Friday, April 30, 2010

I bet cowboys have amazing abs...

When I was studying in Durban in 2007, I spent my Easter holidays pony-trekking the Drakensberg Mountains in southern Lesotho. It snowed like nobody’s business, my butt bruised and chapped like never before, I ruined my one and only pair of jeans, my horse had a thing for kicking other horses and their riders, I had to listen to the constant whining of a dainty French woman for days on end, and, on more than one occasion, I saw my life flash before my eyes as my horse tempted the fates of gravity on narrow mountain trails. Afterwards, when I had safely made it back to the base camp without losing a finger to frostbite or falling off a cliff, I thanked the horse for not killing me and said NEVER AGAIN!

And then, in March, when Jenn and Jaci said “Hey, let’s go to Lesotho!” I said “Lesotho is so beautiful! Let’s go pony-trekking!”

Me, Jaci, Jenn, and Danielle, started out early on Saturday morning with a kombi (mini-bus) trip from Nhlangano to the Mahamba border post, then on to Piet Retief, then Paulpietersberg, then Vryheit, then Ladysmith, then Qwaqwa to the Maseru border post. My favorite part of the whole trip was the last 2 hours, which we spent experiencing both the incredible beauty of Golden Gate National Park and the repeated sales pitch of a traveling feminine hygiene product salesman. Then, after 10 hours on kombis and 20 minutes spent finding someone to stamp us into Lesotho (apparently most people just walk through), we caught a cab to downtown Maseru, the capital of Lesotho.

And then all of my glorious well-thought-out plans fell to pieces.

Our original plan was to get all the way to Malealea, a little town about 60 kilometers (30 miles) south of Maseru, on Saturday, but darkness beat us to it. We were stuck in Maseru for the night. Without a place to stay, a phone, an inkling of what anyone was saying to us (SeSotho is not closely related to SiSwati). Since we didn’t know where we wanted to go, the cab driver got tired of our indecision and dropped us off at the police station. (If you’ve ever been to Africa before, you know that a police station is not the ideal place to spend your Saturday night, but we were without other options.)

We dragged our bags and tent into the station and parked ourselves next to a handful of homeless men on a bench and decided to make a new game plan. An off-duty police officer (who had clearly just come from happy hour) lent us his phone to call the only person in Lesotho that any of us knew, Sbu, to ask where in Maseru we could stay without getting robbed/assaulted. He suggested his friend Curtis’s apartment, which seemed as good a plan as any. (And free.) So we waited for him to show up. And waited. And made peanut butter sandwiches for ourselves and our new homeless friends. And waited.

Two hours later, two cabs pulled up full of people with names like “Hi-Tec” and “Master.” They said they were friends of Sbu, so we got in and they took us to Curtis’s apartment in Maseru West. Turns out, Curtis is an American from North Carolina who works for an organization called Kick4Life that does health and life skills education through soccer. (It’s a GREAT organization and they work all over the world. Check it out.) Lucky for us, both of Curtis’s roommates were out of town for the week so we got to take showers and watch TV and sleep in beds, which is a whole league above what we could have expected after eating peanut butter sandwiches in the police station.

The next morning we woke early to finish our grand trek to Malealea with two more kombi rides. We pitched our tent in a patch of shade at the campground at Malealea Lodge, a little place in Malealea that serves as base camp for a variety of outdoorsy-type activities like hiking and pony-trekking to nearby mountain villages and cave paintings. The lodge is run in conjunction with an organization called Malealea Development Trust, which does things like health education, setting up pre-schools, and primary schools, income-generating projects for women in the area, support groups, learning circles, and a whole bunch of other really impressive development-related things. My favorite project of theirs is the pre-school furniture project. They use bailing wire to stack and string together old soda and beer cans, then put slabs of plywood on top of them to make tables and chairs. It’s an amazing use of recycled materials, plus it’s colorful and completely useful. And creative. (I’m not explaining it well, but there are pictures below.) The organization is run almost entirely by volunteers and does some REALLY impressive work.

Sunday evening, with our bellies full of Basuto bread (delicious!) and exhausted from two days of travel, we put on all of our warmest clothes , zipped ourselves into our sleeping bags around 7:30 and fell asleep to the sound of the rain falling gently outside. I slept soundly for a couple of hours until 10:30 when I woke up cold and wet. The rain was still falling at a steady pace and, turns out, our borrowed tent was not exactly waterproof. My brand new Basuto blanket (Lesotho is known for its wool blankets), my sleeping bag, my North Face fleece, all of my socks and shoes, and the majority of the contents of my backpack were soaked through. The water was dripping through the seams of the tent and onto my face. I was lying in a puddle. I looked around at everyone else in the tent, sleeping soundly, and forced myself to lie back down in the puddle, my sleeping bag protecting my face from the incessant dripping. No sense in disturbing everyone else, right? Not if I’m the only one suffering…

Two hours later, just after midnight, Jenn woke up in a puddle of her own. As did Jaci. And Danielle. It was 40 degrees outside and we were lying, along with our whole week’s worth of warm clothes, in a kiddie pool.

By that point, the situation was so ridiculous that we had no option but to evacuate the tent and move our wet selves to the partially-enclosed communal kitchen 20 feet away. We grabbed our valuables and our wet blankets/sleeping bags and made a run for the kitchen in the dark, setting up a make-shift camp for the rest of the night. Jaci and Jenn camped out at the table wrapped in wet sleeping bags, their heads resting on the table. Danielle and I set our wet sleeping bags on the cement floor and tried to ignore the cold and wet long enough to fall back asleep. And, surprisingly, we did.

(Here’s where I put in my sales pitch for the Basuto blanket I’d bought earlier that evening. It’s teal with black corn cobs and red stripes on it, which is a lot prettier than it sounds, and looks just like a normal wool blanket. Except it’s not. It’s super heavy, waterproof, and REALLY warm. Totally worth the exorbitant amount of money I paid for it. After making it through that night, I understand why they are such a crucial part of the traditional Basuto attire. Superblankets. Really.)

