In Which my PCV friend Saved a Girl From Drowning and got me a Free Impala Steak

I love how routine lazing about can turn into something extraordinary.  About a month ago, my friend Salewa visited Francistown from her village 20 minutes south. She came in for some usual grocery shopping, and met up with me and our friend Heather for an afternoon ice cream cone. Halfway through our dessert we ran into Pete, our Australian geologist friend, and invited him to join us for a sundowner at the beautiful and serene Cresta Marang Hotel.

I still have the umbrella

Me admiring Salewa's choice of free drink

The Marang always feels like a luxurious place totally disconnected from the city. Sitting by the pool on the hotel’s heavy, black metal chairs and sipping the first Castle lager draft of the day, we talked and enjoyed the sun coming through the tall trees and hitting the bungalos and the large, mowed lawn. Five dapper men in starched collared shirts sat at another table across the pool, seemingly doing the same with their afternoon. Shortly after we got there. a group of teenage girls also came to the pool.  Nothing weird, right? A peaceful Saturday afternoon. Then, without warning, the girls stripped down to their underwear bottoms and started loudly splashing each other in the shallow end of the pool.

Pete immediately and understandably became uncomfortable. He tried to play it cool but kept awkwardly looking into his beer not knowing what to do. These girls were underage, but they certainly weren’t children. Breasts aren’t as sexualized in Botswana as they are in our respective countries, and the group of dapper men (it was unclear where they were from) didn’t seem to care.    It even made me feel a bit strange to see the girls there, topless and splashing away.  The whole thing just became pretty freaking awkward.

So we sat, trying not to pay attention to this party of pubescent ladies enjoying their giggle-splash-fest (admittedly this was pretty difficult). It was clear they weren’t patrons of the hotel, and we found out later they came from a nearby birthday party down the road. We had passed this party on the way over – it had a bouncy castle. I made a comment about how strange it was that these girls wanted to swim since so many Batswana don’t know how. Foreshadowing!

After about 20 minutes, one girl accidentally waded out into the deep end, not knowing she couldn’t stand up.  There were no markings specifying the depth of the pool at different points, and with the pool floor being the same shade of white throughout it wasn’t necessarily intuitive to someone unfamiliar with swimming pools that it would be too deep to stand at the other end.

The bigger issue was that the girl couldn’t swim, and had inhaled too much water trying to keep up. All of her splashing for air blended right in with the giggle splashing coming from her friends.

Salewa - Saves lives, seizes days, and knows how to party

I was especially oblivious to what was going on because by then I had finally succeeded in manipulating my mind to situate the girls as background scenery. Salewa, however, noticed that the girl in the deep end was now floating at the surface with her head face-down and her arms and legs dangling in the water beneath her. The girl’s friends began to panic, and without hesitation Salewa placed her large Blackberry on the table and expertly dove into the pool to rescue her.

It’s good to have friends who know basic rescue. It’s also good to know that some learn how to do things in Girl Scouts other than sell cookies (who knew?!)

Meanwhile, as Salewa was determining if she had to perform CPR, the dapper men were now standing at the edge of the pool yelling at the girls for intruding on their space.  I went over to the men and asked them just what the deal was that they couldn’t do anything to help the girl. They had nothing to say, and I concluded that they, too, probably didn’t know how to swim. To make matters worse we discovered later that the men were all doctors. It made me furious.

Salewa got the girl to cough up the water, talked to her a bit, and luckily the girl walked away shaken up but alright. The girls sheepishly put on their tube tops and shorts and quickly left. The manager, a stocky South African man wearing a white polo shirt, khaki shorts and carrying a large walkie-talkie, marched over to thank us. It was obvious from the beads of sweat running down his temples that he knew Salewa didn’t just save the girl from drowning, but also potentially saved him from a lawsuit.  In addition to not having any pool depth indicators, the area had no warning or risk signs. He made a lame joke about hiring Salewa as the lifeguard and offered us drinks on the house. Salewa replied with, “Sounds great, but actually we’re all pretty hungry!” The manager winced at the thought of giving away four expensive dinners, but with an affected smile still agreed. I nudged Salewa that she should also get the hotel staff to wash and dry her clothes. We were not about to let the hotel off the hook that easily.

