Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Adaptations: Do They Make Us Weird?

There is a lot of literature given to Peace Corps Trainees and a lot of time spent discussing issues surrounding "standing out". In not so certain terms, we are told that we will be "weirdos" in our villages. People will think we do things strangely and be curious about us (and likewise us of them). This is oh so true. But there is some freedom in it. It gives us the courage to say and do and try things that we formerly may not have because Why not?! If people are going to think we're a little weird anyway then we may as well go for it! It has been extremely liberating.

What they don't tell you is that you'll likely be a weirdo when you get home too. Now, I haven't been back to America since I came to Botswana nineteen months ago but I can assure you that I have picked up strange habits in my time here. These idiosyncrasies are across the board with Peace Corps Volunteers, at least in Botswana, and are a topic of much discussion when we get together. I would like to share some of the "Adaptations" (as we more fondly call them) to life here that, if they follow us back to America, may make us a little teeny tiny bit weird...
  1. We fill up water bottles every time we take even a single sip out of them just in case the water goes out. If it does, it may be out for a week (or more) and having all the stored water you can manage will be necessary. Our refrigerators are almost entirely filled with water bottles (sometimes in the form of alcohol and/or soda bottles) just for added stored water. This water hoarding sometimes includes filling buckets, pots, or even your bathtub up.
  2. At the first sign of a rain cloud, we immediately charge all of our electronics. If it rains, the power is going out. If it's too windy, the power is going out. During some months, when most prone to power outages, we often try to keep electronics at full charge because, if the power goes out and our batteries are dead, there's nothing left for us to do.
  3. We putz like it's our job. It can take us anywhere from three hours to an entire day to do a menial task. This bodes well for us here because it fills our days with things to do but could be obnoxious (or detrimental) in America.
  4. We make sounds that are words here. "Aish" is an expression that means something. As is "ee" and "eeehhhhh-eh" (with tonal inflection). You can have an entire conversation using just sounds.
  5. "Sorry", or rather "sori", is not used when saying "I'm sorry" but when someone else trips or falls or drops something or any other random thing that you personally had no fault in or nothing to do with. This has become a spontaneous reaction for most of us and we hardly realize we're saying it. In a similar vein, no one here says "bless you" after someone sneezes or asks "please" for things. In turn, neither do we. Are we being rude? No definitely not here.
  6. Public transportation is a way of life. And, no, I am not meaning public transportation like the bus systems we are used to at home. I mean squishing 25 people into a space built for 11 and having people sitting on your shoulders and babies randomly handed to you because there's just no space anywhere else. Now imagine this level of squishiness in 105 degree weather. Your sweat is no longer your own (and neither is theirs). This is normal. When driving in a car, we feel as if we've hit the jackpot and living the high life. And, no, we don't drive. Similarly, we no longer think anything of asking some random stranger for a ride someplace. Transport in a car? We'll take it!
  7. Air conditioning? What's that?! And heating? Oh, you mean the sun?! These are amenities we don't even recognize anymore. When it's hot, we're hot. When it's cold, we bundle up. That's just how it goes.
  8. Media. We watch tv shows by the SERIES and not by the episode (downloaded by those lucky individuals with "high-speed" internet). No need to wait until next week to find out what happens because "next week" is happening right now! Back-to-back-to-back-to-back episodes!
  9. We live with lizards. And like it. Lizards eat bugs. Bugs are bad. Therefore lizards are good. On a personal note, I have even tried to catch lizards to bring into my house just to eat the bugs.
  10. Spiders the size of your hand are no big deal. They aren't harming anyone so just leave them be. Make friends with the spider. If the lizards can live with them then so can I.
And many, many, many more weird adaptations that we have come to accept as our own since living in Botswana. But can you imagine hoarding water and speaking in sounds back in America? Yes, it is going to be quite a transition when we get out of the village... 