The next morning, we woke up surrounded by really confused but sympathetic fellow campers who put on the kettle and lit a campfire for the four of us. After we finished drying out all of our wet clothes and inadvertently melting the soles of our shoes around the campfire, we packed our clothes into our saddle bags and embarked on the great pony-trekking adventure with our guide, Mpho (Gift), and his assistant.

That first day, we rode almost 8 hours through mountains, down into valleys, across rivers, and back up into the mountains. Some of the paths were as wide as a road, some only a foot wide. At a couple of spots, the incline was so steep or the path so slippery that we had to get off our horses and walk them through it. If you’ve never been hiking with a horse, it’s a pretty scary experience. Not only do you have to worry about your own footing on the side of the mountain, you also have to make sure you stay out of the path of 800 pounds of metal-footed momentum. An adventure, that’s for sure.

Our horses were experienced hikers, though. On the website for Malealea Lodge it says something about how the “sure-footed Basuto ponies” know how to climb, which would be a little ridiculous if it wasn’t so true. They can climb. And run. And devour whole stalks of sorghum in a single bite. My horse, Gray Skies, was a big white and gray horse who liked to be in the lead. He also liked to run, so I took to calling him White Lightning.

As if the trip wasn’t challenging enough already, about halfway to our destination it started raining again and White Lightning’s hooves were slipping and sliding beneath me. Luckily, horses have four feet with which to catch themselves when they lose their footing. Unless, of course, both of the horse’s right feet slip out from under him at the same time, which is exactly how I ended up lying in a puddle of mud with a horse on my right leg. Lucky for me, though, I’m very experienced at falling down and was able to do it without hurting myself, but my jeans will never be the same.

Just before dusk, our guide Mpho informed us that we had about 30 minutes of riding left to the village of Ribaneng, where we’d be staying for the night. Then, an hour later, he informed us that we had about an hour left (a prime example of “African time”). By this point, the sun had long set and it was completely dark. We’re talking pitched-black, can’t-see-a-foot-in-front-of-your-face, guided only by the moonlight, rural Africa dark. And we’ve still got 3 villages, 2 river crossings, and an unknown distance between us and the village of Ribaneng. Mpho kept reassuring us that the horses know the way, that they’ve done this trip hundreds of times before, that we should just “trust” them to keep their footing. I asked if they could see in the dark, but he wasn’t sure. “You should just TRUST that they can,” he kept telling me.

An hour later, we finally made it to the village of Ribaneng and, after thanking our horses profusely for getting us there safely, the four of us dismounted and walked bow-legged to our little hut. The house was pretty basic: a rondavel constructed entirely of sticks and cow dung with a polished cow dung floor, four foam mattresses on the floor, one dilapidated table, a candle and candle-stick holder, a two-burner gas stove (we brought our own gas tank and matches), and 3 large rocks (two to hold the burners up off the table and one to prop open the door). We were given about 10 liters of water each day (about 2.5 gallons) for cooking, washing, dishes, and drinking, and we borrowed a big pot and dishes from the village chief. After a nice balanced meal of lentils and rice, we were asleep.

The next morning we got our first glimpse of the beautiful landscape just outside our door (which was made of wood, not cow dung). Despite Lesotho’s relatively close proximity to Swaziland, I was surprised at how different the little village of Ribaneng was compared to the villages in rural Swaziland. And it wasn’t just the mountains. There were no roads to Ribaneng, so the houses were constructed mostly of natural materials (cow dung, mud, sticks or gathered timber, rocks, thatching grass, reeds, etc.) and fenced with strategically planted aloe plants rather than metal fencing. All man-made materials (factory-built doors, cement, pit latrine seats, etc.) had to be sent down the river. The houses were even arranged differently than in Swaziland. Where I live, the “village” is spread out over many kilometers, with each family occupying a “homestead” that consists of several buildings and a plot of land for farming. In Ribaneng, each family occupied one or two small houses set right next to the neighboring family’s houses much like an American suburb, and the farm land was on the outskirts of the cluster of houses. Each family had its own cooking fire, a small yard for washing and hanging laundry, and maybe a small vegetable garden, but several families used the same pit latrine and kept their horses on the same flat patch of land. And it was BEAUTIFUL.

After a quick breakfast, we set out on a journey to the top of the Ribaneng Waterfall and finally got a glimpse of the kind of treacherous paths we’d navigated in the dark the previous night. We climbed up, up, up, a rocky and crumbling trail to a big plateau of sorts above the waterfall, where we took lots of pictures (including some with a Glamour Magazine for the “Where has your Glamour been?” section of the magazine) and frightened our guides by getting dangerously close to the sheer drop-off. About 200 meters below us was the Ribaneng Waterfall, the river leading to the village, and, even further, our little hut. In the afternoon, we attempted to hike to the source of the waterfall. We failed, maybe because of a poorly marked path, maybe because we weren’t paying attention to where we were walking. But it was fun anyway.

The next morning we set out on the return trek to Malealea. This time, the water level in the river was low enough that the horses could safely cross without being swept away, cutting about 2 hours off our travel time (turns out the overly full river was to blame for the hour of riding in the dark the first day) and giving us a few extra minutes to stop and look at some cave paintings. We made it back to Malealea in the afternoon and, after a quick re-pack, began the 2-day public transport trek back to Swaziland.

Thursday night, after another 10 hours on public transportation, I made it back to Swaziland, exhausted, smelly, and with a completely new outlook on Lesotho: I DEFINITELY want to go back. I’m not sure why exactly I loved this trip so much. Maybe the extremely friendly and helpful people, or the beautiful landscape, or the feeling of being completely removed from “civilization” and modernity. Maybe the stillness of sitting at the top of a waterfall, or the pleasant chime of the bells identifying grazing herds of cattle, or the flocks of fluffy white sheep whose wool is woven into the Basuto superblankets. Maybe it was just the horses, or the rustic-ness of Malealea Lodge, or the amazing work that the Malealea Development Trust does.

