Thursday, November 14, 2013

Third to First, and Back

I recently returned to site following 2 weeks of Peace Corps-related escapades. The first part of the journey was school hopping to see how libraries were organized and utilized in other volunteers' schools. The second half was Safety and Security training in Pretoria. The combination had me jumping back and forth between cramped taxis and charter buses, comfort and vulnerability, and the first and third worlds.

It's funny how all of that can happen in a matter of hours. The first leg of the trek was a hellish full-day travel debacle from my site to Will's. Five taxis later and twelve full hours after my alarm went off on Saturday morning, I stepped foot into his house to rest. As the crow flies (or probably as a road in a private car would lead you), Will's site is maybe 4 or 5 hours tops from mine. But instead, I spent a full day of my life wishing I could sleep (the first taxi had a sign in the front seat where I was sitting written in Zulu that explicitly forbid sleeping if you sat in the front), wishing the window wasn't broken so I could actually open it, and daydreaming about the day when I'd be able to decide my own travel destiny (and departure time). But in the next week that I spent in Will's village of Rorke's Drift and the surrounding villages of other volunteers in my cohort, I felt nothing but warmth and welcoming from everyone around me.

On the first day at Will's school, I was greeted by his principal and several teachers that I'd met at workshops back in December of last year, as if we were old friends who hadn't seen each other in ages (maybe kinda true?). On another day, I was greeted in Zulu by a woman attending a parent's meeting where she asked me my name and surname, where I lived, and then thanked me for chatting with her. My favorites were his learners. They greeted me as if I'd been there all along, waited until I walked past their desk to raise their hand and ask for their fractions to be checked, and energetically asked me questions for as long as time allowed. On my last morning, Bongamusa stopped me and said "Miss, travel well back to Libuyile Primary School." I don't know what about that statement struck me most, or why it still sticks in my mind. Maybe it's that he remembered the name of my school, probably the least interesting fact I shared with them on question day. Maybe it's because Will told me that he's not particularly good in Maths but I noticed him really trying the days I was there. I don't know. But the thing is, every single person made me feel like I belonged there, even though the journey would make it seem like I live half a world away.

Following the great Battlefields Library Tour of 2013, I made my usual stopover in Durban before pushing on to Pretoria the next day. Coming in from a different region than usual, I arrived in to a different taxi rank. A particularly sketchy one compared to what I'm used to coming from Manguzi. Durban is five hours from my shopping town on a good day; a day when you don't sit at the traffic circle waiting for other taxis to bring people to fill yours up, when you don't hit traffic, when you don't get a flat tire, etc. Five hours and you can go from the third world to the first. I got into the Market Street rank, which apparently is spread over four or five blocks. I arrived at around 4pm in the midst of Friday early evening traffic, speeding police cars, and a setting sun. I stood on the sidewalk clutching all of my bags as close to my body as possible. I was the only white person for blocks, a sitting duck. When the driver of the private taxi I called finally found me, he told me about how dangerous this rank was; about how drivers don't go there after 5pm. "It is violent here," he said to me as we sat at yet another red light. First world, here you go: "it is dangerous, it is violent."

After spending Saturday walking everywhere because I'm a poor volunteer, I began the next leg of the expedition: overnight bus from Durban to Pretoria. Because Pretoria is a world away in more ways than one, I usually travel there in the company of another volunteer for some big training that several of us have to go to. But this time, I was transiting on my own. As I walked from the bus station to the Gautrain station bound for Hatfield, I worried about the short distance I would have to walk to get to the backpackers. I often walk it with someone and have no problem, as it's maybe 10 minutes from the train station. I'd heard stories of guys waiting at the cul-de-sac and promptly mugging people on their way to the backpackers. As this internal anxiety played out in my head, I heard a familiar voice board the train behind me. Rakeesha and I happened to be on the same overnight bus and didn't know it until then, and I had a partner to brave the streets on our way to hot showers, flush toilets, and Pizza Night.

Days later a block or two from where we stayed, a fellow volunteer attending the same training as me was threatened by a knife-wielding man who has apparently mugged quite a few PCVs walking to and from the shopping center and restaurants, often times in broad daylight. "Sisi, I don't want to have to stab you, sisi," he said. Fortunately she talked herself out of it, but that's a potential fear on everyone's mind. It's on my mind every time I'm in Hatfield. I'm afraid that I'll be mugged or worse. I'm consistently vigilant and walk with purpose and displayed confidence, but I don't always feel that way.

Fast forward to Durban on the way back to site. B and I stayed in a suburb just outside the city with her host sister to get a ride back to site the following day (anything is favorable to a taxi). As it was explained to us, it would be a single taxi from the Workshop stop in the middle of the city to the entrance of the apartment complex. However, it wouldn't be a complete day unless we were taken advantage of and harassed. One taxi turned into five, where we kept getting charged one rand more every few minutes, and dropped of in a random location and told to walk after we were promised a ride to the requested location. And then there was the drunk man who used the side of my body as a back rest and touched my arm as he loudly declared how he "wants to date a white wo-man" in my ear. We finally made it, after slamming the taxi door (a big no-no in South African public transport culture) and hurrying across the street through traffic.

At the beginning of any trip away from site, the thought is always "it will be nice to get out of the village for a little while, take a shower, eat a pizza, wander around a real store, etc." But by the end of this odyssey, all I wanted was to go home. My home in my village with my stuff and my bucket and my mosquito net and my family.

Transitioning back into village life has proven to be a little tough in the past, but this time it had never felt easier. Between the smile and the great big hug from my old gogo, the greetings from kids that attend other schools in the village, the hugs and typical handshake welcomes from other teachers, my Grade 6 clapping when I came to say hello, learning that my best learner's Grade 2 brother named his Mother Bear after me, all of it made me feel like I've never felt before coming back. I felt like my absence had created a void, and my return had filled it. Not that that hasn't been the case before, but I really FELT it this time around. I don't know if I'm explaining myself well, but maybe it's not meant to be spelled out perfectly in words.

People fear for me here. The gawks and the looks of horror from the White South Africans rolling in with their Land Rovers, surfboards, bicycles, trailers, etc. never cease to amuse me; as if I was accidentally left in Thengani and have to fight my way back to civilization.

One day a man stopped me on the sidewalk to say hello. He was walking with his child, a sight I always stop to admire as it's like seeing a unicorn for me. He (a Black South African) asked me, "Aren't you afraid?" "Afraid of what?" I asked. "I live here, I work here, and people know me." I wouldn't phrase it any other way today.

Even though it's over a year into living here, I feel like this is a big moment. Having that comfort, that sense of belonging, is something that not all volunteers find. Oftentimes it's something you create and help to influence, but other factors (sometimes outside of your control) play into it too. Sure, there are things that I miss and would make my life easier if I had. But I'm happy where I am now, with what I have now. I'll take Third over First.
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