Turns out we all got free drinks, free dinner, and Salewa’s clothes cleaned and dried. In our collective opinion it was a small price for the hotel to pay to avoid becoming “that hotel where some girl died in the pool.”  Plus, we were feeling pretty lucky and elated that we were in the right place at the right time and actually saved a girl’s life.

While basking in Salewa’s recent feat and waiting for our drinks to arrive, two large men carried out a heavy brass and marble sign post that explained the risks and rules of swimming in the pool.  I guess it had been sitting somewhere in the hotel storage shed. The men placed it out by the pool, however naturally it was obscured by a large tree.

It was on this day I ate my first impala steak, and though it was a bit tough I still loved it. The freeness of the steak and the richness of the story made it even more delicious than it would have been had I actually been able to afford it.

Rounding the night off, we took our leftovers to my house and later ended up at the seedy, crowded bars at Area L, where we got sweaty and danced with all the hipster Batswana kids. It was a perfect way to celebrate.

By the way – today is Salewa’s Birthday! Happy Birthday, lady.


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Severe Culture Hangover

It’s been a while since I wrote – my life’s been pretty hectic with work and play and hosting people. I spent Thanksgiving devouring American food with friends in Selebi-Phikwe, went camping in the rain with other friends at Letsibogo Dam (near Phikwe), and coordinated with the DAC office 5 World AIDS Day Celebrations in Francistown. Oh, and I attended National World AIDS Day in Palapye, where I chatted with our Ambassador Steve Nolan and watched President Khama give his annual WAD speech.

Immediately after the final World AIDS Day celebration in Francistown, I hastily took off to Cape Town for a two-week long holiday. I had no idea 2 weeks could have such an impact on me – it made me realize just how slowly time passes here in Bots. If I could do as much as I did in those two weeks, then it’s become a resolution of mine to fill my time here more efficiently as well. Course, I’m back on my Peace Corps budget, so “filling my time” might mean “reading more books” and “exercising more frequently” as opposed to the following:

Things I did in Cape Town:

  • Ate copious amounts of sushi
  • Drank delicious, high-gravity beer with this crazy thing added called “flavor”
  • Visited 6 vineyards in the Stellenbosch region (only really remember the first 5 though)
  • Met and befriended several locals from Stellenbosch and Cape Town – sincere thank yous to Couch Surfing
  • Saw Harry Potter at the Waterfront – a part of town near the ocean filled with malls and breweries and restaurants by the water. The area has a huge ferris wheel and other fun attractions like “still-dude-in-all-bronze” and “man who makes portraits of you and advertises this talent with his portrait of R. Kelly”.  Also, choirs.
  • Visited Simon’s Town – the cute touristy spot just north of Cape Point – one of the most southern parts of Africa.
  • Enjoyed many hours shopping the markets and cafes in Cape Town – and though it’s hard to find a restroom, the urban design of some of these areas are beautiful, welcoming, and green.
  • Stayed at one hostel for the duration of the trip – the Kimberley Hotel – and by the end really felt like family there. Highly recommended, assuming they provide a fan in your room. Their cheap breakfasts of eggs, toast, beans and coffee really saved me a few mornings. It was also fun to watch people finishing their beers while eating these breakfasts.
  • Climbed Lion’s Head with my friend Hays and viewed all of Cape Town and the ocean from one single point at the top
  • My New Year’s Day consisted of visiting a Turkish Bath, watching The Social Network at the Labia Theater,  hitting up a Mexican Restaurant, a jazzy cigar bar… and a brewery at the Waterfront.
  • Drank 2 exquisite martinis – one bar-made and one home-made
  • Went salsa dancing, then later got booed off the stage singing Karaoke (crappy song + drunk people = little patience for anything other than “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond)
  • Ate at a Kurdish restaurant called Mesopotamia, shared a tobacco hookah, watched a belly dancer who later invited me to belly dance with her… which i did.
  • Drank a neat Laphroaig (this deserves a bullet of its own)
  • Ate a perfect meal with an incredible person at a restaurant called Blonde
  • Laughed until I cried at least twice
  • Danced and danced and danced with truly great friends

So from this experience I can see why some wait a long time before visiting the States during their service – I didn’t want to come back to Francistown. And though perhaps the sleepless night before the exhausting day of travel might have had something to do with it, I teared up a bit walking back to my house. Even in my wonderful tiny city of Francistown, everything seemed so flat in comparison to the saturation of culture and beauty I had just immersed myself in. I questioned what I was doing in Peace Corps again, but eventually resolved (again) to stick it out and use my time here as best I can. No sense in not living in a place like Cape Town if I’m just going to sit on my thumbs living in Botswana.