Overall, I was extremely impressed with Lesotho. Being so close to Swaziland, I was expecting it to be culturally similar, to look somewhat similar, to sound at least slightly similar. But it didn’t. They (anthropologists) say that the Basuto culture is so markedly different than those around it in Southern Africa because the mountainous landscape kept out foreign influences. Neither the British nor the Afrikaaners really penetrated the inner parts of the country, and most Bantu people chose to settle in the more hospitable terrain of Swaziland and South Africa, leaving the culture of the San people relatively isolated. Granted, now, most of the people in Lesotho are of Bantu origin, but the culture is still markedly different than that of the Bantu people elsewhere in Southern Africa.

More recently, Western influences, NGOs, and development in general have taken on a different, more limited form in the country than in Swaziland. I’m not saying that all development is bad. I’m sure the infant mortality rate in Lesotho would be reduced if people in rural areas had access to a better standard of health care, and I’d be willing to bet that roads to the more remote parts of the country would aid in the delivery of basic services like education, but I think there’s something to the subsistence lifestyle. In Swaziland, people in the rural areas farm only enough to still be eligible for free handouts from World Food Programme, but in the remote parts of Lesotho they haven’t reached that level of dependency. In Swaziland, the roadsides are littered with KFC bags and Coke cans and candy wrappers, but in the village of Ribaneng we were surprised to see a bag of chips. Once. We saw non-organic waste a total of one time in 3 days. When was the last time you went an hour without seeing plastic packaging? Being in Lesotho made me think of how Swaziland would be without so much Western influence, or how my community would have been generations ago before drought and HIV and paved roads and KFC and Coke.

One of the biggest differences I saw between Basuto culture and Swazi culture was the treatment of animals. Maybe it comes from having been dependent on horses for both transportation and hauling things for hundreds of years, but the Basuto people seem to have a much greater appreciation of animals than do Swazis. Most families in the village had a horse or two, which they fed and groomed and covered with blankets at night. All of the dogs that we saw were well-fed and traveling alone or in pairs, unlike the skin-and-bones packs of dogs on every homestead in Swaziland. Pigs, cows, and sheep kept in the villages were all fenced in rather than roaming free and eating everyone’s crops like they do in Swaziland, and each herd of cattle or sheep on the mountain was being escorted by a herdsman or shepherd. And herds of animals were kept for a purpose—cattle and pigs for meat, cows for milk, chickens for eggs or meat, sheep for wool—rather than simply being kept as a status symbol like in Swaziland.

The language, Sesotho, was also completely different than what I’m used to in Swaziland. It’s full of R’s and lots of very un-Swazi vowel sounds, and very few people in the country understood enough Zulu for us to communicate with them. It was strange, after 2 years of living in Swaziland, to once again be surrounded by people I didn’t understand. At least in Swaziland when I don’t understand what someone is saying, I can figure out their tone and decipher a few of the words they’re using to infer the general idea. In Lesotho, I was completely lost, and it was kind of unnerving. I guess before I go back again I’ll have to study up on Sesotho. (I’m plotting a return for the first two weeks of September to work with the Malealea Development Trust and ride to Semonkong Waterfall, but I’ll have to wait and see how financially feasible that actually is…)

For now, though, I’m back in the land of the Swazis, surrounded by packs of feral dogs but understanding about 50% of what people say to me. And, all things considered, I’m happy to call Swaziland home. Lesotho may have horses and pristine wilderness, waterfalls and houses made of cow dung, but Swaziland has my host family and my dog and all my friends in my community. And I stay dry when it rains at night. That wins.

Love from the Swaz!

Jenn, Danielle, Mpho, Jaci and me relaxing after making it back to Malealea in one piece. We look exactly like you'd expect one to look after 3 days without bathing. (For the record, that's nomal for me in Swaziland.)

My horse Gray Skies/White Lightning/El Presidente (he was really bossy). I also took to calling him "Hash" (pronounced like "Hosh"), which kind of means "horse" in SiSwati (lihhashi). He was fantastic.

A herd of approaching sheep. This guy in front of me is the assistant guide, whose name I could never pronounce, and the pack horse, who quite kindly carried all our swag to Ribaneng for us.

Danielle, Jaci, Jenn and me sitting down for the first time afte being on a horse for 8 hours. It was painful.

Me, Jenn and Jaci on top of the plateau overlooking Ribaneng Waterfall.

Cows versus horses. This is what a traffic jam looks like in Lesotho. (Also please note the cow bells attached to each of the cows. Turns out cow bells aren't just for calling your servants/parents when you're sick.)

Sheep! I took so many pictures of sheep that our guide, Mpho, thought I was crazy.

These four kids were just BEGGING for us to take a picture of them. Or so we thought. Shortly after this photo, they started screaming and crying and ran away. The yellow blanket on the right is just like the one I bought (except mine is teal). They use them as coats, mattresses, blankets, dresses, etc. all the time.

Cool rock formations on the top of the plateau overlooking Ribaneng Waterfall. I think it's formed by standing pools of water? Or maybe dinosaurs. (I vote for dinosaurs. There ARE actually dinosaur footprints in Lesotho, but without renting a car we couldn't get to them.)

The view from the front door of our little hut. That river down there is the one we crossed twice in the dark (maybe 3 times?).

Lanscape of Lesotho. Isn't it beautiful?

This is one of the many villages we passed on our trip. The line of aloe plants there is the makeshift fence, which I personally think is brilliant.

Our horses crossing the river. White Lightning was smart enough to use the footbridge, but the other girls' horses had vertigo issues.

Me and Jaci hanging out in a shepherd's cave. Everyone else was looking at the cave paintings, I was just enjoying the shade. (This is why I don't have pictures of the cave paintings.)

