November 26, 2008

My first site visit:

My first site visit:
Monday morning we left bright and early (5:30am local time) and took a 7 hour ride on a “sprinter” which is essentially a conversion van with four sets of seats + the drivers row. It’s “illegal” for there to be more than 22 people in the sprinter, there were easily 40 in ours, it was incredibly packed. One of the other PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees) I went with had a little kid on his knee, someone else’s bag in his lap and a woman’s breast on his head (Breasts are not a big deal to anyone here in Lesotho, they are referred to as mountains and are used by women to hold money etc.). We finally arrived and there was some confusion about where I was staying, so my bag ended up at the wrong place, so I didn’t have access to any of my stuff (including my camera) till late the last night I was there.
We arrived in Qacha’s neck at about 3pm and sat down and had a decent meal at one of the restaurants, everyone else had either fried chicken or fish and rice and some other local dishes, I just got rice and the local sides, and the total (including a coke) was about $2.80 USD or 24 rand/maluti. Here in Lesotho, the currency is the maluti, but it is at a stable exchange rate with the South African Rand, which is accepted as currency everywhere within the borders. We hung out for a bit and had people gawk at us (we are Lahua, which translates as white people) and even had a young lady come over and take pictures of us with her camera phone, apparently just being fair skinned earns you celebrity status in the country. We sat around a bit and then headed back to Chris’ (my host for the few days) rondavel. I was very impressed by all the stuff he was able to keep in it and the amount of room in it etc, especially because Chris has spent $0 of the money he had before the PC since being here. He told me about his vacations to Namibia and South Africa that were paid completely by his PC salary, so it’s nice to know that I’ll be able to trek around without digging into my (rather paltry) savings.
I met Chris’ ‘m’e (‘M’e translates as mother, ntate as father and abuti and ausi as brother and sister respectively and all names are prefaced by one of these four words) who was very nice although she spoke no English and toured his garden and met the pigs owned by the family and then took a little walk down to the canyon that hosts the Orange River and hung out and talked about PC and hikes and trips we’ve both done. We went back and cooked dinner and listened to some music and passed out early. The PCVs here tend to go to sleep at or a little before 9pm, because it gets dark and there are no lights or television to make staying awake easier (there are candles though!). We did go sit under the stars (which are super super super impressive) and watched a lightning storm in the distance for a few minutes before calling it quits.
We woke up the next morning at about 6:30, made oatmeal (which is a luxury here, to keep things in perspective) and walked around a bit and headed to Chris’ school, where I met some of his students, coworkers, and his principal who were all very nice and encouraging to me. I met a fair amount of people from his town, as everyone wants to talk to the white people, and it is especially endearing when the 6 year olds walking around ask you in English, “How are you” and don’t know how to respond when you ask them the same question back (they tend to just reply with “How are you” again).
We got back to Chris’ rondavel, made lunch (PB&J is also a luxury food here, but the peanut butter is especially delicious) and set out on a 9 mile hike up and down some pretty decent hills (we did have to climb up and down some rocks) and wound up at the place we’d be staying for the night after hitching a ride. We met up with another group of PCTs and their host, had a few beers, talked about life (both before and during PC) and crashed pretty hard. I got really really sunburnt (I didn’t have any of my stuff as I mentioned earlier) and am blistering a little while writing this (oof). But, this is Africa, and I’m sure this will be low on my list of memorably bad incidents by the end of my service. I would like to mention that aside from the red skin, my trip was really enjoyable and I am doubly excited to get my own rondavel and start doing some real work in the community.
I woke up this morning at 5, hopped on another 7 hour bus ride, got to Maseru and ate some pretty decent pizza (there are a few decent restaraunts in the capital, they’re a bit pricey on PC salary, but we’re still being fed plenty of extra money by them at the moment). I ate a full pie and drank two cokes for 42 rand, or roughly $5 American. Made it back to the compound, caught up with the other PCTs, wrote a few emails (I love you Danie) and am sitting here, enjoying the perfect weather and writing this in the corner of the PC Compound. I’ll hopefully have a few pictures online from the busride back (the only time I had my camera) within a few days.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving with the ambassador (HAPPY THANKSGIVING EVERYONE)
Friday is my first practice teaching assignment.
I think Sunday we head out to our villages for a while, which means the internet will be a lot less accessible, so I bid you all adieu for a little and I’m sure I’ll have a lot to talk about after that trip.

November 23, 2008

Post one, AFRICA (Lesotho)

Disclaimer: this post in no way represents the thoughts or opinions of anyone but me, and  does not represent the Peace Corps in any fashion.

Lumela Bontate le Bome!

Ok so first I'll start with a bit of a travelogue, then I'll move on to information about training and my life in Lesotho, the kingdom of the sky.

