My family came to visit me this break. Seeing them at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg was both strange and familiar: they looked very much the same as the picture in my head from a year ago, but seeing them in real time not through a crackly Skype webcam shot was the foreign part. Hugging them, I smelled home in their clothes; a smell I can now distinguish because I've been away for so long. Mom cried (which was to be expected), Dad hugged me really tight, and Derek and I instantly reverted to our fun and childlike interactions. I drove hundreds of kilometers in those twelve days and I jam-packed our schedule so they would see as much as possible in their short time here (to the point where everyone said they needed a vacation from this vacation when they got home.) We saw 5 of 9 provinces, four of the Big Five (everything except the leopard), far too many dangerous traffic practices, the Indian Ocean (in three different parts of KZN!), roads constructed of questionable materials (or barely "constructed" at all), "porcupines" (gotcha Dad), bush babies, a hidden gem in the form of a book warehouse in Joburg, host families met my biological family, and everyone was exhausted all the time. I hope the exhaustion was worth it, because I had a truly amazing time.
Trying to explain, show, and rationalize things for my family as I showed them a bit of what I live here made me look back on this past year; think about how things seemed for me when I was in their shoes, seeing everything for the first time. Going back to visit my first host family really brought me back. My Google Maps application on my Blackberry would have been fine if the roads it told me to turn on actually had names or street signs, which of course didn't more often than not. Regardless, I was still able to find my way to the "main road" of Kwa-Pahla on memories alone: the taxi rides to main hub, walking to Sanele's for language class, Jabula Market where we bought Simba chips and Dairy Milk bars almost every morning. Walking into the backyard I had flashbacks of trying to wash laundry on a cold and windy day where the cold water in my basins was warmer than the temperature of the air. I remembered where my habit of not breathing through my nose near toilets began. And I smiled when I thought of Nobonga sending me off every morning with a cheerful "sizobonana late!"
We spent a lot of hours in our rental car at the beginning of that trip, which was good because it gave me time to explain things: new terminology, habits (such as burning everything, peeing on the side of the road like it's no big thing, carrying sticks and coolers and grocery bags on your head), anecdotes good and bad, etc. The night we got to my site, I was really looking forward to cooking a meal that I would typically eat and introducing Mom, Dad, and Derek to the much talked-about "Generations," arguably South Africa's most popular soap opera. In true South African fashion, the electricity went out for no reason at all for hours, so instead we just ate cheese and crackers and talked by candlelight. But everything happens for a reason right? With my village in a blanket of darkness (undoubtedly the most electricity-less night we saw the entire trip) they were able to see the crystal clear night sky above us. On any given night, you can see the Milky Way and several shooting stars, so I was happy that they were able to experience this in the way that I do.
After we left my site, we did a bunch of things that I have never done before and saw places I had yet to see. We got chased by some monkeys, came face to face with endangered rhinos, kayaked with some hippos and crocs, swam with zebra- and clown-fish (and Derek and I got hit with a ray), drove on the most beautiful "highway" I've ever seen, toured some wineries with the Brennan/Maxfield clan, and never made it all the way to the top of Table Mountain. Saying goodbye at the airport in Cape Town was hard (as goodbyes always are), but this time there was a little less pain in my heart. This time it was more of a "see you in a little over a year" rather than "I'mgoingsofarawayforsolongandgodknowswhenI'llseeyouguysagain."
As part of my character (call it a flaw or not), I have a tendency to focus more on the negative than the positive aspects of things. I fixate on how things didn't go the way I'd envisioned, or how there was no monumental and all-encompassing change when I tried to teach something. The fact that my kids in Grade 6 are still not doing so hot on reading comprehension (in my mind) outweighs the fact that some of them have gone from failing to passing the more I test them. The fact that I still get called umlungu on the daily (in my mind) outweighs the fact that I have won over all of Grade 9 at my neighboring high school; that's right: all 180 of them. So I'm trying to change that.
Instead, the flashcards that I use at the beginning of class are helping some kids to realize that when I ask them a question about "where" an animal lives, they need to tell me a place. The classes that I help out with in Grade 9 English are allowing those kids to get to know me as Thandi, as a person; maybe it's not the entire school, but I can't reach every single person. Running for 7 minutes without stopping may not be as good as the 10 that I did yesterday, but it's better than any time I've done before.
In this year, I've come across things I wasn't expecting at all. I've never been able to laugh at myself the way I do now. I didn't think I'd be teaching new volunteers how to teach. I didn't think I'd find a boy that I love. I never imagined a day where I wanted to melt because it was so ungodly hot. I didn't think I'd shave my head. I didn't think I would own a smartphone. I never thought I'd be so loathsome of bass. I never thought I'd have a best friend here who is in pictures that I took at Invisible Children's "The Rescue" in Richmond on my computer (true story). And, I didn't expect quite the disparity that I see on a daily basis. But I'm here, I'm staying, and I've got one more year to show this place what I've got.
PS: check out pictures of this break soon on my facebook. I have to upload them one by one on my blackberry so it may take some time, but you won't be disappointed :)