Thursday, December 27, 2012

Mid-Service Vay-cay

With over 2 months free for summer vacation between the first and second school year, many a PC education volunteer plans a trip. The halfway mark is a great time to get out of dodge, a time to recharge before starting the second and final year strong. A good amount actually head back to the US for a few weeks to spend the holidays with loved ones and take in all the comforts of being home.  Chris and I initially thought we would do this as well, but after looking at the cost of a plane ticket and taking into account that our families are spread all over the country (making it very difficult to see everyone anyway) we decided to hold off until our permanent return home. Also, we’re lucky enough to be seeing both of our families this next year during planned visits and trips. And besides, we wanted to take advantage of our close proximity to a country that seems so far and exotic when you’re in the US, but is just over the border from here. South Africa would be a place much harder to get to once we get back and would also provide plenty of opportunities to indulge in the many luxuries not found in Mapinhane. In fact, all of those things I noted in my last blog that I was hoping to encounter, we found and enjoyed! The last Twilight (hold your judgment on my movie choice, please) was seen in a real movie theater while eating M&Ms, a Big Mac never tasted so good and I actually still know how to use a blow dryer! But we had so many more exciting adventures than just sitting in steady streams of air conditioning and wandering around seemingly never-ending shopping malls.

The trip began with a 5 day jaunt in Mozambique’s capital city, Maputo. It’s not the best city in the world but it’s certainly grown on me tremendously since that initial touchdown from Philadelphia 15 months ago. We’ve been there a handful of times over the last year, usually for a Peace Corps conference which doesn’t give us a lot of time to leisurely explore so it was nice to be there on our own schedule. We needed to go to the city to catch the bus into South Africa to start the first leg of our journey, but decided to go early so that we could attend the swear-in ceremony of the new group of volunteers we met in Namaacha a couple of months back. It was a proud moment seeing Moz 19 take their oath of service, both because I was happy to have helped them reach this occasion by being a part of their training, and to think of how far I’ve come since sitting in their seats a year before. Aside from the swear-in, our vacation started off right with good food and accommodations graciously provided by a couple we met earlier this year who works for at the American Embassy in Maputo. We enjoyed family dinners and chats in the living room after they’d come home from work, which gave us a sense of the home we could have been feeling if we did make the trip back to the US. After 5 days of great “family time”, we boarded the bus to Nelspruit, where we were picked up to begin our 3 day safari in Kruger National Park. We figured we might as well check out one of the most popular game parks in the world if we were in the neighborhood. I mean, what’s a trip to South Africa if you don’t see some elephants and lions? And oh did we! During the first evening of our arrival, we got a little too close for comfort on the night drive.  Our guide drove down a small, but steep hill on an unpaved road to shine a light on 4 of the most sought after creatures to spot, lions. They were chilling about 30 feet from us with only a little shrubbery between us. Wondering why they seemed not to notice us, I asked the guide what it is they see when they look at our safari vehicle. He explained that they can only see the silhouette of the jeep, which looks like a large but non-threatening animal to them if anything. Waving a hand or other body part out of the car could draw attention. Ok, that made sense so I was very careful not to move much since I was sitting on the side closest to these kitties. We started to reverse up the hill when one of the wheels stopped moving. Our two guides initially tried to solve the issue while staying in the jeep but we weren’t going anywhere. So, they ended up jumping down to investigate and found a piece of wire fence stuck in the wheel. Uhhhhhh, didn’t they just say we shouldn’t break our silhouette? And isn’t it pitch black so we can’t see anything? Awesome. We all nervously laughed and joked in the car as the guide would periodically move his flashlight from the wheel they were fixing to the lions just to make sure they weren’t getting hungry for unsuspecting tourists. After what felt like forever but was probably only a few minutes, the wire was removed and we were on our way as I was left with the realization that this sure isn’t like a zoo! But not all game drives are that exciting, in fact the can be quite tedious because of the fact you’re not in a zoo with animals in a confined area. These animals are roaming around a gigantic park and so sometimes you can drive for hours without seeing much of anything. But throughout our numerous drives and walks we were pretty happy with the amount of classic safari animals we saw. Other than lions, we spotted elephants, zebras and giraffes, yaks and monkeys, hippos and a rhino, and animals I don’t even know the name to.  So we definitely got our safari fill, then moved on to our next part of the trip, the city with the best reputation on the planet, Cape Town. Seriously. Any time I mentioned we were going to visit to someone who had already been there, they would rave about how wonderful it is. Even before I came to live in Africa, I heard nothing but overwhelming praise about this magical city. Well, we’re definitely part of the chorus now. This place did not disappoint. Everything you hear about how it’s one of the few places that perfectly mixes a big city with natural beauty is so true. Our home base for our 8-day stay was a lovely guesthouse right in the center of town. The place converted 3 classic Victorian homes for a cozy yet modern feel with great personal service and a delicious breakfast included each morning. Not to mention the beautiful and comfortable rooms with all the amenities which we enjoyed to the fullest. I could even walk barefoot without fear of stepping on a cockroach, a welcome change from my daily life! But enough writing the brochure for the hotel. Let’s talk about all the fun activities! We climbed up the city’s landmark, Table Mountain, a steep climb but well worth the good workout and awesome view from the top, and rode the cable car down. We took a ferry ride to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated. We went on a tour around the Cape of Good Hope, a beautiful area near the bottom of the African continent. On our way, we stopped to see numerous breathtaking beaches and even one filled with penguins. We later relaxed on one of those beaches and learned that the icy arctic water they have makes for quite a stinging sensation on your skin. The water is much colder than our Indian Ocean beaches, but it was still beautiful none the less. On more than one occasion, we walked around areas densely populated with a selection of great restaurants and a variety of places to shop, like the V&A Waterfront and Long Street. Speaking of which, the food exploration was all part of the fun too, as Cape Town is known for its high quality options. Aside from good Italian food and sushi, we frequently found ourselves in well stocked grocery stores to ogle at goodies we haven’t seen in a while. And I already mentioned going to a movie theater, eating American fast food and using modern appliances. Of course it can be fun to check out these things in any city you visit, but as deprived Peace Corps Volunteers, these were some of the main attractions of our trip. Another highlight was that we got to share many of these experiences with our fellow volunteers. A few were vacationing in Cape Town the same time we were there, and so it was a nice change of pace to enjoy time with them in a backdrop of a developed city. When it was time to leave the place that became Chris’ “favorite city on earth”, we were glad to know we had one more adventure left before heading home. A 26 hour train ride to Johannesburg with a lounge, dining car and our own sleeping compartment! It would have been much faster and cheaper to take a plane, but we thought it would be a unique experience to take a sleeper train across Africa. Well, a unique experience it was, but not as expected. The train departed 2 hours late, the air conditioner was not working as we rode through the desert (which led all the available ice to melt), there was barely enough food to go around and the staff was all but incompetent. Long story short, we encountered mishap after mishap from the beginning until the end of the trip. So much in fact, that when we arrived to Johannesburg, the customer service manager was waiting to tell all passengers we would receive almost 50% of our money back.  Some of you may have seen my Facebook pictures where I called it the “Hell Train” and maybe that was US standards Laurie coming out. I mean, it was still somewhat enjoyable since it was our first fancy sleeper train experience. And really, how much can I complain considering my current living conditions :)?  But we paid a pretty penny for a more luxury train experience that was anything but, so it was still a bit of a disappointment. Anyway, we did gather lots of good laughs from the experience which kept us busy while waiting for 12 hours in the bus station to get our ride back to Maputo. Our journey back to Mapinhane was thankfully, pretty uneventful. After we reached Maputo, we decided to stay for a couple more days to enjoy one more jaunt in a city, then caught the early bus back home to the bush.