Though I don’t feel so energized to sit again in front of my screen in my FTown flourescent office,  I do, however, feel energized to fulfill some personal goals I’ve been sitting on for a few months. I need to act on them in a practical way  – like, inching forward by doing at least one thing a day on one of my goals. And I’ve got lots.

Will I mention my goals right now on this blog? Nope. Thanks to insight from Derek Sivers on TED I’ll be keeping them to myself for now.

___

Happy New Year, everyone. And to quote the naked lady in the Turkish bath (who probably got it from someone else), “may the best of last year be the worst of this year.”

The Real Purpose of In-Service Training

Through the many PCV blogs I’ve read I learned that the first three months of Peace Corps service (after training) are typically the hardest. More people early terminate during this time (or think they’re going to) and culture shock creeps up until the PCV looks down and has either spontaneously lost 15 lbs (most men), gained 15 lbs (most women), and can’t remember the last time he or she spent a night totally sober. It can be a very trying time for someone, especially if he or she hasn’t traveled much abroad or experienced any form of culture shock before. Most PCV’s here are alone in their village and don’t always know the best way to cope.

Luckily it never got that bad for me, but I did experience culture shock to a degree that can only be paired with the last time I spent studying abroad in Prague. Whereas in Prague I never expected it, here I expected to fight it off and it still got me. Before I knew it I wasn’t sleeping well, became apathetic towards work and personal time, wasn’t controlling the way I ate (I’m usually pretty scrutinizing about this), and my homesick spells piled on top of one another so often they became the norm. I had unintentionally bottled up my emotions until one afternoon just before IST when weeks of stress manifested in the form of tears literally falling over my beer glass. I even experienced a week mulling over the idea of going back to the states, even though I knew my placement was one not to be taken for granted.

But that’s where the beauty of In-Service Training (IST) comes in. Just when we may think we’ve had enough, we are whisked away to another town for 2-3 weeks to reunite with our friends and, essentially, press the reset button. At the quirky and hospitable Oasis Motel in Gaborone, Bots 9 got together and shared experiences, relaxed by the pool, had our meals prepared for us, and sure, we sat through some boring (and some very interesting) presentations, but at night we went out for karaoke or salsa dancing or just hung out in someone’s room laughing and playing cards. I’m pretty sure we all had a blast.

oasis gaborone thumb

IST was exactly what I needed. I experienced a sense of gratefulness for my time here, and was really surprised when I came home after all that fun sincerely missing my house and my town – The Ghetto!*

So I’m a success story – a statistic that can be checked off as someone who got the most out of IST. Prior to IST I went through many of the same ups and downs most PCVs tend to go through, and, predictably, climbed out of IST ready to rock back at my site. I returned to site re-energized, in better mental and physical shape, and content with the work set out ahead of me.

So while IST presents itself as a “training” that focuses on language and job skills learning, it’s come to my attention that the real purpose behind IST might be to bring us out of culture shock. After IST, a lot of PCV’s report having an easier time back at site, and their chances of staying with Peace Corps the rest of the two years go way up. We were on lockdown before IST, meaning we could not leave our site, and while that rule frustrated most of us it makes sense to me now – the build up to IST is worth the wait and, I believe, produces a higher degree of satisfaction after IST is over.

*”The Ghetto” is another name for Francistown. It’s also known as “The Real City”.  I still think it’s funny I’m one of two Jewish volunteers in Bots 9 and they assigned me to live in the Ghetto.

Happy Sir Seretse Khama Day

Today is a holiday, in fact it’s President’s Day, or Sir Seretse Khama’s Day (first Botswana President), so we had the day off! It has so far been blissful – I slept in, did a little laundry, made coffee, split the purchase of a braai stand for this weekend’s festivities, drank a real milk stout from a can (yes, today I discovered it actually exists in Botswana), helped make some onion rings from scratch, drank another beer, and it’s not even 4 pm!

I’m thinking that bread making, a bath, and some RadioLab is probably an order for the rest of the day.

Happy Sir Seretse Khama Day, everyone.