Preschool tables and stools made out of cans, bailing wire, and plywood. I'm saving my cans to do the same thing at my local prescool. I'll keep you updated.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Nothing says vacation like early mornings and power tools…(with bonus big news at the end!)

I sat down 10 minutes ago to write this Blog. The neighborhood kids were camped out on my floor cutting big pieces of paper into smaller, more-difficult-to-sweep-up-sized pieces, and I was busy staring blankly at my computer screen and trying to find the motivation to commit myself to an evening of Blog-writing and paperwork shuffling. And then something really, really gross fell on my computer.

I looked in disgust at the rafter right above my head, complete with defecating gecko, and, for once, was glad that I was so good at procrastinating. Had I been working, I would have been pooped on. Gross. (And now everyone on my homestead thinks I’m a freak for taking pictures of gecko poop on my keyboard.)


Every time I try to explain to a Swazi what I’m doing in their country, I find myself answering the same question: “But don’t you love your parents?” I always explain that, yes, I do in fact love my parents. I miss them, even. And they even love ME, despite the fact that they are seemingly terrible parents for letting me out on my own at the tender age of 23. So everyone (including me!) was pretty excited for me when I packed my bags and made my way to Johannesburg to see them for the first time in almost 2 years.

After no less than 10 construction zones along the highway between Swaziland and Johannesburg, I made it to Jo’burg about 2 hours after my parents’ flight had landed, by which time they were already intimately familiar with the confusing layout of Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport. We loaded 300 pounds of baggage into our rental car, got a free map from AVIS, then began the daunting task of finding our way back to Swaziland.

I’m not sure if I mentioned this in regards to my last South African car rental experience, but driving in southern Africa is a bit of a challenge. Never mind the whole left side of the road thing or the fact that Africans tend to drive like they’re practicing for the Indie 500, there are no signs for things! We drove for about 20 minutes in what I thought was the general direction of Swaziland before we ever saw a sign saying what road we were on or what direction we were driving. (Turns out it WAS the right direction, purely by chance.) Blame the navigator (me) if you will, but I swear the roads are poorly marked. (It didn’t help that the map we’d gotten from AVIS was clearly designed for tourists driving to Kruger National Park, meaning that the roads we were traveling on were in the bottom 1/8” of the paper.) We never really got lost, but we had some fun adventures in last minute route changes, one of which involved a U-turn on an exit ramp and the purchase of 4 tire swings from a guy on the side of the highway (seriously), and my parents had their first introduction to the warped sense of time I’ve developed since moving to Africa. Moral of the story: don’t let me navigate, and don’t believe me when I say we’re almost there…

Six hours later, tired and hungry, we checked into our “luxury tent” at Lidwala Lodge and headed out to Quartermain’s Restaurant for a fantastic spread of sushi (me) and other delicious things that I usually can’t afford. The next day, Sunday, my parents got their first glimpse of Swaziland in the daylight. Since most everything is closed on Sundays, we did what any self-respecting tourist would do: we bought things. We hit up the local Pick N Pay grocery store for water, meat pies, and other essentials, then headed to Ezulwini, the “Valley of Heaven,” to peruse the local handicraft stalls. We spent our way up and down a row of about 100 stalls and walked away with two big hippos carved out of a rock, various trinkets, earrings (me), and a fabulous wooden bowl that I will serve salad out of if I ever have occasion to host a dinner party.

In the afternoon, we visited the Mantenga Cultural Village for the obligatory tourist’s introduction to a traditional Swazi homestead, complete with singing and dancing. I know it’s a really touristy thing to do, but, honestly, I really like visiting there so that people coming from the US can see that there really ARE prettier dwellings in Swaziland than the ugly cinder block and corrugated tin houses most people (including me) live in. Plus, the singing and dancing are fantastic. I’m always amazed that Swazi girls in skirts can kick their feet above their heads without showing their underwear…

After the show, my parents and I wandered back onto the homestead, where Babe (father) volunteered to show us inside one of the traditional beehive huts. As we were looking around, he creepily pulled my mother away from my father and me, and started dressing her in traditional Swazi attire for married women: a white head band, heavy cow-hide skirt, and a cloth for a top. After he put the finishing touches on my mom, he tied an antelope skin around my dad’s waist and rolled up his pants to hide them, and handed him a traditional walking stick/weapon called a knob kerrie. And then, as if the situation wasn’t ridiculous enough already, he made my dad take off his shirt and wear a stinky, sweaty Swazi lihiya (cloth) wrap instead. Meanwhile, I was taking pictures and laughing hysterically at the awkwardness of the whole situation. (Unfortunately my mother has all of those pictures on her camera, so I’ll have to convince her to post them…)

To complete the strange Swazi experience, we had a spread of traditional Swazi food at a restaurant called Edladleni, which literally means “place of eating” (aka “kitchen”). We stared at the menu for a couple of minutes before the owner came over and offered to just do a sampler of all the traditional foods she had to offer. We started out with emasi (sour milk) over crumbled corn bread, then moved on to a massive spread with beef and onion stir fry, chicken with peanut sauce, roasted rabbit, grilled vegetables, liphalishi (maize porridge), fried bananas, seasoned rice, wild mushrooms, sweet potato, grilled pumpkin, cassava, corn bread, and a million other things I can’t remember. I’m pretty sure I’ve never been so full in all my time in Swaziland, but it was a great taste of all the amazing food Swaziland has to offer—without the risk of food-borne illness. Win, win.

The next morning we made our way to the north of the country to visit places I’ve never been able to get to without a car. Our first stop was at Ngwenya Glass, a factory where they make hand-blown glass animals, glasses, dishes, jewelry, etc. I visited in November with Erin, Jess, and Brittney, but this was my first time actually seeing the glass-blowers at work. The work they do is incredible! We watched one man with what looked like oversized tweezers molding softball-sized balls of molten glass into glass elephants, another making napkin rings, and an assembly line of handmade martini glasses. And then we bought a big box full of glass things to take home—a logical purchase since, as my dad explained, glass is the natural enemy of the gigantic rock hippos we’d bought the previous day.