Healthy Lifestyles

During PST, we talk a lot about "healthy lifestyles" or, more specifically, how to maintain them once we get to site. We are told at the beginning that if you were very physically active before coming to your host country that you'll likely gain weight during your service, whereas those who were less active will lose. For me, I was in the "very active" group, choosing to go to the gym and to snowboard, take long bike rides, and generally be outdoors. I expected to gain some but also wanted to keep a lifestyle that kept me feeling good about myself and spry. Most of us vowed similarly but, unfortunately, this was usually not the case.

Many pick up bad habits to kill the time. Some people start smoking or drink too much or fill the empty hours with learning to cook new foods or waiting for a care package with tasty treats to remind us of home... and then binge eating them. Although I have still never ever smoked a cigarette, I did fall prey to overindulgence. I learned how to bake bread and fell in love with the smell as it filled my kitchen and I struggled to say no to kind neighbors when they over-filled my plate with Setswana foods. But eating what I like has rarely been something I denied myself.

Working out is infinitely more difficult when living in a village. For one, there are no gyms to go to. And second (and perhaps more importantly), we are an absolute spectacle if we go for runs outside. My fellow Peace Corps Volunteers and I have often said that we feel like a zoo animal with everyone watching us and studying our mannerisms. While a daily run would feel great on the body (and likely spur a parade of children trying to keep up), the soul takes a beating when you are constantly scrutinized. Most PCVs opt for indoor workouts of the likes of Jillian Michaels, Hip Hop Abs, or Insanity. That is, until the unbearable heat kicks in and getting up to fill your water bottle makes you sweat like you just ran a marathon. Oh yes, it is a hard life... Oh woe is me. But, really, I have tried on many occasions to get back into the swing of things and re-kindle my workout routine but bloody blisters and torrential downpours and nearly four months without water always kept me at bay. (Would you really want to hang out with me after nine workouts without a shower? Cuz that's how many days I had to go sometimes when I was out of water... GROSS!) I mention all of this because many of my compatriots and I have started to feel the wear and we are determined not to let anything else stand in our way. With less than seven months left in our contracts, we are finally taking a stand for our health.

Last week my mom bought me an elliptical as a Christmas present and for over an hour my boyfriend and I worked to build it. I put it smack dab in the middle of my bedroom so that it would stare at me in the face every morning when I wake up and every evening before I go to bed. And, I am pleased to report, I have been using it every day. I am so happy to have it (this was my favorite workout at the gym after all) but, at the same time, it is A LOT harder to do now than it was 19 months ago (I know, surprise surprise...) and I can really see how out of shape I have become. The occasional workout video has definitely not kept me in the type of shape I am used to. I literally struggle to make it through three songs on my Zune before having to take a break and walk around my house then get back on and go again. It is really sad to me. But I have it now and, as a Bots 10 family, we are going to get our healthy lifestyles back! We are motivated (both for our returns stateside and for upcoming trips - who wants to sit on the beach in Mozambique with a beer/bread gut?! not us!). Plus, at least for me, seeing how hard it has become (much harder than doing a Jillian Michaels video that's for sure!) has re-inspired me and is a huge wake-up call. So I'm going to just push onwards, minute by minute if I have to, until I am, as a PCV friend of mine put it, "a fast little gerbil on that thing"!

So I ask of you, my family and friends, every so often ask me how my elliptical is treating me... hint hint Tija!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

How To Save A Life

Today I saved a baby goat. Yes, a baby goat. Only the most precious creature on the planet and one that I have been obsessed with since arriving in Botswana. What makes this "save" even more adorable is that this lost little baby goat had been marching along with a herd of other babies. A baby cow, four baby sheep, two baby goats, and some little chickens! It was an adorably motley crew to say the least. If it wasn't for the endangered baby goat, I would have stopped in awe over the cuteness of the group. Anyway, on to the saving... I first heard the sound of a baby goat crying. I looked around frantically because A. it was a baby goat, I knew it, and I love them and B. it was about to storm and I wanted to get home before the skies unleashed something from Hades on me. So I looked and I looked and finally I found a little baby goat sort of upside-down and stuck in a thorn bush. The other babies were going buck-wild so I knew there was something up. After getting a little torn up from the thorn bushes and a little bruised from the mild battering I took from the baby goat trying to get itself free, I released it to continue on with its other baby friends. And happy to be free that baby goat was! It looked like it was skipping off, tapping its heels with joy! And what a sight it was to see a herd of babies go by! I must ask, however, where were these guys' mamas?! and would this have happened if they were there?! At least these babies will have a good story to tell... And so will I! "The day I saved a baby goat!"

