Saturday, April 27, 2013

On The Sani Pass!

April 8-11thth, 2013

To try and use up some of my well-earned vacation days (seriously I have enough to take vacation for month), I planned a trip into South Africa with a few of my PCV friends.

It was so Amazing!!  I spent the first 3.5 days on the Sani Pass, in the Drakensburg area of the Kwazulu-Natal region, which is the southeastern part of South Africa; from the bottom of Swaziland to the bottom of Lesotho.

At this point there were three of us and like the public transportation rock stars that we are, we made it from the center of Swaziland to the Sani Pass in one day.  It took a total of 5 different transportation changeovers, and we were in transit from 6am to 7:30pm, but we made it, cutting our costs by several hundred rand because we took public rather then a backpacker’s bus.

We stayed at the Sani Pass Backpacker’s Lodge, which I give a 5 star rating, because it is the best backpackers I have ever stayed at!  Best staff, best view, and best shower and all for the same price as most of the questionable backpackers out there.  They have free milk from the diary cow that is milked daily, guided tours into Lesotho, unguided day hikes, a warm fireplace, 2 fully stocked kitchens, drinkable tap water that is the freshest I’ve ever tasted, and they make your bed everyday, adding extra blankets when the nights get colder.  It doesn’t sound like much, but when I am used to paying the same price at most backpackers and getting very basic accomadations, musty bedding, a cold shower, and a kitchen you’d rather not cook in, it felt like the Sani Pass Lodge was a high class hotel.

Day one on the Pass, we took ourselves on a 4-5 hour day hike, which took us 8 hours.  We weren’t slow, we just got caught up in the views, and a very fun cave we had to walk through.  It is so beautiful in this region.  Mountains in every direction you look.  On our hike they just engulfed us from all sides.  We ate lunch by a blue lagoon, but I didn’t swim as it was very cold water.  Then we found the waterfall, which required us to stand on the very edge of a cliff to look down on it.  Very scary, very awesome!  The hike became more adventurous and less fun after the waterfall.  Two wrong trail turns (let led us on some very narrow paths along a steep mountain before we realized we needed to turn back to get to the real trail) and three awful walks through the cold river later we finished the hike.

Pool along the hike
The very clear spring water
Day Two we took a guided day trip into Lesotho.  The Sani Pass into Lesotho is crazy scary and can only be done by a 4x4 vehicle.  A heavy fog descended on the Pass during the night so I couldn’t really get the whole effect of the dirt roat, but it included 14 switchbacks to get up into Lesotho.  Some requiring a three-point turn they are so narrow.  Once up, we decided that it was too foggy and cold to do the scheduled hike up the Hodgeson’s peak (the highest point in SA), so we went further into Lesotho and did a hike just up one of the mountains.  It was so cool, but so cold.  I was unprepared for winter like temperatures and was freezing.  We were hiking over 3,000 meters so altitude made it hard to function, but we finally made it to the top just as it started to snow.  Well it wasn’t really snow yet, more like ice chunks and it was super windy so were actually just getting pelted in the face with pea size hail (not fun).  But the view was great.  We could see the tallest point in Lesotho, and the mountains that stretch forever with the sun peaking through and highlighting further away ridges.  We had lunch briefly as to not let our body temps drop and then headed back down.  We met some shepherds along the way.  This area of Lesotho is very unpopulated; only the Shepherds that bring their flocks of sheep and goats up during the summer to graze.  They build little stone huts and carry everything on horseback.  Aside from them there is a tiny village of a few women we brew beer and make bread to sell to the shepherds.  There are no schools, no stores, no clinics, nothing but views and a sheep-shearing shack. 

up in the mountains

A shepherd
 We headed to the village after the hike and watched them sheer the angora goats.  This wool gets exported out everywhere and ironically gets sold back to the shepherds in the form of blankets.  Then we visited with one of the women in the village and she made us some bread.  They use cow dung as a fire source and cook inside their stone and cow dung huts.  The huts have no windows to try and preserve the heat during the winter.  The lady we visited runs the village pub.  She sells homebrewed maize/sorghum beer and bread and plays a radio that is powered by a solar panel. 

