Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Miss Virginia in Africa

(Disclaimer: this is really long. It’s ok to take breaks. Whatever you need.)

Hello again! I’m back from my trip, which was probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever gotten to do in my life. I think I was in awe for the majority of the time I was there, trying to soak up as much information as I could. I’ll do my best to summarize . . .

First, some background: I call my friend Katie my PC Twin, because our service dates are almost identical. She left, I think, six days before I did, and we’ll both be getting home around November/December this fall.

These dates, however, are the only obvious similarities between our situations. As you know, I teach English in a secondary school in Ukraine (where it is now summer), and I speak very little Ukrainian in class. Katie teaches Biology in a secondary school in Mozambique (where it is now winter) – and she teaches in Portuguese! I was able to pick out other similarities between our worlds, but you have to be paying pretty close attention to find them . . .

After I arrived in Ukraine, I started thinking about how cool it would be to see what Katie’s life in Mozambique is like. Because of our respective service dates, my only chance to see her in action was during my service. I kept the idea on the back-burner of my mind for a while, and finally, with the help of my parents and frequent flyer miles, I made it!

The trip from Bratslav to K
atie’s town took four days, which was a little intense. I spent one night in Kyiv, one night in Paris, and one night in Johannesburg. The only other people on the very small plane from Johannesburg to Vilanculos seemed to be South Africans on vacation. One asked me if I was going to the islands . . . I was like, There are islands? I was very ignorant, but ready to learn. Looking back at Katie’s old e-mails from twenty months ago, it makes me feel better to see her talking about the pet giraffe she assumed she’d acquire. (It turns out there isn’t actually much wildlife there, due to landmines and the civil war which lasted some twenty years after Mozambican independence in 1975.)

Vilanculos is a small city on the coast near where Katie is serving. As I entered the tiny airport, knowing I would have to buy a visa, I suddenly realized that I had assumed there would be an ATM, or someone who would accept a credit card. With a rising feeling of panic, I watched other tourists coolly hand over American dollars, and tried to think of a solution. My best options, I decided, were: to convince the man to accept the equivalent amount in Ukrainian hryven; to borrow money from a tourist in the hope that the adjoining room had an ATM which would allow me to pay him back five minutes later; or to find Katie. Just as I reached the front of the line and started trying to explain, to a man who didn’t really speak English, that I didn’t have dollars but that I could offer an alternative – Katie appeared out of nowhere, speaking rapid-fire Portuguese and saving my life. As soon as I registered who she was and what was going on, I gave her a hug and felt very relieved . . .

Katie had advised m
e to travel light, and thankfully I did: I had just my purse, backpack and a shoulder bag. She knew what she was talking about: it’s about a 3 km walk, I think, from the airport to the center of town. I started to notice a few similarities to Ukraine – like the goats tied up on the side of the road – but also, obviously, many differences as well. As we walked, kids called out to her – but not just the requisite “Good morning” we Americans hear in Ukraine (at all hours of the day). She explained that they were asking for money, or various other things. Her response, which appeared to be a reflex, was to demand money from them, or a trade: their t-shirt for money. Apparently a few kids have reacted to this offer by starting to strip – and she then has to say, Ok, I was just kidding. I heard her do this many times during the trip, and the kids (many of them her students) thought it was hilarious – a pretty effective response, I think!

We did eventually get to an ATM, and then caught the equivalent of a marshrutka (a mini-bus) back to her town. My Spanish was slightly helpful: for example, I understood whenever people asked Katie if I understood. Understanding was a lot easier than responding; I generally left that part to Katie. Although she lives 60 km from the city, the trip generally takes about 2 hours. I peppered her with questions about Mozambique and her life, and took in the scenery during a brief off-roading detour to deliver groceries to someone’s house.

Katie lives with another Volunteer, Lauren, who is an English teacher, and they have a site-mate who was on vacation. Their house is nicer than most, as it was built by a South African oil company, which also built their school. The third Volunteer teaches English at an orphanage run by an Italian Catholic mission. I was fascinated by how they had set up their house; it’s the fourth place Katie’s lived in so far, counting a hut she shared with a former Volunteer which was destroyed by the cyclone in February of 2007. I think it’s common in PC posts (other than Ukraine) to give Volunteers, especially girls, site-mates. This might be for security reasons, but Katie explained that it’s also to maintain sanity: I’m the only American in my town, but it’s easier for me to visit the Volunteers around me, and we get together fairly often. For Katie and her site-mates, traveling is more of a pain, and they try to avoid it.