Continued Excitement and Success

Today has been another extraordinary day for me and for Gabane Community Home-Based Care for two reasons:

1. This morning we had a meeting with a representative from a national foundation that wants to fund all of our operational costs for the center for the next two to three years! She said they have only accepted proposals to fund operational costs twice in the foundation's history but that, after seeing our organization and talking with us, she will be our personal advocate to make sure our proposal goes through. We will learn the final decision in two weeks but she thinks it will happen.

2. Our dilapidated old playground is going to be replaced! Why? Because I have organized to get a new one donated to our center! In the upcoming months, the old playground will be renovated and a new playground added to our existing one. That's twice the fun for our little ones!

My NGO has certainly received its fair share of blessings lately. We couldn't be more grateful. I think this sort of achievement calls for a "Percy Happy Dance"!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Community Effort: President Khama Event A Success

On 19 October 2012, His Excellency Lieutenant General Seretse Khama Ian Khama, the President of Botswana, held a "Community Service Day" at Gabane Community Home-Based Care. This day was more than any of us at the center could have hoped for. It was a blessing that will only be truly realized by those we care for here.

The event began with introductions of key visitors - the President and his entire cabinet, among others (protocol observed) - and speeches by the village's Kgosi and other donors. And then the main event was announced... a huge overhaul of our center's garden! This would be a hands-on project and require the participation of all the visitors in attendance.

Our previous garden was small and barely produced the greens we needed to feed the children at our pre-school. And, if the weather got too hot (which it almost always does in the summer), then the vegetables were fried because our net covering was in disrepair. In our new strategic plan, we hoped to expand the garden by the end of 2014. This, we hypothesized, would be a stretch but was a reasonable one. By the end of the day, with the help and support of the Gabane Community and the government employees present, our garden was transformed into something truly magnificent. Two years and two months before our proposed deadline. Amazing.

It was a beautiful thing to watch the community come together to help the center and make our dream a reality. They took turns shoveling dirt, tilling the land, and planting seedlings. Support Group members joined hands with Ministers of Parliament and children ran around playing games, reminding us why we were there. It was a joyous day.

In the end, the new garden is triple in size and has an irrigation system that utilizes rain water runoff (courtesy of a new water collection/pipe system that was also installed that day). Whats more, the new garden will produce enough food to feed the pre-school and the home-based care patients. That means so many more people that are in need will be helped by this new garden! And, on top of all that, fruit trees were donated so we could start a small orchard and our old netting was replaced with beautiful new netting to keep the elements and the animals from harming our produce. (And they used our old netting to create shade cover over the children's playground equipment!)

I have to also mention the fact that I got to meet another president... because this was definitely not something that I expected to happen when I came to Peace Corps. I have met my fair share of important people - Michelle Obama, Former President George Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, numerous US Congressmen, and now His Excellency Sir Seretse Khama Ian Khama. And, not only that, but I've gotten to spend a fair amount of time talking with them and really getting to know them and the work they do. For someone that favors politics, this has been quite something! I feel very lucky to have gotten all of these opportunities.

Other donations on this day included food from a local grocery chain as well as fifty new wheelchairs to be used by home-based care patients that have trouble getting around (donated by the Botswana-China Partnership). This will be invaluable for the families of our home-based care patients. Our gratitude goes out to Mr. Nan for his generosity.

Of course, many thanks are extended to everyone that came out to help, especially the Office of the President, the Gabane Support Group, Peace Corps Country Director Tim Hartman for attending, and my boyfriend Tuan (who helped with preparation before the event and with day-of activities). From the bottom of my heart, thank you. You have made this center so proud. We are forever grateful.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

President Khama to Visit GCHBC

This morning I had a meeting with Botswana's Office of the President. We discussed my NGO's needs and our impact in the Gabane community before they made a major announcement... Botswana's President Lieutenant General Seretse Khama Ian Khama would like to award Gabane Community Home-Based Care with a "Community Service Day" to be held this Friday at the Center! He is dedicated to giving back to organizations throughout the country that are make a positive contribution and he has selected my NGO to be the next recipient of this support. His Excellency will be accompanied by the Vice President, Members of Parliament, and others at this event.