The plan for the day was to drive on up to Phomphonyane Falls to do what is supposed to be the most beautiful hike in Swaziland, but I got distracted by the prospect of seeing ancient cave paintings so we took a detour. We drove to Maguga Dam, home of the largest hydro-electric power station in Swaziland, and then followed a number of handmade signs down an hour of dirt road to the “reception area” of Nsangwini Rock Art. We got out of the car and made our way up to the little shack marked “reception,” where we were met by our guide, Zandile Masuku. Not really knowing what to expect (everyone I know who has tried to find the place has failed), we followed Zandile to the beginning of a path she informed us would take 20 minutes. Easy enough, right? Except, as we soon found out, it was basically straight down, on a path full of loose stones and full sun. But 20 minutes later, it was worth it.

I forget how old she said the cave paintings were, but at least a couple of thousand years. There were two generations of paintings, one left by the San people (Bushmen) and the other by the Bantu people who migrated from central Africa many centuries ago. The San paintings were done with a mixture of red ochre (soft iron ore indigenous to Swaziland) and blood (eland or human), so they have a brownish-red color, and most depict humans or animals or some form of creature in between. Then there are some black paintings, which represent the Bantu people (they were darker-skinned). Zandile told us that the cave (really it was more of a large overhang, but it was probably a cave at some point) was used as the place where a traditional healer (sangoma) would write down dreams he did not know how to interpret, or where people would keep records of animals they had killed. I’m not sure of the exact history, but it was definitely very cool to see. It’s rare that I feel like I’ve had an opportunity to experience something truly unique and historically significant, and it’s much more meaningful to see something like that intact rather than behind glass in a museum. Plus we got all the wild guavas we could eat along the trail! Beat that, Smithsonian Museum of African Art.

The next morning, we moved out of Lidwala and began the journey down to the Shiselweni Region of the country (where I live). We stopped for breakfast at Sambane, a great little restaurant that I’ve always heard great things about but hadn’t ever been to because of my lack of car. It’s also home to Swazi Candles, where they make hand-made candles in various amazing shapes, a number of curio/handicraft shops, so it’s a pretty regular stop for tour buses coming through Swaziland. At Swazi Candles, you can see the men and women who make the candles hard at work, and after watching a man make a couple of wax elephants, he tried to teach me how to do it. It’s harder than it looks, so I settled for just getting to put the eyes (which were pre-made) into a wax dolphin while he teased me for my lack of artistic ability. We also visited the main shop for Baobob Batik, which makes amazingly colorful batik paintings of stereotypical Swazi scenes. We went through the shop and decided to buy all of their displays, which they didn’t seem to mind. My favorite was a gigantic one of a Swazi woman in traditional attire with a basket of avocados on her head, standing next to a goat, a chicken and an aloe plant, with a traditional Swazi hut and a view of the mountains in the background. Because nothing says Swaziland like a scantily-clad woman and her goat!

After we’d completed our shopping spree, we made the 2 hour trip down to Nhlangano, my closest shopping town. I gave my parents the 10 minute walking tour of everything there is to see and do in Nhlangano, then introduced them to the wonderful culinary experience that is the Richfield’s Butchery. There’s something a little unsettling about eating lunch at a place where men are busy chopping off frozen pig heads with hacksaws, but nobody makes better sausages or fried chicken so you just have to overlook the dead pigs and raw meat for sale. (Do you remember the picture from several months ago of the frozen pigs laid out on the big metal table? That was from Richfield’s.) Then we headed out to Pasture Valley Children’s Home.

Pasture Valley, which is just a couple of miles outside of Nhlangano, was their first introduction to the “work” I do in Swaziland. (I say “work” because I enjoy it too much for it to be real work.) We spent 2 days on the farm playing with the children, attaching new swings (purchased on the side of the highway from Jo’burg) to the jungle gym, replanting vines in the plant nursery, teaching pre-school, and generally having a good time. On the second day, I abandoned my parents to attend a workshop and came back to find out that they hadn’t missed me at all! It was amazing to see how quickly the kids took to my parents, and how excited my parents were about getting to meet the kids I’d posted pictures of and talked about for the last 10 months. Friday morning, after a sad goodbye to the preschool kids, we loaded up a rental truck with wood and other supplies and headed off to my site 45 minutes down the road, and my parents got their first taste of life as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

I don’t know if I’ve ever posted photos of my house on my Blog, but it’s pretty basic. I have electricity (2 plugs and a light as of February), but no running water or temperature control. Cement walls, cement floor, and corrugated tin roof in one big window-filled room. I have a small kitchen counter area with a hotplate and convection oven, a table/desk with one slightly broken chair, a dresser that is better at growing mold than protecting clothes, a springy full-sized bed, and a horizontal pole hanging from the rafters that I hang clothes on. No bathroom, but my own personal pit latrine about 20 feet from my house that sports an actual toilet seat. No frills, but I call it “home.” It’s really funny, actually, to have non-Peace Corps guests at my house, because they have a completely different perspective on the place than I do. At this point in my service I’m so used to the lack of hand washing facilities, the blustery nights (we’re supposed to close the windows for safety reasons), the bugs and lizards and other vermin, and the uncomfortable bed, that I don’t even notice these things anymore. I’m so used to my pit latrine that I don’t really think about how disgusting it is for people who are used to flush toilets. (For the record, most other latrines I’ve seen are WAY worse than mine!) I’ve come to consider my little house like a low-budget studio apartment, except that my annoying neighbors happen to be grinding corn instead of playing loud music and my bathtub is the size of a laundry basket. And then someone who lives in a house with AC and running water comes to visit, and I see how ridiculous this notion is.