The major difference between my set-up and theirs (besides the fact that I live with a baba) is the lack of running water there. (I think at least 60% of Volunteers in Ukraine have running water . . . but that’s a total guess.) However, they’ve set up what I think is an ingenious system with PC-provided water filters. They have more filters than the average Volunteer there: Katie assumed that hers had disappeared after the cyclone, and got new ones, but found the other two later. They have a faucet-less sink that drains, so they simply set up one of the filters on the edge – and it’s like having a real sink! The toilet was another story, but it was fairly nice for a latrine, and here’s the kicker: they have real toilet paper! Not, as my former cluster-mate Luke used to call it, “Cardstock.”

The first night, I lay awake listening to a bug buzz nearby me for a while, wondering which side of the mosquito netting it was on, but soon fell asleep. In the middle of the night, however, I was woken by the sound of shouting, singing and drums. I kid you not. I have no idea what the men were shouting and singing about, but it was pretty loud. Katie heard it too, and had no explanation for me. I often heard groups of people singing and chanting there, which could usually be explained by the many churches around town: everything from Catholic to Methodist and Jehovah’s Witness. It didn’t happen again, or else I slept through it the next time . . .

The next mo
rning I slept late, and then fixed myself bread with garlic and butter. You see, I was determined to avoid mosquito bites, and mosquitoes usually love me (I still complain about the night of 42 bites, last summer). I had read that garlic and B-1 vitamins would help, so I brought both. I think the fact that it was technically winter helped more than anything; the temperatures where roughly where they are in Ukraine now, but there weren’t many mosquitoes out. I got just four bites – on my hand and elbow – which convinced me that Deet is still better than other remedies, since those are the places I probably missed when applying repellent.

I spent the morning looking around. Katie recently had a fence built around their yard for privacy, and I discovered that you can see bobbing water jugs pass by on the other side – but not the women’s heads beneath them. It’s pretty funny to watch the progress back and forth to the well.

Later, I visited Katie’s school and met some of the students. She was supervising a tes
t, and had the same problems with rampant cheating that I encounter here. However, she has a few teachers at her school who feel the same way she does, and she was given license by that particular class’s teacher to be as strict as possible. So she went from desk to desk, finding cheat sheets in every possible location, including students’ pockets. The students just laughed genially – a reaction I found all too familiar.

I’ve decided that I’m grateful for my country’s Puritanical roots: say what you will about excessive guilt, but it saves a lot of time when it comes to things like test-taking. I know that cheating goes on in American schools too, but the difference is that I would have been devastated if a teacher caught me cheating (which, ahem, would never have happened, but still). As in Ukraine, the fear of grades being changed surreptitiously necessitates a strict no-mistake policy in the official grade registers. If something is crossed out, you have to rewrite the entire book. Volunteers in Ukraine deal with this by refusing to mark grades in the registers – but Katie and Lauren had to record their classes’ grades themselves, first carefully in pencil, and then in ink. (Another difference between the countries is that Katie and other Volunteers are put in charge of “termas,” or classes, like homeroom teachers – and I don’t think that ever happens here.)

So, I came during a very busy time in the school year: there was lots of test-taking and grading going on. I was h
appy, though, to just sit around and take in my surroundings. You can see the ocean from Katie’s backyard, and they keep the back door open all day, so I could feel I was enjoying the outdoors while remaining in the shade. Another big source of entertainment for me was Katie’s dog, Timanga (“peanut,” in the local language), and her six adorable puppies. That’s right, puppies. This was essentially the perfect vacation for me: sitting around and playing with puppies. Also, Katie got a bunch of mail delivered from their PC office, which included a letter I sent her in late March, and a lot of “People” magazines. So between the magazines and everything else, I felt pretty spoiled.

Because there is no running water at their house, they have to monitor how much water they have pretty closely. Katie used to get her own water at the well, and even learned how to balance the massive jugs on her head. She carries things balanced sideways on her head, using one hand, as opposed to the women and girls there who routinely walk around with massive things balanced upright on their heads, not using their hands at all. I don’t mean to criticize Katie’s abilities in any way – I found that I could not even lift those jugs, when full. Not even an inch off the ground. Now, they pay a student named Justina to get their water for them every day. Another girl, Alzira, maintains their yard and does odd jobs for them. Both girls were very funny and sweet, and were among the many students and others who regularly hang out at Katie’s house. “Miss Alzira” called me “Miss Virginia” (she learned this habit in English class), and was excited to tell me that her mother is also named Virginia. This means that I’m her mother’s “shara,” which essentially means “namesake” in Portuguese, but applies to all people who share a name.