The event would be a community service project facilitated by His Excellency and assisted by staff from his office, other government employees, and the Gabane community. The main project would be expanding our garden. This decision was a result of our meeting. During a tour of the Center, they asked about our garden, which is small but provides enough vegetables to supplement the meals for our Pre-School program. I told them that we aspire to triple the size of our garden by the end of 2014 so that we can provide fresh vegetables to our home-based care patients as well as to the children. We had not started the expansion project, however, because manpower is limited since everyone at the Center is volunteer. In response, they told me that the President would like to ensure that we achieve this goal and that the vegetables flourish. Therefore, they would provide the resources for us to triple the garden, including providing the labor, materials, seedlings, etc. They would also put in an irrigation system since water in this dry country is a problem. The President will work alongside members of the community to make sure this project is a success and our garden is able to provide for those we care for.

Everyone at Gabane Community Home-Based Care is overjoyed and grateful for this opportunity. Having an expanded garden will me exceedingly beneficial to our Center and to those we work so tirelessly to help. With sincere gratitude, we welcome the President of Botswana to our humble little Center and thank him for his contribution. This has been a big year for us - first meeting President Bush and now President Khama - and we are forever appreciative of it. It is because of this type of support that we have the confidence to keep pushing forward.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Outrageous Adventures of Giant and Midge: Botswana Edition

DisclaimerThis is the outrageous and only somewhat true tale of Giant and Midge as they took on Botswana. As you might guess, this story is, in fact, based off of actual events but, don't be fooled, some things have been exaggerated for dramatic effect. The names are definitely not changed to protect the innocent... There is no such thing as innocence in this group. Enjoy.

After a laborious (and expensive) delay in Paris, France, Giant finally arrived in Botswana. She looked fresh and fancy, just as you'd expect someone to look when coming from the land of croissants and designers. Midge jumped up and down with glee as Giant walked through the gates at immigration, overjoyed to be reunited with one of her favorite people on the planet. It was a reunion to go down in history as one of laughter, disaster, and hysterics.

Together, they made the long journey through winding tarred roads to the small village that Midge called home (and Giant called "Gah-bain"). She attempted to keep Giant awake to overcome the jet-lag by talking a mile a minute and wandering the earthen roads to different parts of the village. Of course, pictures were taken at every juncture along the way, mostly with goofy smiles. The conversation was like old times, as if they had never been apart. The two friends caught up on life and love and soon started making plans for their next adventure together (yes, even on the eve of the first night of what would come to be known as "the comedy of errors trip of friends").

After barely sleeping a wink (in part due to incessant conversation and in part due to the thunderous storm that occurred all night courtesy of Giant, aka "Mapula", so named for bringing the rain with her from Seattle), the two friends, joined by a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, traveled to "the big city" (the only certified city in the country) to gather food and supplies to head north(ish) to see the great salt pans of Botswana. This would happen in collaboration with an ex-patriot friend of Midge's who would drive and provide entertainment en route. He would be their tour guide and friend on this great adventure.

Most of the drive included ridiculous sing-a-longs with Midge, Giant, and friends. They belted out to every song that came on the ipod at the top of their lungs. Much to their friend's dismay, this was mostly to country music, something that Midge had not heard much of in the passed year and a half. Going to country concerts had been a favorite pastime for Giant and Midge so, of course, making their own concert would be in the cards. Other than country music, of particular interest was the vocal stylings of Garfunkel and Oats, who are an adorable duo that sing hysterical songs. Giant and Midge decided they could probably be awesome like them and made every attempt to demonstrate this along the way.

In addition to singing, the group of girls would also frantically yelled out to stop at interesting signs and landmarks on the way. Of particular note, was the Tropic of Capricorn. This stop required significant time for picture taking.