We soon left her because it started to actually snow and we needed to make time for one last stop before heading down.  The last stop being the one and only real pub up here.  In fact it is the highest pub in Africa, and they make a deliciously warm mulled wine that was wonderful to drink after a day in the snow.  The ground was completely white now and I was so happy.  It felt like home, breathing in the cold air.  We descended the pass back into South Africa slowly, now we had the extra challenge of doing the pass in winter conditions, but we made it no problems.  We spent the evening eating our poor PCV meal of beans and rice by the fire, defrosting before heating up hot water bottles to snuggle with in bed.

We slept-in our last morning there, it was too cold to leave the comforts of our warm beds.  The fog had lifted and the sun was out again, but it was still frosty out.  We had the lodge to ourselves, which was nice compared to the night before.  The lodge was packed when we got back from our trip into Lesotho with a new wave of backpackers.  It was overwhelming, so many people wanting to chat, I’m no longer used to that.  We enjoyed a makeshift rice porridge breakfast by the fire and then set out for transport back to Durban.  Despite the 2 hours we had to wait in a khumbi for it to fill up, we made it to Durban by dusk.  


April 11-13th, 2013

Our last two night of vacation were spent in Durban.  An actual city!!!  It was a short two days, but the best two days!  Here in Durban we met up with 4 more PCVs from Swaziland.  It was great to expand our group a bit, and even though there were only 7 of us, this is now 1/3 of our group that’s left in country.  It was fun to be on a Group 9 only vacation.

Night one, after reuniting, we all went out for a nice meal.  A real meal, it was amazing.  We went to an Italian restaurant in walking distance of our backpackers.  It had gluten free options so I had real pizza for the first time in 22 months.  Thankfully g-free pizza only came in one size – large, and I ate the whole thing not feeing one bit of guilt.  It was great being with my Peace Crops friends in a modern environment.  We had so much fun at dinner!  I felt we were that table that people wanted to be with, our happiness for being surrounded by good friends, food, wine, and having gotten a shower that day was radiating.  We felt alive!

For our only full day in Durban we spent the whole day at the waterfront.  We leisurely walked along the entire beachfront, toes in the sand, sun on my back, and the smell of water in the air.  It was so relaxing.  The afternoon we spent eating of course (my one an only plan for Durban…eat, eat, and eat some more) looking over the water, and shopping!  We headed back to the backpackers and got all glam-ed up for a Friday night out on the town.  We started with a sushi dinner, which spanned 3 hours and several bottles of wine, simply perfect.  Then we hit a rough spot trying to find a place to go dancing, but after walking off the sushi for a while we found a place called Tiger Tiger.  Best night out of my Peace Corps Service.  We spent the entire night dancing and singing our hearts out to the best music.  We closed down the dance floor around 4am, and then in pure American style had our cab drive-through McDonalds (we don’t have them in Swaziland).

After one hour of sleep, I roused everyone and we packed up the best we could and half functioning got ourselves to the bus rank.  Seven uncomfortable hours later we were back in Swaziland.  We all grudgingly crossed the border with the fuzzy memories and the faded entry stamp from the night before to remind us of our fabulous weekend in Durban!  

PCV girls:  Emma, Me, Mia, Kelly

Library Complete!

April 5th, 2013

The Malindza High School Library is officially complete…well as complete as far as my participation goes.  All 1000 donated books are out of their boxes and labeled and shelved with the existing books.  If I had to guess I would say we labeled around 5000 books total.  Each book got categorized with a color by topic and have been placed in numerical order according to their subject number.  The library looks so beautiful now and useable!

The system isn’t quite sticking with the students yet, I find pinks in the blues, and greens in the reds, but the point is there is a system.  The students are already really enjoying the new selection of fiction books that came in the donation boxes, and there are desks now for the students to work on.  Its just amazing to look back at what it was before, a disorganized mess.  Granted there are still about 2000 books that need to be labeled, and some shelves still need fixing, and the teachers resource room needs to be finished, but there are plans for these and that’s all I can ask for.  The technology and design class is helping every Friday to fix up the teachers resource room, which will also serve as the check-in/out desk.  It’s a slow process, and for a while I wasn’t sure we would see the end, but I am glad I was able to witness the progress to the point we are at.  I look forward to the day when I can return and see the library even more functional!