An almost constant presence at Kati
e’s house is a thirteen-year-old boy named Pedro. He’s very quiet, and just sort of hangs out in the doorway, observing what goes on. He was very sweet about tolerating my pathetic attempts to speak Portuguese. Eventually he got more comfortable with me and tried out his English. Before the trip, I asked Katie if I could bring gifts for anyone, and she told me about Pedro: so I brought him a bright yellow t-shirt with a Cossack-style smiley face that says “Don’t Worry, Be Ukrainian.” Ha. My attempts to translate the shirt weren’t very successful, but he seemed to like it, and wore it several times before my departure.

We did a lot of cooking while I was there: I was impressed with how much they cook and bake (they have a small electric oven, as well as a gas stove top). One unfortunate aspect of life in Mozambique is that chocolate is rare and expensive. However, the girls have as much of a sweet tooth as I do, and were creative in making up for its absence. I contributed by making lemon squares and brownies, and Lauren made an amazing oatmeal cake with coconut.

Speaking of which: I lea
rned how to shave coconut from its shell! Here in Ukraine, the must-have kitchen apparatus is the cabbage shredder. Down there, it’s the coconut shaver. You sit on a little bench, and use a ridged blade-like thing on one end to get the coconut out. Unfortunately, I’m not very good at it (or wasn’t, on my first try) and gave myself a minor cut after finishing half a coconut. Luckily, one of the omnipresent students was able to take over for me, which he did with a smile.

Katie took me on a couple of long walks to get me out of the house, and I got to see the beach, and a lot of gorgeous scenery. Timanga joined us for some of the walking, which unnerved those around us – Mozambicans are not very fond of dogs. All of the students who passed us spoke to Katie, if only to address her, saying “Stora,” which is short for “profesora.” It was really cute. The biggest hit, though, was whenever she said one of the short phrases she’s learned in the local language (shitswa). People went nuts when she broke out one of those phrases; they just loved it.

One of the highlights of th
e trip was giving the puppies a bath. They were adorable, but covered in fleas. Katie had some anti-flea soap, so we stuck them in a little tub, two at a time. They were so curious and excited that some were trying to climb in before it was their turn; they were not happy when their turn came, though, and they realized what a bath involved. But in the end, they were much softer and fluffier, and had fewer fleas.

Another highlight was the acquisition of a chicken for our 4th of July celebration. Frozen chicken is sometimes available at the store, and Katie has only made chicken the old-fashioned way two or three times, but they wanted m
e to have the experience, so we bought a live one from the school. I was all for it, and volunteered to kill it myself . . . but later, I was relieved that I didn’t have that job when I saw how long it took our handy-man, Pedro. When knives aren’t sharp, it’s a little more involved, to say the least. I did help pluck it though . . .

Another day, Katie
and Lauren were curious to see what Ukrainian food was like. Clara sent the recipe for “holubtsi” (cabbage rolls) to me via text message, and I decided to make those and fried potatoes. Unfortunately, we didn’t have tomato juice to cook the rolls in, and tomato sauce didn’t turn out to be very effective as a substitute: they were pretty dry. However, they now have the recipe, and, given Lauren’s enthusiasm in the kitchen, I wouldn’t be surprised if she perfected it later. I also had real Ukrainian vodka for them: the morning I left, my coordinator’s daughter, Yana, arrived with mini-bottles of Nemiroff vodka for me (made just twenty minutes down the road)! I brought the original and cranberry flavors, and we toasted the dry holubtsi like real Ukrainians.

On Thursday night, I went to the Catholic service with Lauren, during which I understood hardly a word, though the music was very pretty. On a couple nights we went out to restaurants – of which there are several on the beach, because it’s a fairly touristy area. The second night I was there, we went out with two PC Mozambique staff members who were visiting the site, which was really interesting for me. One had been to D.C. for a PC training, and had visited Pentagon City (yay!). He had met members of the Ukraine staff, but no one I knew. They were fascinated by my PC ID badge, which, I must say, is pretty fancy. We’ve unfortunately switched to a cheaper version since my group came, but the two staffers were definitely intrigued, so maybe Mozambique Volunteers have fancier IDs in their future!

