Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Great Trek(s)

So after a whopping 2 days back at my site (during which I ate only bran flakes with raisins, popcorn and spoonfuls of peanut butter and did nothing productive other than walk aimlessly and sweat) I decided I deserved a break. A break from what, I’m not sure, but a break nonetheless.

I began the trek early Wednesday morning with my 50L backpack full of clothes, toiletries, computer, books, DVDs, sleeping bag, etc., and a “bomake bag” (a plastic bag thing with a zipper on it that I use for carrying groceries…like the bags Trader Joe’s sells…but brown with pink and orange paisley on it) with 2 grocery bags of green beans and 4 heads of lettuce from my garden. Despite feeling like a mule, I made it all the way to the PC office in Mbabane by 10am (an impressive feat by all measures) and picked up my very first mini-VAST money (money from PEPFAR) for the support group Saturday. See, I WAS actually working. But that’s where it stops, really. (I DID take a shower at the Peace Corps office, which was the best decision I’ve made in a long time.)

I stayed the night at Brittany’s where we watched Man vs. Wild (the African Savannah episode) so now we know that if we’re ever stranded and really thirsty that we can drink water from elephant dung. I hope I never need to know that. Unfortunately the part about how to avoid being bit by a puff adder might be useful.

The next morning begins my real adventure. We made it to Mbabane by 7 and I got into Manzini even before the Shoprite (grocery store) and the internet cafĂ© opened, so I had plenty of time to stand in the mall and sweat excessively because, turns out, it’s summer here now. I needed to get on a 9am bus to the Jacksons’ house, where us Shiselweni folks (that’s our region) were meeting for Thanksgiving. So it’s 8:45 and I’m sitting on the bus (still sweating…this is a common theme for the day) when the driver kindly informs me and the other people on the bus that he has decided not to drive the bus that day because there aren’t enough people, so could we please get off. Um, okay.

Time for Plan B. I hopped on my usual bus down to Nhlangano so I could meet up with the other girls heading to Jackson’s or at least be stranded closer to home. Since I had so much stuff with me, I decided to ditch the produce in the bomake bag in the storage space under the bus and keep my computer, etc., with me so I wouldn’t be packed into my seat like a big sweaty sardine. And it would have been quite comfortable except that the whole ride down the conductor (aka “tout,” the guy who takes the money and tells the bus driver when and where to stop) sat next to me and pestered me for my phone number. As usual. I was pretty annoyed after 90 minutes of this, so when Mr. Conductor “couldn’t find” my bomake bag under the bus in Nhlangano I just about lost it. He almost had me convinced that someone else had taken it by mistake until he offered his solution: “Just give me your number and I’ll call you when I find it.” So not only was he being shady to get my number, he was also planning on stealing my produce! I got American-style angry and got the driver involved and we finally “found” the bag in a compartment on the other side of the bus, much to the “surprise” of Mr. Conductor. But the real surprise, for me anyway, was that my bag was in the storage compartment with a bird. A large, brown, slightly flattened but not yet smelly, obviously roadkill bird. And I was so relieved to get my bag back that I didn’t really realize until later how weird that was. I would ask him about it next time if I didn’t fear it would be the beginning of 90 minutes of him asking me for my phone number.

Anyway, I made it to Nhlangano with all my produce intact, met up with the other girls and 2.5 extremely dusty hours later we made it to Beth’s. Aside from the fact that I was crunching dirt between my teeth the whole time, the ride wasn’t so terrible. For one it made me appreciate how not desolate-looking my site is. And I guess I’m lucky to never feel like I’m going to puke while driving down my nicely paved road. And there was an extremely drunk guy who was pretty entertaining. First he sat down next to me and asked for 38R to buy a bag of fertilizer for his corn. I told him that maybe next month he should spend his money on fertilizer instead of booze, which he accepted. Then onto “phase two,” as he called it, which was the 10 minute conversation about how he needs a second wife and how he would be choosing one of us to go home with him. At least the harassment has become predictable.

The three of us met up with Beth at her siteshi (bus stop) in the middle of nowhere (where she was waiting with her sisi who was wearing a bathing suit and tights), and she informed us that the “walk” to the Jacksons’ we thought took 45 minutes was actually a “hike” of about 2 hours. Please note that, at this point, I’m wearing a skirt and flip-flops and carrying a really heavy backpack with my computer and a small DVD library in it, and a bomake bag full of lettuce and green beans. Oh, and it’s like 80 degrees outside and really humid and the sun is ridiculous. To make a long, miserable, whiney story short, I have never hiked with a bag of produce before and I would like to never do it ever again. In hindsight I guess I should have just ditched the produce when it became obvious that the lettuce had liquefied (it was running down my legs as I was walking), but I was too stubborn to do that and Beth kept assuring us we were almost there. She also assured us that it was all downhill. Which was true, except for the last 50% which was all uphill. We were so tired we tried to hitch a ride in a truck full of pigs. We probably wouldn’t have smelled any worse than we already did.

Anyway, about 7 hours after I had planned on being there, we finally arrived at the Jacksons’ for Thanksgiving. My lettuce had died and oozed all over the tomatoes. My mangoes had slightly fermented and exploded all over my fancy supposedly mildew-resistant (but not) pillow, and my hand was so bruised and swollen from carrying that stupid bag of produce that I couldn’t get my ring off my finger for 2 days. [Insert more complaining here. Beth was about to kill us.]

And it was totally worth it.