I arrived at the Sheraton in Philadelphia on November 11th for training, after my girlfriend Danie and my friend Adam dropped me off. There was some initial confusion about my room, I was initially assigned to a room that already had an occupant, which I expected, however, he was not a Peace Corps Trainee. After a little bit of working I was set up in a nice room and met my REAL roommate, John. We made our way down to the conference room and started socializing with the other Trainees going to Lesotho. A few hours of training and setting up scenarios and we were free for the night so I dragged the group to Dock Street Brewery, where Danie works, and we ate and drank very well (so well that people still talk about how great it was).

We got up the next morning and took a bus drive from Philadelphia to NYC, during which the bus driver clipped the mirror off the bus in the Lincoln tunnel (why he took us through Manhattan to get to JFK we will never know). We arrived very early for our flight and waited a few hours to check in, before finally boarding our 18 hour flight, with a stopover in Dakar. We talked a lot on the flight and watched a lot of movies, and the general consensus was that everyone was trying to watch "one last movie" or flush the airplane toilet "one last time"... only later would we find out just how many amenities we would have during our training.
We made our way to the shuttle from the Airport in Johannesburg (known to locals and cool Americans ;-) as Jo'burg) to the hotel that was about a block away. Jo'burg is definitely dangerous, and as PCTs (lots of acronyms here, this is the government) we are not responsible for ourselves yet, so we were not allowed to walk the block (it's not THAT dangerous, the government is just THAT overprotective of us... which is a GREAT thing).

We cleaned up and went to the hotel's restaraunt (again, we were not allowed to leave the hotel until we were to fly out the next morning) and had our second set of taxpayer beers (THANK YOU EVERYONE!) this time they were local to South Africa, and the brand, Castle, isn't half bad. The buffet was amazingly good, we ate our fill and crashed hard. Some people chose not to sleep on the plane ride so they could better adjust (me) and other people stayed up (there's a 7 hour time difference for those of you keeping track) and were miserable the next day when we had to depart at 4am local time.

We made it to the airport, waited a while for the place that sells coffee to open and made our way to check out, when John, my roommate from the first day, discovered he'd lost part of his ticket (he just finished filling out the paperwork that will get him reimbursed the $150 it cost him for a new ticket... this will be even more unfortunate when I finish this section of the story). We flew in a small plane for about an hour and arrived to just about Maseru and circled for a little. The pilot made a garbled announcement about "unreliable equipment" and after a little bit of confusion, we received clarification that the plane was fine, just that clouds were preventing a landing (theres no radar at the airport and the area around Maseru is covered in mountains, so it would have been treacherous to land and we were all greatful the pilot relied on his thoughts).

We wound up back in teh same hotel and made a lot of jokes about groundhogs day (the movie) and repeating the incident step by step, including convincing John that he had lost part of his ticket again (he didn't, but it sure made us laugh!)

Once we arrived back at the hotel and opened our luggage, a lot of people realized that their stuff had been pilfered, a few volunteers lost hundreds of dollars worth of stuff. Someone had clipped my lock but did not steal anything, so I was very lucky (I had put all my electronics in my carry on as Jo'Burg is relatively notorious for this kind of theft, so be careful if you ever swing through).

We landed in Maseru and were greeted by a relatively large party that was screaming and had made signs and the thing that overwhelmed us the most after our initial greetings was the silence. We were in the middle of the largest city in the country (by far) and at an airport and you could have heard a pin drop. The scenery is beautiful here and there are mountains everywhere. I hope to be able to get pictures to you guys soon, but I have yet to steal a flash drive to put them onto a computer at the internet cafe (which is where I type this, right off of Kings Way).

We went over some basics at the center and took a trip downtown with our Basotho teachers (Basotho being the name for the native peoples). They took us past stores and showed us where to buy phones and stuff and then told us we'd be going to a Shoprite. I thought to myself how funny a coincidence it was that I used to work at a grocery store named Shoprite in America. It turns out that it's part of the same chain and has the same slogan (the ALWAYS in yellow script comes to mind). I would even go so far as to say that it's better stocked and cleaner than the one I worked in, which I find incredibly funny.

Since then it's been a blur of classes and taking tours around the city and learning and practicing the language. We eat breakfast at 7am, start class at 8, take an hour break for lunch and dinner and have two 30 minute tea breaks (I no longer drink coffee and only drink decaf tea if you want to include some good stuff in a care package ahha.) and class usually wraps up at about 7, and sometimes we get an hour before dinner to run downtown and send out some emails and stuff.

The language is very interesting and very beautiful. The structure is very very basic and intuitive and the only real struggle I have (and many others have) is pronunciation. There is a click noise that's made whenever you say the letter Q, and all sorts of other noises that you have to make with different letter combinations that really make it difficult to pronounce let alone at the speed the natives do it.

The other day the ambassador came to visit and delivered a great speech and invited us all over for Thanksgiving. I'm assuming my mother will be forwarding this email to my relatives (who should email me back so that I can add them to my list, and again, feel free to check out my blog where Ill be posting this stuff as well) so I would like to apologize if I'm not able to give a call on Thanksgiving (its very very very very expensive to call out here and I don't know if I'll be able to get a cell phone before then (its not real expensive for you to call me with a card, and it costs me nothing to pick up the call you've made)).

