Archive for May, 2010

Touched by Angels

May 20, 2010

It’s fall in Swaziland and we’re relishing sweater weather. Baking warms the house on cool evenings. A 12-tin muffin pan that just fits into our toaster oven bakes some mean banana-nut muffins. Some days I’m out with children. Last week I visited a home with several young children and led them in an art activity. On hindsight, making crowns was right-on for a country ruled by a monarchy. I was thrilled that three older children and young adults were eager to help the younger ones. Here are two photos from that afternoon.

Ten months into our service, John and I are each rooted in projects. John is helping to establish four early childhood care and development centers, and I’m working with a women’s sewing cooperative that is establishing a sewing center and am teaching life skills at a nearby women’s prison. There seem to be countless other activities like mentoring young adults, tutoring in English, and educating neighbors on puppy care. For down time we enjoy walking in the hills in our community with the two homestead puppies. We’ve recently ventured into a mountainous national park about two-hours away for three-day backpacking trips. Getting to the park by public transportation is certainly interesting. Imagine riding in a 15-seater van, filled to capacity, with a loaded backpack on your lap. I’m also finding a bit of time for sewing. I’m enjoying our simple Singer machine and the puzzle and mystery of following patterns to make my own clothes, something I haven’t done since high school. Adjusting to culture remains a challenge and probably will be a continual one. Yet being here brings a growing awareness of the powerful force that culture plays in one’s life. I hope to have a post on this topic soon. Until then, salani kahle, bangami betfu (stay well, our friends). With love, Jordan

Here’s a story I wrote for our Peace Corps post newspaper about some other angels in our lives.

April 15, 2010. “Touched by Angels”

 Dr. Berger said to Conrad in Ordinary People, “If you can’t feel pain, you won’t feel anything else.”

The line has stayed with me since I first saw the movie 30 years ago. Emotional pain is certainly a challenge to sit with, isn’t it? I’m learning, though, that it’s sometimes necessary to welcome pain, even to invite it. Choosing to move into grief is just such an invitation.

My investigation of grief began in Peru when John went into the jungle and I had two weeks alone in a small house outside Cusco. In the quiet stillness of the house, old losses surfaced. Several months later at a Hare Krishna center in the desert of northern Peru, I learned of the death of a close friend. On both occasions, alone and outside the U.S., there was ample time and simplicity of life to allow feelings of loss and sadness to rise up and to be felt. For decades my habit had been to deny grief, to close down and numb out. At age 11, when I lost my father to a trucking accident, I knew nothing of the process of grieving nor did anyone near me share the secret of dealing with this loss.

I find it encouraging when I assimilate a new level understanding and watch myself function from this healthier perspective. Life will no doubt continue to present me with opportunities to grieve. And right now I’m coping with the loss of puppies. Eight puppies were born at site during in-service training in late November. The mother died a week after giving birth and two puppies died before John and I saw any of them. Until Christmas I struggled to ignore their whining coming from behind our house. The two meals a day of powdered milk and water that our host fed them was not enough for their growing bodies. As my work scheduled dwindled and I was around the homestead more, their cries became too much. On Christmas weekend I intervened.

From the start John and I knew we would raise the puppies until they were healthy and vital. Then we would find permanent homes for them. We loved the puppies completely. We enjoyed them immensely. We cared for them as best we knew how, and what we didn’t know, we tracked down. By Swazi standards we fed them embarrassingly well. They were vaccinated, de-wormed, spayed/neutered. We slathered them with TLC and flea and tick repellant. We took them on long hikes, building their strength and stamina. Their trust in us was incredible. At four months, they were strong, smart, lively and, yes, beautiful animals. The puppies’ health and energy amazed Swazis. They would laugh and call them “fresh.” The six puppies together created an amazing presence.

In late March they went to new homes. I missed them terribly. Although I felt anticipatory grief in the weeks before they left, nothing prepared me for the hollowness that followed their departure. Our homestead had lost its color. After they left, I perused photos and watched videos of them on the computer. I cried and laughed at their antics, at their joy and enthusiasm, at their six distinct personalities. I’d never experienced anything like them. And I’d never experienced myself as I was when I was with them. The puppies were a gift. They reminded me how alive and powerful love is. Of my need to care and to nurture something outside myself. They reminded me that everything changes and that change brings loss. They taught me that grief is not only about its object – puppies, children, friends, homes, youth – but is a vehicle for personal healing and transformation.