The rest of the journey towards the pans was peppered with rainfall (thanks again Mapula Giant for bringing the rains to our dry dry desert of a country) and many splattered bugs on the windshield. Sadly, and unfortunately, Zazu also was splattered on the windshield. Screams were let out and tears shed. Lets all please take a moment of silence in remembrance of this lovable little bird that met his demise on the A1 highway.....................Thank you for that. The group carried the scars of his lost life for the next few days as their adventure continued with a shattered upper windshield. A constant reminder that life is short and you best live it up while you can.

They arrived at their destination as the sun was setting. They were tired and their throats were sore from all of the singing.  They still had to set up their tents but thought a libation or two would help give them get the night vision they so desperately needed and soothe their souls from the loss they witnessed earlier. After a few too many, they wandered back to the campsite, haphazardly set up their tents, and all fell into one of the two they set up.

It was squishy and rocks and elbows flailing about made the evening almost unbearable. Sleep was impossible. Hangovers were imminent. And when they arrived, they did so with force. All that was left for this motley group was rest under the shade of an ancient baobab tree. Giant and Midge hoped beyond hope that the healing powers of this baobab would save their aching heads.

Did they? Yes, in time. Thank you dear baobab, you were quite the savior. After a nap in the shade of the baobab and ample water, they were off on their next mini adventure... trekking to the pans!

En route to the pans, their tour guide and friend decided they needed to stop at a gas station to fill up and to get coffee and food for the trip. The gas station was empty, with nothing but a few greasy donuts (yum) and zero petrol to speak of. Will we be okay? they asked. Decidedly so, the magic 8-ball responded. So Giant, Midge, and friends continued on.

They drove through a tiny village, commenting on how great a Peace Corps Volunteer would be in this site and waving at small children until they came to what was aptly called "the bush". There was nothing left but thorn bushes, tumbleweed, sand, and the occasional animal (mostly donkeys and cows but the occasional kudu or ostrich running at full-speed would cross their path).

They drove on. And on. And on. They sang karaoke-style songs and gossiped about life in Botswana and back in America. Midge and Giant told stories of their adventures and the four friends giggled uncontrollably as they looked at the sun to decide which direction they should take. And they drove on. And on. And on. Annnnnnnnnd on...

For eight hours. They were lost. So lost that they pondered their own demise. Would we meet Zazu soon? What predators live near the pans? Why hadn't the case station had coffee? or bread? or petrol? Why are we asking why in Botswana? But they persevered. They came across some people living in the lands and asked them, in broken Setswana and mime, "di-pan dikae?". In strict mime, they were pointed onward. So onward they went!

Another hour went by. Still lost. Still contemplating the end.

They concluded that they would never find the pans and decided they had to turn around and head home. Or at least in the direction they thought home might be, realizing that the sun had moved across the sky and they no longer could keep track. With no working compass to go by, Midge and Giant had to trust their guide (who admitted that he had no idea where he was). But, then, just as they all had admitted defeat, ahead of them came a sight for sore eyes...

THE PANS! Hip hip hooooooray! There they were! They were there the whole time! Who knew that something the size of Connecticut could hide from a group of intellectual-types for so long? But we outsmarted them! Errrrr... or at least that's what they will say!

The group frolicked across the glorious salt pans, content in having found them. They jumped for joy at the awesomeness and the expanse of the pans. They smiled that they did not miss such a glorious sight. And then they sang Hallelujah because they had done it! It certainly felt like a huge cause for celebration! After an entire day stuck in the bush, they found what we were looking for!

With significant difficulty (read: almost drowned their vehicle in an ocean of sand), they traversed the earthen paths all the way back to their campsite. It took a third of the time to get home and they were extremely grateful.

One of the things the group had hoped to accomplish during their trip was to see animals. they had heard that a nearby watering hole was a spot frequented by animals, including elephants! They were eager to see these magnificent beasts so they gathered up their cameras and boxed wine and set their sights on the watering hole.