During the day, we took a lot of trips to the market, which was set up much like the bazaars we have here, except that people who sell things sit on the ground, instead of on chairs, and the only products that they weigh before selling are things like flour. The market is nearby their house, but Katie and Lauren have discovered how to take advantage of the students constantly hanging out in the yard. When they don’t feel like walking to the market or when it just seems too stressful (the way I feel about the bazaar here), they “mandar,” or send, a kid with some money. It’s pretty convenient! One morning, Katie and I were walking in the market, when she saw a few teachers drinking at one of the stands. They’d been drinking all night, and Katie didn’t want to deal with being asked to join in, so, with just a few yards to go, she grabbed a student and sent her with money to buy eggs at the stand. It was really funny. The student thought nothing of it, though she laughed when she came back to find Katie hiding behind another stand.

As you can s
ee, I could go on and on, but I’ll try to wrap up this account. On Tuesday, we caught a ride from a transplanted South African to Vilanculos, to pick up Katie’s friend Eron, who was coming to visit for even longer than I had (I think she’ll be there for a month!). Katie and Eron and I went to stay at a hostel, which meant sleeping in bunk-beds with mosquito nets in a hut! There was a massive baobab tree out front, which I was excited about, because I’d been curious about what they look like ever since reading about Kenya in Barack Obama’s first book.

The next morning, we got up early to go see the sunrise on the beach, which I’d never gotten around to doing in Katie’s town (though I easily could have – she gets up at 5:30, most days). The fence gate was locked, so we climbed over it and sat down on the beach to watch. When it was pretty light outside, I went swimming! I didn’t like the idea of seeing a new ocean without getting in, so even though it wasn’t particularly warm outside and no one wanted to join me, I went in. It was really nice! As it got lighter, people began to walk by us. It was interesting: upon seeing Katie, most Mozambicans seem to assume that she’s a tourist or an ex-pat South African, and they pay her no mind. But as soon as she says “Bon dia” or “Boa tarde,” their faces just light up. Most people were extremely friendly to us. Not many more people seem to know what the PC is down there than do up here, but they get the gist. Katie explained to everyone that I was “mandar”-ed up near Russia, just like she was sent to Mozambique, and they all responded, Wow, that’s far away. I agreed.

That last morning was when I got my souvenirs: shells I found on the beach, and two “kapilanas” – th
e cloth that women wear like a sarong, carry their babies in, or fold underneath the various things they carry on their heads. They’re quite useful, and the markets sell them in many different patterns.

Another Volunteer was being given a ride to the airport in her school’s pick-up truck, and they stopped to pick us up along the way; I think it was the first time I’ve ever ridden in the back of a pick-up! I figured out all the stamps and fees required for me to leave the country, and said goodbye to my wonderful hostess and her new guest. The trip back was more direct, but tiring, as I had no break between the three flights. I got on a train to Vinnytsia, where I discovered that the following day was a holiday – and there were barely any buses. Luckily, I ran into an English teacher from the technical college, and we managed to find a bus to Nemirov, from which we took a taxi – and I finally got home about 10 pm.

Since then, I’ve been relaxing and doing lau
ndry, and enjoying some real holubtsi, courtesy of Nina. The one exciting thing was when I laid out my sea shells the night I got back . . . and one of them moved. That’s right. I was half-asleep, but managed to think of throwing it in a zip-lock bag: whatever’s in there won’t last long. The next morning, I got up and examined the others, and they seemed to be fine and inanimate. Then I found one of them on the other side of the room. It, too, is now sitting in a plastic bag in my closet, where it won’t creep me out anymore. Never a dull moment.

I have a quiet couple of weeks ahead of me, but plenty of thin
gs to get done before my next excursion . . .

So, thank you so, so much to Katie for having me! It was really wonderful, and definitely a highlight of my PC experience. And thank you to my family who helped me get there!

Finally, thank you to Clarissa for the nice note! That’s about it. Hope y
ou’re all doing well at home . . . keep in touch!

Love, Virginia


At July 16, 2008 12:44 PM, Blogger Louisa said...

Wow, what a cool trip!!!! That looks like an amazing experience. And those are the cutest puppies of all time!!!!

At July 18, 2008 5:45 PM, Blogger Gigi said...

Virginia! I'm in Istanbul but I'm leaving in the morning on a cruise to other parts of Turkey & then on to some Greek islands. I loved reading about your Africa trip. We're so well traveled :-) Can't wait to catch up with you! Miss you!

At July 19, 2008 5:03 AM, Blogger Virginia said...

Gigi: Sounds great!!!! I'm so glad you're having a good trip! Miss you, see you soon . .

Louisa: I concur, they definitely are . . . but 4 are girls and no one wants them! Sigh.


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