Last night we partied with the PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) and the ambassador's daughter and it was a lottt of fun and we all bonded and danced outside in the rain and there was a lot of beer (essentially $11 american for 30 beers). On a slightly related note, the stuff here seems dirt cheap compared to American things, it costs me $.25 american to send a letter home, a can of coca-cola is about $.30 american. While we're all still thinking about money by American standards its easy to buy all sorts of crap (one of the PCTs bought plastic dart shooters and we've been ambushing each other with them for the past few days) but money will seem a lot tighter once we've switched over to local currency.

We have training for another 7 weeks or so, and we have a lot to do. On Monday I will be heading out to Qacha's neck (pronounced with a click at the beginning) which is a 7 hour taxi drive (yes, I will be riding a taxi for 7 hours, and yes, in USD the roundt rip will cost me about $35) and as far as any volunteer can go from Maseru. I will be hanging out with "Cardboard" Chris Collins For monday and tuesday and return Wednesday. I believe I'll be observing him teach and just getting to know how day to day life goes. I'm very excited as I feel a little trapped in our current schedule, and the fact that I have to sign out and stay in groups every time I leave and that I can't go out after 6pm. I start CBT (Community Based Training) in a few weeks, which means I will be going to live in a village for a few weeks to experience what it's like and continue my lessons with one of the Me's (Pronounced May and it translates as Mother, but is how all older women are addressed). Then I come back and get my assignment, which I'm assuming because of my size and the fact that I'm a male will be far away and in the mountains (that they're sending me there for my site visit is relatively indiciative of where I'll be).

We had a visit to a real school a few days ago. The people here LOVE white people, the kids were all dancing and singing "Lahua" which translates as white person, but does not contain negative connotations (anyone who is not white... and even some people who are and is not Basotho is called MaChina, and there is a little bit of derogatory implications in that phrase). Everyone here sings all the time, we've learned all sorts of songs and dances and everyone does it any time they are happy, it's very beautiful and makes me wish America was a little more into singing like that.
I want to point out before this next section that as a PCV I have the best medical coverage EVER. They will helicopter me out at the drop of a pin, they will give me any medicine I need at no cost (including something that will stop HIV from being contracted if taken within 72 hours of exposure... heaven forbid I have to help an injured person who's bleeding, at least I know I'll be safe from the virus). They evacuate us if there is any sign of concern in our area or in the general government (Lesotho is very stable in this sense) so I am not concerned about any of these things, and I don't think anyone else should be either.

So I've heard a few scary stories about Maseru and the country that I'm going to share, but I want to warn that some people (my mother) may not want to read them, so read the following paragraphs at your own risk (I'll put some text in caps after it's done so you know you can read it).
Back to Maseru: There are apparently a lot of pickpockets and a few volunteers have had wallets and other stuff stolen. There are also a fair amount of muggings, both at gunpoint and knives and again, a few volunteers have had backpacks and other things stolen, but I am very vigilant and I'm all about traveling in groups during the day (there is NO risk of muggings during the day here, especially for a 6'4 male).

We had a few teachers come to my school the other day to talk about their experiences and serve as a panel. One of the teachers relayed a story of a time when a PCV was teaching in their school and there was a student riot. Teachers were beat with sticks and stones and cut and all of the money was stolen and kids were trying to set the buildings with teachers in them on fire. That made everyone more than a little nervous, but we all understand that this is the exception and not the rule. Also, the volunteer escaped early on and was told by his boss to evacuate the area immediately and he was reassigned shortly thereafter.

Apparently my Sesotho teacher (Sesotho being the name of the language) was hit by lightning on a trip related to PCTs. She's ok but has a scar on her head from it. Oof.

I'm sure I missed a lot in this email, and feel free to ask me whatever questions you have about me and my stay and point out things I missed. (I don't know if I mentioned that there are 19 other volunteers, two of which served previously and are in their 50s, but most of us are shortly out of college and in our mid twenties, they're a great group and I love them all, they're so much fun and everyone has a great attitude). I miss you all and I want to send a ton of love your way and I'd like to wish everyone a happy thanksgiving. I'll try to do this once a week if possible until I get to site, at which point it may be more difficult to do anything than write (SEND ME YOUR ADDRESSES AND ILL WRITE YOU, its dirt cheap and I'll have a TON of free time and love letter correspondences. I'm also not adverse to correspondence chess). I'll leave you all with a local phrase, "Ha Kena Matata" Which means no worries (for the rest of your days). It's our problem free philosophy. Hahah, ok that is a real phrase and people do say it a lot, and apparently Sesotho shares a common ancestor with Swahili (where the movie the Lion King got that phrase).

Love and peace and kisses,