The lessons from grieving inform my understanding of life. In the context of Swaziland and HIV/AIDS, grief certainly has an important role to play. As PCVs, we volunteer at hospices and clinics, witness and experience the aftermath of deaths on homesteads, and befriend children who endure the loss of parents and family members. My experience with the puppies reminds me of how we help ourselves move through the pain of loss by welcoming it. Opening to it. Witnessing it. How the pain from loss washes over us and leaves us cleansed and light. And having healed around our loss, we are then strong and sensitive enough to support others in their grief and in their process of healing. I vaguely understood 30 years ago that by shielding ourselves from pain and grief, we also dull our ability to feel emotions like joy, love and wonder. Instead, emotional healing invites us to live with an open heart despite the difficult fact that we will love and lose again and again and again.

Five of our puppies have new homes. Two sets of pairs went to families that appreciate dogs and see them as “family.” Another went to a friend of our host and another remains on the homestead. Though we take Ntombi, “Lady,” and her father on frequent walks, we have relinquished her care to the homestead family. I am moving along, too. I look at photos and videos less frequently. I appreciate other dogs more. I openly admire them to their owners, pet them and play with them when it’s appropriate. I see the spirit of the puppies in these grown dogs and in so many other living beings. Maybe on one level, we’re all just puppies, looking for love, connection and a good hike in the hills.

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Safari!

May 20, 2010

In January, Jordan and I were longing to experience the heart of wildest Africa. We had visions of sleeping with only a thin sheet of nylon (and a couple of heavily-armed guides) between us and the ferocious beasts of the plains. Through the perfect karma of poor planning, we found ourselves among the simple tourists, a ton of steel and 300 horses to propel us along and keep us safe. And to our great surprise, we had a great time!

We had hoped to fit ourselves into a couple of the backpacking slots on the famed five-day Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Primitive Trail but alas, we called only 3 months ahead of time and they were booked solid. (We were able to reserve this amazing trip for September so stay tuned!) Sadly, Kruger’s wilderness trips were also booked many months in advance. We dug a little deeper into the Lonely Planet, looking for something with at least a mild taste of adventure. We were aching to get up close and personal with the “Big Five” (Black Rhino, cape buffalo, elephant, lion and leopard). Having been in Africa for almost 6 months with nothing to share with friends back home but a few dozen heart-warming shots of Swazi kids, we craved adventure (and some “Real Africa” photos for our blog).

After some debate, we booked a daytrip in Swaziland’s Mkhaya Game Reserve. A couple of your standard hour-long, stopping-every-kilometer, unloading-most-of-the-occupants-at-each-stop, khumbi rides and we dropped off at the pick-up point. By 10:15 a.m. we were sitting high up in an open jeep, bouncing along a sand road through the wild African bush. Straining to see the slightest movement or brief flash of color we were finally ON SAFARI!!

Our guide was excellent and provided us with a running commentary on the finer points of life of the wild creatures of southern Africa. As we drove among the popular watering holes, we saw dozens of elephants, giraffes and zebras, a couple of water buffalo and a group of hippos cooling themselves in a large pond. There were also wide-mouth (commonly called “white”) rhinos and even a few of the rare blacks. It’s an amazing thing to be so close to such huge and powerful animals. The high point of the trip was when we stumbled upon a small herd of elephants, about 15 of all sizes, splashing around in a rather deep pond. Upon catching our scent (or maybe they just saw us), a couple of the bulls let out a grand roar and charged for our open jeep. Don’t let their size fool you, those guys run pretty fast when they smell fear! We raced away in a great flurry, avoiding being trampled to our certain death by only a fraction of a second. Ok, so maybe not certain death, but we could have been seriously splashed by the bulls’ wet trunks if we’d been a little slower. It was great fun!

Having survived our first wild African animal attack, we were ready to kick it up a notch. We were no longer afraid of any beast and were anxious for our next challengers to present themselves. Kruger National Park was the natural choice so we booked a 5-day all-inclusive tour through All Out Africa (AOA). AOA is an organization that brings volunteers (who pay their own way) into Southern Africa and provides them with side trips as part of the package. Some of these guys were volunteering at childcare centers in the area. Having had good experiences with this type of organization, I paid them a visit, liked the energy of the place and the folks working there as well as the price ($500 per person).

