 3 components of Peace Corps.


Chillin' on the rocks in Khiza!
Perhaps, not as glamorous as "Eat", "Sit" is the first stage of Peace Corps service, beginning on Day 1 of Staging when we sit through hours and hours of flipcharts and tedious Powerpoints for the first time ever which will then define our lives for the next 3 months of training. Excited to get out and be on our own, we get to site and have "integration" which is a time when we are not supposed to be working but simply sitting and observing. For many Americans, sitting is very hard, maybe the hardest part of Peace Corps. We are conditioned to be productive, busy, "doing" creatures who evaluate our self-esteem by how much we achieve. This scares a lot of volunteers who think that they will get to site and have "nothing to do" but wallow in the stillness. My advice is to bask in the stillness. I talk to friends in America who work long hours day in and day out and while sometimes having to technically be working 24/7 is difficult (like when you are very sick and taking a bus to get to the doctor and someone wants to talk cross-culture, guess what, you are still working), it's still the only time in many of our lives we will have such an unstructured and personalized schedule. In "Sit", I learned to do a lot of things I never really had time for, like build (extremeley rudimentary) furniture, meditate, and learn to garden. I read thousands and thousands of pages of books I had always wanted to read and listened to countless hours of radio broadcast. Most importantly, I learned to slow my pace down (okay let's be honest, it was never that fast to begin with, but I learned to cultivate my slow pace). The tortoise will not only go the distance in Peace Corps Swaziland, they will thrive, and probably see mental health benefits manifest to boot. The hare risks unsustainably initiating projects without thoroughly getting to know their site or even burning out from an exhausting first year. I recommend you learn to appreciate the Mediterranean lifestyle of  "Il Bel Far Niente", the beauty of doing nothing. (I'd also recommend "The Lazy Manifesto" which has a Zen vibe of "do less, then do even less").


No transport for hours. Cold. Pouring. Hungry. Barefoot. Have to wear Yankees gear.  This is "Sweat" for sure.
  I use the verb "Sweat" the way some people console, "don't sweat the small stuff". Little do those sympathetic people know how microscopic a shistosome is, or how a tiny hole in my roof can cause a huge mess during a cyclone. I also use the word sweat as in the physiological sensation that happens the second you wake up in the morning from November to February. The middle part of service involves a bit of struggle, toil, cancelled meetings, frustration and other unfortunate events that are natural in this part of the adjustment cycle. This seemed to coincide for many with their first summer, but not for everyone. The honeymoon period of Peace Corps fades as the Chaco tan-line darkens. We start to see how service will be like but seem to run into roadblocks with counterparts, don't yet have vacation days to spend and always seem to be broke. Bookshelves collapse and we stand in our hut and whimper, "really?" to no one. The gas tank runs out on Christmas Eve and you can't catch transport to fill it for 3 days. I think that "Sweat" is the kind of thing that is incredibly satisfying to get through, makes you better for having conquered but isn't always enjoyable in the moment, like a Spin class. This period was interspersed with lots of fun stuff too, but it was treading through the murky waters of the challenging stuff that made me look back and say, "damn. I came a long way". At the end of Gilbert's stay at the Ashram, she meditates for an hour outisde in the Indian heat getting bitten by mosquitos and after everything she had been through, she learned to compartamentalize her frustration and just be in the moment. Peace Corps wouldn't be awesome without this phase, and it makes "Roll" possible.


On top of Sibebe, largest granite out crop in the world, all because the internet was broken at the office :)
 "Rolling with it" is the name of the game for 1 year and on. As Lao-tzu says, "Practice not doing and everything will fall into place". My Make recently remarked that "Hawu! You are so busy now, just like Bongiwe and Sabelo (previous PCVs) after one year, how does everyone know to call you?". It's a wonderful feeling as the next group comes in and you realize that you actually do have stuff going on, you are integrated, and you have way more good days than bad ones. Also, the bad stuff that happens doesn't knock you down in the same way. I feel much more like one of those inflatable car dealership advertisement dudes that deflate briefly then pop right back up. That's how I feel now. Something goes totally not according to plan, and I just roll. For example, I travelled all the way from site to Mbabane, a solid 5 1/2 hours, to use the internet at the office and it was down. Rather than get all bent out of shape, I decided to scrap my plans of office work and hike Sibebe instead, which ended up being an incredible day. Another night recently, I couldn't fall back asleep which was extremely agitating, but then realized it was the night of the Perseus Meteor shower so I made some tea, sat on a rock on my homestead and watched maybe 25 meteors shoot and fall in a sky unobstructed by electricity until 5 AM. I had never seen anything like it! So as projects and counterparts seemingly fall out of the sky for me, I have found myself pretty busy but still have my "Sit" days reading an entire novel or lying on my couch and definitely my "Sweat" moments.

I hope many of y'all have found that you are rolling with it, and if you aren't there yet, try more sitting. It'll happen, eventually. Here is a quote from the end of the book as a little food for thought: “Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it. You must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it.”

Speaking of food for thought, I am getting increasing impatient to land in Rome (69 days but who's counting?) and get to "Eat" once again.

"I'm learning some amazing moves from this guy" - Dee, Always Sunny
Random Fact of the Week: I have been having such vivid food dreams lately, which are better than absolutely harrowing and emotional zombie apocalypse dreams where I have to contemplate the nature of life and death, but I would do just about anything for a twist in a cone with rainbow jimmies.