No matter, though—we didn’t spend much time hanging out in my house, anyway. For the last leg of the visit, we’d planned two major events: a trek to Mlilwane Wildlife Reserve with the kids from my homestead, and the Great Jungle Gym Challenge of 2010, to take place at the chief’s homestead adjacent to my house.

As I mentioned in previous entries, the kids on my homestead had been counting down the days to March 13 for a while. Most of them had never been to Nhlangano, let alone the REST of the country, and my family has never been able to pay for the kids to go on the annual school field trip to the nature reserve, so this was a BIG deal for them. Earl Saturday morning, we loaded up 11 kids (ages 4-18) in a rented kombi (mini-bus) and began the 2 hour trek to Mlilwane.

The kids all started to get pretty excited as we pulled off the main road and onto the little access road to the game park. They were somewhere new, about to see something exciting, and had tummies full of peaches and snacks. Some of them riding in a car for the first time, and we happened to be on a really, really bumpy road. So bumpy, in fact, that right as we were pulling into Mlilwane one of my host family brothers projectile vomited peach pulp all over himself, the door of the kombi, and a box of approximately 30 peaches. Welcome to Mlilwane! We took a bathroom break, washed out his clothes, and set back on the road. Not a big deal, really, but I think it made me realize what a big event this was for the kids. The boy who threw up had been in a car before, but few enough times that he could count how many times. And, embarrassment aside, he was REALLY excited.

We made our way through the park on a little self-drive, but the kids didn’t seem too excited about the ostriches, zebras, antelopes, or elands. They seemed a bit unsure about the situation when we made it to the rest camp, and, having prepared for nothing more than a braai (cookout), I began to worry about how I would entertain 11 kids all afternoon. And then we saw the swing set. And the pool. And the mountain bikes. And the day was a success. Most of the kids spent the first 2 hours or so splashing around in the pool—the first time for ANY of them to be in a swimming pool. My mom and I pushed the little ones in the swings and played lifeguard for the others while my dad was busy cooking up 10 pounds of meat (no joke) on a grill. After a lunch of boerwors (sausages) with bread and tomato relish, Cheetos, peaches, and juice, we rented two mountain bikes for the kids and they took turns trying to learn how to ride. After an exhausting afternoon (mostly for my mom, who chased the kids around on the bikes), we ate half a watermelon, took a potty break, and headed back down to my homestead. Everyone, including myself, was exhausted by the end of the day, which I think means it was a success. And, 2 weeks later, they’re still talking about it.

And then began the Great Jungle Gym Challenge of 2010. On Friday, when we arrived at my site, we surveyed the place we’d build the jungle gym, laid out the poles to approximately the right size, and started digging some holes in the ground to get a jump on the project. We dug, poured water in, then dug some more. On Sunday, (after false promises of somebody else digging them on Saturday while we were at Mlilwane) we resumed the digging, discovering some pretty solid clay and some pretty large and unavoidable rocks in the process. And that’s just the beginning of the challenge…

I’d like to point out, quite honestly, that we had no idea what we were doing. Several months ago when my parents asked me what they could help with in the community, I had a moment of temporary insanity and suggested that we build a jungle gym. I mentioned it to my mom, and she wasn’t the voice of reason I thought she’d be. So I printed a picture off the internet, counted the number of poles we needed, and set out to do the impossible in a world without power tools. We looked at some other jungle gyms as examples (actual ones, not just pictures online), then began the task. I had asked around the homestead/community to secure the use of a couple of spades, some shovels, a tamper pole, a drill, and other tools we’d need, but I hadn’t anticipated the kinds of problems we would encounter. First, there was the problem of the spades. When I asked for a spade, I got a shovel. Or a slightly spade-like shovel with no handle. When I asked for the tamper pole, which my family was using a few weeks ago, they couldn’t find it and sent me on a wild goose chase to track it down. And all I found was a pick-axe. A pick-axe with a 2-foot midget handle. Then there was the hole-digging help that rescheduled for the following week (not helpful), and the clay and rocks. And then there was the problem of having no electricity on site, and the problem of the hardware store having only one bag of cement (which happened to be damaged) for sale. And Swaziland doesn’t sell eye-bolts, so we had to hire a welder to make them. Not to mention that the only saw I had was a hacksaw, and our measuring tape was in inches and feet while all our materials were in metric sizes. So, long story short, it was a challenge.

But, just when it seemed like everything was going wrong, everything worked out. Funny how that always happens, right?

Realizing that we needed some help, I had a stroke of genius and called fellow PCV Chris Morgan. He and his wife, Karen, lived in a community just 30 minutes or so outside of Nhlangano, and I’d heard rumors of his amazing building skills. Plus he has power tools! We headed out there Sunday night to pick up some tools, then decided we needed Chris, too. He came over Monday and added not only energy but expertise to the project. (I should mention here that all day Monday I was busy judging a debate on the role of peer educators in the fight against HIV, which was sponsored by World Vision International, so I wasn’t even around for all of the progress that happened on Monday. Kudos to my parents and Chris for making significant progress while I sat around and, essentially, did nothing.)

Many hours and one very, very long night later, we finished the jungle gym. It has one big platform (like large enough to live in) with a big 5-foot ladder and guard rails all around, one big horizontal tire swing, and two smaller swings made out of tire halves. I’m still working on the roof for the platform (which WILL happen), and I’ll be painting random geometric designs on all of the posts to make it pretty (if you didn’t already know this, I like painting), and hopefully replacing the makeshift eye-bolts with actual ones so that things last, but it’s the best jungle gym that my community has ever had. The ONLY jungle gym my community has ever had, in fact. It was really funny to try to explain to confused and curious community members what we were doing because, honestly, they had no idea. When they came up and asked us what we were building, we said “a jungle gym” like that was supposed to make sense to them even though they’d never seen one before. It’s a completely new concept to most of the kids in my community (as evidenced by the motion sickness from the swings), but, despite the obstacles, IT EXISTS!