For the hours before the sun set, Midge and Giant and their eager friend (for the sake of this conversation, lets call her AnimalloverfromthedesertviaMaine) sat watch on a fallen tree alongside the watering hole. They sipped their boxed wine and whispered back-and-forth in an effort not to scare away any incoming animals. An, all of the sudden, a herd of animals started coming through the trees. But what were they? Elephants? No. Kudu? No. They were horses! Followed in succession by cows! And then more horses from another corner of the bush! Then more cows! They came one after the next in a rhythm that had to be practiced because it was so synchronized. It was a sight to behold! Granted, it was not the sight that this group had originally wished for but one that made them smile nevertheless. Not a horrible way to spend the afternoon, that's for sure.
After the sun set, the rest of the evening involved marshmallows, food, more wine, and time by the pool. There was no way that they were going on any more adventures after such a ridiculous day of mis-adventure. They were exhausted and dirty and in desperate need of relaxation. So they settled in for the night, content to start the next day afresh.

The next morning, Midge woke up to find that she had been visited by an entire army during the middle of the night. An army of mosquitos, that is. She was absolutely covered. Giant and friends took pity on her and didn't laugh too much at the rash that was spread all over her entire body. They even helped by restraining her arms and legs when the itching became too much to handle. With that, it was time to leave. There had been enough time on the road for this group. All they wanted, Midge especially, was to get out of the bush and get home!

The drive home was another one of potential tragedy. As you may recall, the group attempted to get petrol for the vehicle the day before but the station was without. They then proceeded to drive for eight hours through the bush on their search for the salt pans. Still, no petrol. This meant that the vehicle was dangerously low on fuel and the light threatening to go on. As each car passed them on the road towards the next village with a petrol station, they attempted to flag them down to ask for even a few liters to get them there. They were unsuccessful. They kept trying. Time and time again, still no luck. They watched as the gauge moved ever closer to the red line. Finally, it reached the end of the line. The signs ahead read 5km to go. Slight sputter on the car. They looked at each other. Can we make it?! And they pressed on. Just as the petrol station came into sight, the car started to cough and control decreased. They literally rolled into the petrol station with only air getting them there. But they made it!

The rest of the drive went smoothly. Naps happened by everyone (driver excluded) and sing-alongs were less vibrant than on the trip up. Showers were the only thing on this group's mind. That and getting to safe ground. The only excitement was the 5pm wine break (because Midge's nana did teach her that a glass of red wine at 5pm should be a daily requirement)!

The next twenty-four hours were filled with activities that Giant and Midge were pros at. Namely, eating, drinking, and shopping! By the day's end, they bought Botswana out of their jewelry and crafts (ensuring many families had lucrative careers and extravagant holidays this year) and had made plans for a ruckus evening out.

They were joined by friends from across the globe, everywhere from Ireland to India to Bangladesh and South Africa. Fun was the aim and they were going to make sure they had it. So they got dolled up and set out to paint the town red. Success!
The culmination of their adventures together, before Giant set out to take "the whisky trail" up Mount Kilimanjaro, was a game drive through a nearby park to ensure they saw animals other than donkeys and goats! Joined by a few more adventure-seeking ladies, they piled into Midge's boyfriend's car and set off down the road!

The game park did not disappoint. Animals were a plenty from the moment they entered. They drove cautiously throughout the park. First a kudu! Then a bunch of monkeys! And then some giraffe! They were seeing hordes of animals and laughing and having a great time as they drove deeper and deeper into the park, eager to see whatever came their way.

All of the sudden, the car started making a funny sound. They pulled over on the beaten path near the far end of the park to see if there was anything wrong. When they tried to start the car again, nothing happened. The car was stopped dead in its tracks. What were they going to do?! They turned the vehicle off and tried re-starting it. The car started but wouldn't move at all. They were stuck!

Darkness crept up on them. They tried, one by one, to call the front desk of the game park to get help but there was no cell phone coverage. Once again, the girls were faced with potential death as the animals in the park circled closer and closer and the day turned into night. Giant and Midge looked at each other and, in that moment, were grateful that they got to see each other one last time. The stress was too much...