The Library Before

Library After

With the Librarian David

Easter Sunday

March 31st, 2013

I learned about and attended an interesting Swazi event today.  I can’t remember the name of the event, but it is a celebration that a family has when the price of 5 cows has been paid in order to acknowledge a pregnancy out of wedlock.  Someone in the Dube Family was in this situation and her boyfriend’s family paid the 5 cows to honor her.  Eventually those cows will be included in the Lobola price if she gets teka (traditional engagement) in the future.

Traditionally only married women and women with children are suppose to attend, but I was invited along as a guest.  Only these women attend because one of the cows is slaughtered and eaten to celebrate.  It is thought that by eating this cow you are welcoming children into your life there fore only married women or women already with children should eat it.  They let me eat the cow anyways and take annoying photos of the men eating the cow’s head.  The cow’s head is always reserved for the men only.  I did get offered some intestines however, which I gracefully declined.

It’s amazing that 21 months here and I am still learning the intricate workings of this culture.  I was happy to be invited along to participate in this event.  It took place on Easter Sunday, so in a way it just felt like a nice family get-together for brunch.  We ate not just the cow, but chicken, and salads, and of course pap (maize meal porridge), and drank Coke-a-Cola.  One of my older host sisters and her two sons came over for the event so it was really nice to see her.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

If Books Could Talk

March 15th, 2013

I am currently opening and shelving 16 boxes of donated books to the High School library from the Books for Africa project.  As I examine each book for cataloguing I am having a great time discovering the remains of many book exchanges.  Its just amazing how much information a book can leave behind from its onetime owners.  I have found so many things within the pages of these books, its like buried treasure: receipts, greeting cards, scratch paper with scribbled notes, and even a dollar bill (I pocketed that one).  And of course there are all the messages scrolled on the first pages that caption a moment in a person’s life; birthdays, Christmases, graduations, deaths, its seems anything can be said with a book.  It’s sad, in a way to think, about these one-time gifts no longer holding meaning to the receiver.

Today I was reading a message from Jon to Karen in a book that was given by Jon to Karen for her birthday with many XOs after his signature.  I read the message out loud to Addy and we quickly developed an entire plot line of Karen and Jon’s life; what significance the book meant and why it ended up in a donation box in Southern Africa.  Basically Jon did Karen wrong and the book was too painful for her to keep, all those XOs were just too powerful. 

It really makes you think twice before writing that nice, private, message in a gifted book.  Someday, somewhere, someone else is going to read it.  Probably a Peace Corps Volunteer, so feel free to keep forgetting your buried away dollars, and know that out of sheer boredom and craziness from high heat exposure, we will over analyze your message.  I only have 6 more boxes to go, and one is textbooks so that will be no fun, but I can’t wait for what else I find within the pages to come!  

Consolidation Drill

March 14th, 2013

Every Peace Corps Country has an emergency action plan to keep volunteers safe during times of turmoil within a country.  Each stage increases the severity of the security threat and gives us instructions to follow.

Today at the first light of 5:45am I received a SMS (text message) that said we were in a code orange and I needed to get to my consolidation point as soon as possible.  At the time I didn’t know this was drill (had an inkling, but didn’t know for sure) so I diligently packed my emergency bag – clothes, food, water, medicine, Emergency Action Plan guide, both passports, id card, phone, and South African Rand in case we needed to cross a border out of Swaziland.  I told my family I was going to the town my consolidation point is in and didn’t know when I would be back.  As I walked away, I realized that if this weren’t a drill this would be last time I saw them.  That was a sad moment, I almost ran back to hug my Make. 

Thankfully it was 6am so transport to Siteki, where I consolidate, was easy to get.  I met all the other PCVs in my area and we all figured out that this was just a drill.  Members from our Peace Corps office arrived a few hours later and checked to see how long it took us all to get there, if there were problems, and if we all packed what we needed.  I passed with flying colors.  Nice to know if stuff is going down I can get all packed and to my consolidation point within an hour, even when I am half asleep.

I was home by 10:30am and explained the whole thing to my Make.  She thought I was acting really weird as I left in the morning so it was nice to clear the air.  She didn’t even tell my Babe (host dad) I had left because I didn’t give her an explanation.  Overall I am glad it was just a drill.  It was an exciting hour until I found out, but also a nervous hour.  Being forced home with no notice at this point in my service would be hard.  Being evacuated would be hard period having to return to America with only the stuff in my emergency bag, but even harder would not being able to say goodbye to my friends and family here.