Finally, after a fabulous shopping/playing/driving/hiking/building adventure with the parentals, they flew back to the US on the 18th. And now I’m back home, alone again, in my little studio apartment. Some of the toughest weeks I’ve had in Swaziland have been right after visitors have left, I think because it’s difficult to get back into the swing of a self-imposed routine. Or because it reminds me of everything I’ve left behind in the US, everyone whose life is still going on without me in the US. So this time I made a conscious effort to be REALLY busy the week after my parents left. In brief, here’s what I’ve been up to in the past 2 weeks:

After some assistance from a native Siswati speaker, we’ve changed the name of the Bamba Sandla project to “Bambanani,” which means “holding each other” both physically and spiritually, which is a fitting name for the project. In the last 2 weeks, I taught a business and entrepreneurship workshop with 30 women in one community, then worked with fellow PCV Jen to teach them how to cut, roll, varnish, and string paper beads into beautiful necklaces, which we’ve started selling at the Lavumisa border post. This week, we’re meeting with another women’s group that is making woven items for the project, and we have interest in another community from a women’s group that has heard about the project through the proverbial grapevine. A month ago, we had exactly zero women show up to our first meeting; now we have over 80 women and 3 men in 3 different communities wanting to be a part of our project! Aside from the not having any money to start a business part, it’s going even better than we could have anticipated.

Yesterday I had my first meeting with the Executive Committee of the support group that I’m doing the community garden and water project with. Everyone seems REALLY excited about the project, but the timing is a little off because we can’t actually start until after the maize has been harvested in late April. No worries, though. In my meeting, I learned that there actually IS a borehole in the area, but it’s just broken, which is good because it may save us money but bad because I wish someone would have told me about it earlier. Still, if that’s the case we’ll try to bargain with the drilling company to fix that one (it’s just the pump that is broken, not the borehole) AND dig us a new one a kilometer away or so, which will benefit even MORE people in the community. Or buy more land. Or…the possibilities are endless. I’m just excited for it to actually be starting!

Last Saturday, I had my second meeting with the Junior Achievement (JA) Company at Jericho High School, which went really well. We were talking about marketing and business plans, which are very frustrating concepts to teach in Swaziland. Markets and marketing and competition are pretty foreign concepts in the developing world, as evidenced by every other business in the country. And creative business ideas are in short supply at Jericho High School, so it looks like we’ll be making floor polish (toxic?) and fabric softener for our products, which is exactly what every second woman in the local market sells. But at least I’ll learn how to make floor polish for myself, right? The only challenges I have now are (1) Easter holidays, which will make it impossible for us to get back on schedule with the supposed 11-week program, and (2) the lack of transport from Jericho community back to my community. Last week I waited almost 3 hours in the blazing hot sun for a kombi. Transportation frustrations are a constant reminder of how much cooler it was when my parents were here and had a rental car…

Last Sunday, I did something I thought I’d NEVER do: I delivered a sermon at a Free Evangelical Church. (No, seriously.) Jaci, another PCV in the region, is both involved with her local Bible College and incapable of saying “no” (most PCVs have this problem, including me), so she volunteered to give a sermon at a church in Big Bend. And then she realized she had no idea what she was doing, so she called me and Jen for backup. We ALSO had no idea what we were doing, but we figured it out. The hour-long sermon was about outreach, which we defined as “reaching out to help people in the name of the Lord.” We talked about how all the problems in Swaziland have created a sense of apathy or, at best, a reliance on “outreach” from NGOs and churches and other organizations. We talked about the problems we’ve seen in our communities, and talked about some of the problems they may see in their communities and ways that individuals with no specialized skills and no money could help them. Examples: helping a disabled or sick neighbor with weeding in his/her garden, helping provide meals for OVCs on your homestead, helping a sister with her homework, lending an ear to someone with a problem, walking with a friend to the clinic to get tested for HIV, being a friend to someone with HIV, etc. We wanted to emphasize that service is something that every person CAN and SHOULD do, instead of just waiting around for someone else to do it. It’s a pretty basic concept (and a pretty core concept of Christianity), but something that needs to be said in Swaziland. And now I’m pretty sure I can do anything I’m asked to do…give a sermon, build a jungle gym, paint a map, teach English—PCVs do EVERYTHING!

After the sermon on Sunday, I made my way to House on Fire (concert venue/bar) for the long-awaited Freshly Ground concert. Freshly Ground is a South African/Zimbabwean/Mozambican band that includes a violin and a flute. They sing songs in English, Zulu, Portuguese, and a few other languages, and they’re AMAZING. They’re really popular here, and actually have had a couple of hits in the US as well. (In 2007 they won an MTV Music Award for their song “Doo Be Doo.” Check it out.) A lot of their songs are political commentary, including some new songs with great criticisms of Robert Mugabe…and a flute. My favorite songs of theirs are “Doo Be Doo,” “Potbelly,” and “Zithande,” but they’re all pretty much amazing.

April promises to be a ridiculously busy month. I’m hosting a crafts day at Pasture Valley on Friday, then leaving for a week-long pony trek in Lesotho that begins Saturday. The day I get back, I’m helping with a big Family Day at another orphanage in Swaziland, and getting ready for the first big craft fair that Bambanani is attending on the 24th. Then we have our COS (Close of Service) conference at the end of this month, which requires lots and lots of paperwork and a week of sitting in a conference room and talking about reverse culture shock. And we can’t forget the ongoing painting project with the bus shelters, the business training my local leadership has asked me to provide for youth in the community who want to start chicken businesses (yeah, like that’s my area of expertise…but I can do anything now!), my usual Tuesday morning work at the clinic, the language manual I’m working on with Peace Corps, the HIV/AIDS curriculum I’m writing for high schools, and the boy I’m tutoring on computer skills. I’ll hardly have any time to watch movies this month! (Good thing I don’t waste time doing things like showering…)

And FINALLY, I have some fabulous news. I wrote several months ago about applying for graduate schools to do a Masters of Public Health (MPH) program, and I said that all I had to do was wait... Well, the wait is over! I got a phone call at 2:00am Tuesday morning (from my parents) announcing that I’d been accepted at Tulane! My top choice!!! I’ll be enrolling in the Masters of International Health and Development program at Tulane beginning Fall 2011 (which I know is a long time from now!), and I couldn’t POSSIBLY be happier. Now all I have to do is figure out how to pay for it.