Then, all of the sudden, as if by divine intervention, flashing headlights ascended on them. It was an older woman that lives in the park and has fended off the wild animals before. She urged the group of frightened girls to get into her vehicle and abandon their own, at least until someone could safely come and get it. The girls leapt from their seats to seek refuge with this goddess. Saved again!

Midge's boyfriend was anxious when he arrived to pick up the frazzled girls. He first asked if they were safe, realizing that they had defied the odds to make it back in one piece. He then braved the dark of night to rescue his car from the dark depths of the game park. Within hours, they were all safely tucked away and jabbering on about the tragedy of the evening and how it made sense that the world would all but implode when the awesomeness of Giant and Midge came together. Of course, it wouldn't have been right had they gone event-less and it made perfect sense that this would be the way their reunion would go out.

In the end, Giant and Midge had yet another epic adventure together. One that was full of ups and downs and miraculous recoveries and so much love and laughter. There's a reason these girls are best friends. Who else could go through all of these things (or at least things that somewhat resemble the above story) and think it was the most amazing time ever? Two thumbs up for their ridiculousness and for many more times just like this one, cuz, why not?!


During an NGO sector meeting during Mid-Service Training (MST), we spent some time discussing integration. Each of us went around and discussed how integrated into our communities we felt. Most said they were "integrated"and stated that people knew who they were and said hello to them as they passed them in their villages. Our Program Manager then posed to the group that "integration" is a two-way street and asked how well we knew our neighbors. The group was mostly silent after she said that. Although I feel that I have always been open and genuinely cared to know the people in my community, I took this to heart. I internalized it and I made the conscious decision to really get to know the people that I work with and that I see around my community.

Since I made that vow with myself, I feel increasingly more integrated. I truly and deeply know the people that I interact with and have a newfound respect and empathy for them. I know about their home lives - the good and the bad - and their children's and grandchildren's lives. In many instances now, I have been asked to accompany them to medical appointments and have been invited on close family outings and really feel like a part of their families (not just in word but in action and deed). My relationships with the people in my community have taken a big leap forward just by my asking questions and then sitting quietly and listening to them tell their stories. Our relationships are built on much more and are no longer "surface". Yes, I think that part of this is because I had already built a trust in the months before, but I can feel a real sense of togetherness with my community now. We genuinely know each other and are a part of each other's lives. It's reciprocal and truly meaningful. I will be forever grateful to my Program Manager for challenging us to take our integration one step further.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Guest Blogger: Benida Solow (Honorary-Aunt)

This is a guest blog written by Benida Solow. Benida has been an honorary member of my family for as long as I can remember. In her post, she shares about her time in Botswana and about how it opened her heart to Africa. It was amazing to have her on our family trip and I will be forever grateful for all of her love and support throughout this entire experience.

"This was one of my all-time favorite travel experiences! The people, the place, the animals - I loved getting a glimpse into Tija's life as a Peace Corps Volunteer. That is something that I have always wished I'd done when I was younger. It is so difficult to imagine taking myself out of my life and away from my family for two years at this stage in my life so it probably won't happen. But, then again, who knows?!

Visiting Tija's NGO and meeting the wonderful women and kids will always be a truly memorable part of the trip. The kids are so adorable and were so thrilled to meet us and receive the stickers and animal cookies that we brought. To realize that they were just one classroom of little orphans and that there are so many more is so heart-wrenching. Yet, to see the big smiles on their little faces and know that we brightened up their day, literally brought tears to not only my eyes but to all of us that day. It was very cool to have seen the video on youtube of the kids singing to George and Laura Bush and then to see that same pink classroom full of the same little kids for real!

It was a challenge to learn how to use my new camera while being in the moment and wanting to capture the best photos possible and, at the same time, not wanting to be saddled with carrying around a heavy camera! A minor detail for sure but a consideration nonetheless. Good thing we were in the vehicle while most of the photographic moments were happening!

Revisiting being roommates with Tija's Aunt Patti was just as fun as it was way back in 1965! I am so honored to be included as an honorary auntie in this amazing life. Tija has a great house, she's surrounded by caring friends and the most perfect boyfriend a girl could want! Tuan, I can't wait to see you here one day!