The long rides home gave me time to think about how things would be when I returned. I worried all this first world pampering would make it hard to go back to bucket baths and dinner by lantern light. Surprisingly, getting right back into the swing of things was not hard at all. In fact, after being reminded of pre-Peace Corps life, it made me appreciate my home here even more. I’ll have the rest of my life to treat myself to all those things I experienced during my mid-service vacation but the way we live now is truly special. If you had told me I would live without modern comforts for so long, I probably would have told you I couldn’t do it.  But we’ve done it for over a year, and will do it for another and somehow, we make it work. And actually enjoy it.

While I appreciate my life back here, that doesn’t mean it can’t be boring. As we hang out in quiet Mapinhane, I am reminded of when we first got to site last year and no one was around. Students and teachers have left for the summer so it’s pretty dead here. But, we’re also enjoying the solitude and privacy, something we don’t get much of when school is in session and students are constantly stopping by.  We had a low-key Christmas in Vilankulo with some of the new volunteers in our area and will probably ring in the New Year around here (and celebrate Chris’ December 28th birthday somewhere in between!). After that, mid-January will come before we know it and our second year as teachers will begin.

We want to wish everyone happy holidays and a healthy, happy new year.  As great as it was to visit South Africa, it’s nice to know that next year we’ll get to spend these festive times at home :) Fica Bem Amigos!

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