As I mentioned in an earlier posting, six puppies were born only weeks earlier on our homestead, their mother dying shortly after their birth. Jordan adopted them and we became their mom and dad (complete with conflicts over child-rearing style). When we failed to locate a reliable puppy sitter and as these sweet little guys were being aggressively attacked by hordes of homestead chickens, Jordan volunteered to be the one of us who stayed behind to keep the puppies alive. I was now even more determined to gather some exciting photos and glorious tales of adventure. With fingers crossed and a prayer on my lips, I was off to the wilds of Africa on my own.

Four 20-somethings and a guy in the grips of a full-blown mid-life transformation (yeah, think I couldn’t relate?), all from various parts of the UK, were my travel companions along with two knowledgeable and friendly guides. On the first day, we traveled to Lower Sabie Camp where we would stay for the next four nights. Just a short distance into Kruger, we were greeted by five adult cheetahs posing like giant housecats watching cars pass a dozen meters away. I took this to be a good sign!

We pitched our roomy tents, spread out our comfy sleeping pads, enjoyed a nice dinner under the stars and then settled in for a short night’s sleep. “Early” doesn’t do justice to the time we were rousted from our slumber. It was the prime game-viewing time, or rather it was about to be, and we were loading up the van (a nice khumbi with lots of room for the 6 of us) and headed out for a day of driving around on mostly dirt roads spotting wildlife. We saw lots of neat critters! Elephants and impalas (out the wahzu), a mother lion with two cubs crossing the road within a few meters of us, wildebeest, bushbucks, giraffes, buffalo, bushpigs, jackals, great bunches of baboon (or is the plural babooni?), crocodiles and dozens of other large and small guys whose names I’ve forgotten, as well as a host of birds along the way. A night drive offered glimpses of hippos waddling around as well as an African Rock Python and a Night Adder. Getting up even earlier the following morning (read, “seriously sleep deprived”), four of us took a guided hike with two armed guides. Hearing lions roar in the distance as we began the 5k walk, woke us up and reminded us that we were now without the protection of our jeep. The seriousness with which the guides handled our approach to a couple of groups of white rhino added a touch of excitement to the morning. Getting within 30 meters of these big guys with nothing but light scrub and two burly guys shouldering high-powered rifles between you and them is a rush!

I wanted to share Kruger with Jordan so when our friends Sue and Mark came for a two-week visit, it was naturally our first destination. Jordan and I met them at the Jo’Berg airport and after a wonderful Portuguese meal and a restful night at an interesting hostel, we were on our way. Due in no small part to their good wildlife karma, we not only saw the animals I had seen earlier, but we also were gifted by two separate sightings of Wild African Dogs and heart-stopping close encounters with rhinos and elephants and many endearing moments with giraffes, baboons and hyenas. We thanked them all for sharing their home with us and moved on to Blyde River Canyon to experience a different slice of South Africa. Here we encountered white South Africans and lived among the privileged for a few days in this dramatic landscape. It was very interesting to be among folks more similar to us than the Swazis of our new PC community. At times we felt uncomfortable watching ourselves enjoying privileges like eating in nice restaurants and driving a new rental car. We realized that we had become more comfortable living among the world’s poor, riding in khumbis and eating in makeshift marketplace cafes. It was distressing to see how easily we could choose to escape that life of struggle knowing that so many others were trapped there.

Leaving Blyde Canyon, we caught a treetop zipline experience and then drove back to Swaziland, spent a chilly night by the fire in a little cabin in Malolotja game preserve and spent the next day in our homestead community. Then it was off to do some diving in the crystal waters of Sodwana Bay, in northern St Lucia Wetlands Park. Mark got his PADI certification and Sue and I had some nice dives seeing lots of amazing coral and neat fishes. She and I then took flight in an ultralight plane (a hang glider with a small engine attached) that carried us over the beach where we saw a 25-foot whale shark and schools of fish through the clear water from about 1,000 feet up. What a treat! I plan to do more of this kind of flying! While trying to capture these kinds of experiences in pictures is an exercise in futility, I gave it a shot anyway. I hope you enjoy this short video of some of the critters we encountered and the places that we visited.

As you can see, this is an amazing part of the world and one that is very welcoming to visitors. Just in case you’re feeling called to experience a place that is truly different from the States, know that traveling is easy and still inexpensive in South Africa and Swaziland. You can see and do a lot of neat stuff with just a little cash, a rental car and some planning. And remember, they speak English here! You’ll frequently encounter that lovely British tone or a bit of German/Dutch sharpness from the Afrikaans. So, pick up a Lonely Planet guidebook, loosen up your purse strings just a little and come check out an amazing slice of Africa! And tell the critters hello for us!