That’s all I have for now, though. I hope this massive Blog compensates for the month of Bloglessness, but, if not, I will undoubtedly have lots to say about my upcoming pony trekking adventure. If I can figure out how to get the combined weight of myself and my bags under 90kg, as is required…Of all the odd things I’ve learned how to do in Swaziland, packing lightly is apparently not one of them.

Love from the Swaz!

A traditional "beehive" hut at the Mantenga Cultural Village. The huts are framed with sticks that are bent while wet, and anchored mostly to one another. Then they're covered with a thick layer of grass (a special kind of grass also used for weaving) to keep out water and whatnot. The walls/roof become kind of a living organism, but the grass allows the smoke out (they cook inside and heat the hut in the winter with an open fire) and keeps the water out. With a heavy downpour, it may leak a little. To be fully waterproof, the grass needs to be changed every 10 years or so, depending on how well it's done. One of the key features of this kind of hut is that it's moveable. To move houses, they just take off the grass and carry the frame to a new homestead for re-thatching.
A Swazi girl at Mantenga Cultural Village showing off how she can kick above her head without being indecent. See how her left hand is folding her skirt cloth so it covers her? I can't master that part of it, and until I do I think it's better to avoid kicking my foot above my head.
Dad eating a cinnamon roll from Pick N Pay. Breakfast of champions!

"Beware of Crocodiles" sign at Maguga Dam. We were on the other side of a 3-foot rock wall from this sign, but it's still a bit disconcerting...if you notice, I didn't climb over the wall to be in the photo with the sign.

One of the more decipherable signs to Nsangwini Rock Art. The problem is that the first signs say "Nsangwini Rock Art" and have a sketched picture of a man with wings hunting a buffalo, which is a mock-up of one of the paintings in the cave. But the further you go down the road, the signs just have that picture on it, so if you were just looking for the words you'd get lost. But we had an awesome navigator (me) so we didn't.
This is a San (Bushmen) painting of two buffaloes (eland?) and a man hunting them. The San people were very short, but they wanted everyone to think they were tall so they painted themselves very large in relation to everything else in their pictures.

A buffalo or other creature of sorts. I liked this photo because you can clearly see the texture of the wall and the outlining of the drawing in a thicker, slightly different medium than the rest of the drawing. The wall had mostly DLCs (deer-like creatures, includuing elund, antelope, and springboks), buffaloes of sorts, and giraffes. Some of the animals were drawn over others or over parts of others, which indicates both a lack of spatial reasoning and the fact that they had been drawn at different times--perhaps many years apart. I also find it interesting that there are several animals in the pictures that no long exist in Swaziland, including giraffes. (Well, there are giraffes in the game parks, but they've all been imported from Kruger.)

Me and the parentals at Nsangwini Rock Art, soaking up the shade in preparation for the hike back out of the valley. TOTALLY worth it. It almost looks like we're posing with one of those standard photo backgrounds (like school pictures). Except that we're all sweaty.

This is the view of the Nkomazi (or Komati) River from about halfway up the mountain we were climbing back up. The cave paintings are about 15 minutes hike below us. This river feeds Maguga Dam.

A part of the showroom in Swazi Candles. I realized after the fact that I'd only taken pictures of the sale table, which didn't include any of the awesome elephant or rhino or hippo candles. Maybe my mother will post some better pictures. Apparently you can buy Swazi Candles in the US and online. (I actually met a Swazi woman at a craft fair before I ever left for Swaziland. She was selling Swazi Candles. Small world.)
Me showing off my play-doh version of a Swazi Candles elephant. If all else fails, I think I may have a future in the elephant-shaping business.
Fikile, Thandi, Mathedi and some of the other kids chowing on peaches in the kombi. They were SO excited to be going to Mlilwane.

A bull standing by some very picturesque rocks in Jaci's community. You wouldn't believe how long my mother and I spent sitting in the car and photographing/videoing these cows.

"It is raining" picture I painted at the local neighborhood care point (NCP)/preschool in my community. This is just one of the examples of the "Weather and Seasons" wall, which includes a gigantic sun (which you see the rays of in the lower right hand corner), a cloud blowing leaves off a tree to represent wind ("unemoya"), a bunch of clouds ("unemafu"), and a man bundled into a coat and scarf standing next to a snowman ("emakata"). I'm not sure they understand what a snowman is, really, but I had fun drawing it.

The parentals showing off the sturdiness of our completed jungle gym/swing set. I'm still working on the roof, which I think will be framed and then made out of the kind of sun shield material that people use to build makeshift carports out of. Except it will be bright blue and amazing. Or, if I decide I want to cut lots of lumber by hand, maybe I'll make it out of wood. Or corrugated tin. The possibilities are endless...I'll post photos of the completed masterpiece in a couple of weeks, hopefully.

The Bambanani group at Dwaleni holding up their first necklaces at the end of our second workshop. Some of them were so proud of what they'd made that they refused to sell it to us until they had a chance to show their friends and families what they'd made. Already we're giving them something to be proud of! Mission accomplished, I say.

Our translator Nduduzi helping two of the women meausure out their sheets of paper to make the beads. It's not exactly NECESSARY that the paper triangles be measured out, but if you've ever met me you know that it's necessary for me. I'm thinking of making some stencils of the proper sizes for different shapes of beads, maybe out of a material similar to what's used for those floppy cutting boards for fish. That's my dream, anyway. (Actually, wood is my dream, but it would be impossible to do exact enough measurements without power tools.)