The Jacksons had prepared an absolute feast for us and their host family (16 people total). We had a turkey (they even killed it!), sweet potato casserole with pineapple in it, baked zucchini, corn succotash, stuffing/dressing, black-eyed peas (complete with hambone), spinach, monkey bread, mashed potatoes, deviled eggs, green beans (they were salvageable once we wiped the tomato mush off of them), apple pie, carrot cake, cream cheese pound cake and Grape-o-saurus Kool-Aid. It was delicious. After dinner (which we ate sitting on grass mats outside the house because it was so hot) we hung out in their house with a box of cabernet sauvignon and 150 flies while the Jacksons sang duets to the guitar and we all laughed hysterically at jokes that weren’t really funny. It wasn’t as good as the classic family Thanksgiving at Grandma’s house, but it was a nice approximation of a normal American holiday. Except that I had to hike there in a skirt with 4 heads of lettuce.

After a short night (we stayed up debating the political affiliation of assorted Disney characters and shooting a documentary about the creepy abandoned house we were staying in because Peace Corps makes people crazy) we caught the bus to Nhlangano for a meeting with NERCHA, the National Emergency Response Committee on HIV/AIDS. It was about an event for World AIDS Day, which until the morning of the 28th of November was going to be held on the 6th of December. But this is Swaziland so at the last minute they decided to do it on the 1st (which is actually World AIDS Day) instead of on the 6th, so they were desperate for volunteers (3 days notice) to lead assorted events. I volunteered to be part of the 15k walk from Mahamba border post to the King Sobuza II Memorial Stadium in Nhlangano, which means that after spending IST and half of last week away from my site, I volunteered to be gone for another 3 nights.

After the Saturday morning Shiselweni Regional Youth HIV/AIDS Support Group (for which I wrote the mini-VAST) where we talked about how to deal with stress and then made balloon and flour stress balls without a funnel (which made me think of Maria Full of Grace), me and the other 4 girls spent the entire night in front of the TV at some woman’s house watching American music videos (that new TI and Rihanna video is epic) and, though I am embarrassed to admit it, some Mary Kate and Ashley movie from 2004 about the Salt Lake Olympics or something. But hey, at this point TV is TV and I’ll take what I can get.

Sunday morning Team Shis (that’s me and the other Shiselweni group 6 volunteers) decided to go to church, mostly because the church had been nice enough to let us use their grassy area the previous day for the support group. I don’t go to church back home and I’d only been once in Swaziland so I really didn’t know what to expect, but I actually really enjoyed it. The whole service was in English and there were only about 25 people in the congregation total, including only 2 men. (I think the other men were all at the bar at this point because it’s just after payday.) The first 45 minutes was singing, then there was about 20 minutes of preaching about something or other, then another 15 minutes of singing. Somewhere in there they collected money, and asked people to come forward for “testimony,” where we heard some woman talk about how the devil was calling her to do evil. Overall it was a good experience—I really enjoyed the singing and the hugs after church!—but I couldn’t help but be angry with all the men of Swaziland for not being there. I would really like to work with the churches as a means of disseminating information on HIV/AIDS and decreasing stigma in the communities, but even that seems unlikely when working through the churches would only reach women. How do I reach the men in the community since they have all the real power to change behaviors? It’s so difficult as a woman…

Monday was the main event for World AIDS Day, which involved two separate marches to the stadium in Nhlangano and an afternoon of speakers from various NGOs and government agencies. We spent all of Sunday evening peeling carrots and potatoes with a butter knife (yes, butter knife) for the hundreds of expected walkers the following day, for which we were rewarded with endless hours of music videos and Oprah’s E! True Hollywood Story and other sleep-depriving things at the NERCHA regional director’s house (we have an odd relationship, it seems). The late night made for a rough morning on Monday at 5am when we rolled out of bed and put on our best camp counselor outfits (khaki capris, hiking boots and matching t-shirts), our uniform for the day.

The march was an incredible experience! We started at Mahamba border post (border to South Africa) and marched 15 kilometers (that’s 9.3 miles!) to the stadium, which actually seems more difficult than it was. We started at 8am (we were supposed to start at 7, but it’s Swaziland) and marched until about 11:30, at which point we joined up with the other march (it was only about 3 kilometers) and entered the stadium. The whole time we were led by the Swazi Army’s marching band, which made for some fantastic dancing and some amazing photos (I’ll post them when I get to Mbabane) and an all-around good time. Monday night my legs were ridiculously sore, but it was nice to be a part of such a vocal group of people who believe in HIV/AIDS education and activism. There were about 300 people who marched with us from Mahamba, and over 2000 who attended the event at the stadium, though I’m sure many of them were only there for the free food at the end. The day’s event was pretty standard for Swaziland: speakers, dramas, singing, lots of impatience in the crowd. The usual. It was all in siSwati so it wasn’t very useful to me, but I was amazed to see that the VCT (voluntary counseling and testing) mobile units had lines hundreds of people long, which is really encouraging. And also discouraging, I guess, because so many people wanted to be tested but instead spent the whole day waiting in lines. But, in the end, I walked away with a nice farmer tan, sore legs, and a CD of breastfeeding-inspired songs courtesy of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation and UNICEF, which I’m pretty excited to listen to.

So, for the Cliff’s Notes version: it’s summer in the Swaz so it’s hot, I walk a lot, Thanksgiving was amazing, lettuce does not survive a 2 hour hike in a bomake bag, only women go to church, I’ll gladly peel endless carrots in exchange for a cold bath, music videos are amazing and it takes about 3.5 hours to cover 15 kilometers of road on foot when led by the Swazi Army’s marching band.

That's all. Happy belated World AIDS Day.


Erin said...

Wow! You had a big week! Your Thanksgiving sounds wonderful. But Mary Kate & Ashley videos?! Really? Have you no shame woman?! I'll have to send you more movies!

Dad said...

Next time, maybe you should forget the lettuce and carry an extra box of wine! Your adventures always make me smile! Love You.