What fun it was to cook in Tija's kitchen and then just throw the food waste out the window for the chickens and goats... now that's recycling!! And also going over to Lovey's house for a traditional home-cooked lunch was really special. I loved her welcome: "The house is small but the welcome is BIG!" That summed it up perfectly. I can't wait to try her recipe for dikgobe, although I may have to substitute some of the ingredients if I can't find them here.

It was a thrill to be able to go on a camping safari that was literally down to earth (funky mattresses with sleeping bags on the ground), yet we had the luxury of having our tents set up for us and yummy meals cooked for us. Compared to camping in Peru with Tina in 1971, this was definitely luxury! We even had hod water camp showers with a real shower head at the bottom of a canvas bag (Jena posted a picture of this!). Tija chose an amazing guide for our experience. Anthony (the guide), his brother Phatsi, and our chef Victor were all wonderful and full of warmth. We became a little family for those five days. We were shown an abundance of mammals, birds, and plants. Of the mammals, the three leopards we saw were my favorite. They were magnificently beautiful. And, of course, hanging out right next to two sleeping male lions was pretty amazing too! I also loved the male kudu - they look like mythical creatures with their long winding horns.

The Lilac Breasted Roller was gorgeous - no wonder it's Botswana's national bird - and the male Saddlebilled Stork was like a cartoon bird (or maybe he has actually inspired many cartoon birds wearing tuxedos!). I remember how excited we were to spot our first hornbill as we were driving to the Rhino Sanctuary! And then they were almost everywhere! And Tija, yes, you told us it was winter and that it would be cold buuuuut... 30 degrees Fahrenheit for our first early morning game drive? We definitely weren't prepared for that! Even with four layers of clothes and a blanket wrapped around each of us so that we looked like we were all wearing burkas, we still froze until the sun came up!

I was surprised to find that we didn't find many restaurants serving local "African" food. I guess the food at the Rhino Sanctuary came the closest to that. But, I have to say, I'm glad we weren't served any mopane worms! That would have been difficult for me after seeing the dried ones on the street in the marketplace in Gaborone! I have tried some pretty weird foods, including a few insects, but when they look like big fat caterpillars (even the dried ones), I don't think I could have done it! Victor's cooking on the safari was quite yummy and once he saw how much we all craved the Botswana spinach they got arms full of fresh spinach for us!

Our itinerary worked out perfectly! We ended our safari in Kasane at Kubu Lodge, which was beautiful and right on the Chobe River. I took a swim in their pool (to avoid the crocs and hippos) while everyone took their "real, hot showers" after five days in the bush. The next day, we drove up to Zimbabwe for a quick overnight visit to see the breathtakingly beautiful and amazing Victoria Falls. We stayed at the Shoestrings Backpackers Lodge, which wasn't as nice as the Old Bridge Backpackers in Maun but had good food and a really fun atmosphere. Then it was back to the Kubu Lodge the following day for some relaxation before flying back to Gaborone for our last night in Africa.

We didn't have time to explore traditional villages, see dancers, or do other cultural things and I am sorry I didn't just stay another week. Our two week visit was way too short! But, Tija, you sure succeeded in trying your best to fill every minute with something fun and interesting for us to do. I remember when, during the itinerary planning stage, some of us thought that spending an entire day just hanging out with the "Kums Kids" seemed like it wouldn't be something we would enjoy... Boy were we wrong! I loved getting to know Bokena, her brother, and her cousin, and spending the day with them. By the way, have you been able to visit adorable Bokena in her new home yet?

I am going to admit that going to Africa (except for Egypt) had never been a travel priority for me. I guess it was all of those movie images of Englishmen walking in line carrying guns while on a safari that I saw throughout my life that had turned me off. But this blog of yours sure sparked my interest and now that I have had a taste of Botswana and Zimbabwe and see what it is really like, I definitely want to go back and see and experience more! If you stay another year, I would love to come again, stay longer, and travel farther to see more! Tija, thank you so much for such an amazing experience!