We Flew in Tuesday Night
SURPRISE!—a transitional conference
It’s the last thing a PCV wants to experience and it only happens when a PC program gets ‘suspended’ or ‘closed.’
When we walked into the Tuesday night welcome meeting we are told that we will all be ‘closing’ our service as Peace Corps Volunteers in Madagascar and that we’ll need to be making some decisions over the next 3 days. We are given a packet of paper work (health and administrative forms) and instructed on what ‘adjustment/next step’ sessions we will need to attend. A team of Peace Corps doctors take the floor instructing us that we need to give three stool samples and give some tips on proper collection. We are told that we need get blood work and a TB test done as soon as possible. Our minds spinning, some have walked-out in tears. I still distracted by the orange juice, the carpet under my feet, and the window less carpet walled room I am sitting in.
We are told one more time for clarity. “Everyone is closing their service with Peace Corps Madagascar. You will need to make decisions over the next few days; you will need to have a plan.”
I put my orange juice down as a chill cuts through me
------Welcome to Johannesburg, South Africa-----
(A place with a much different feel 14 months ago)
The King-Kong of Culture Shock
I imagine it’s natural to experience a little culture shock going from Madagascar to South Africa. On my flight in I was blown away by the boxed lunch of individually wrapped food items—85% of which was sugar (either whipped, baked, or jelled). On the flight we flew over homes with swimming pools, high-ways, a golf course, and a water park. But this was nothing compared to where I went after our Tuesday night ‘welcome meeting.’
It was St. Patrick’s Day and our Hotel had an Irish Pub. The pub was packed with people—Peace Corps Volunteers, tourists, locals. It was ten seconds before a friend handed me a green beer. I was greeted and being wished a ‘Happy St. Patick’s Day’ by Peace Corps friends I haven’t seen in nine months, all while standing in a bar that could have been in any small American college town. ….It quickly sunk in that I wasn’t in Madagascar anymore….
Peace Corps provided us with options. Re-instate, re-enroll or direct transfer. Re-instate does not happen until the program in Madagascar re-opens. At which point PC will contact you and ask if you are interested in serving in Madagascar again. It doesn’t mean it will happen and it doesn’t mean that you will go back to your site (in fact it’s rare), you also don’t know when it will happen (2 months, 6 months, a year). Re-enrollment is like starting all over—a new country, new training, new site, another two year commitment. Direct transfer was the ability to transfer your service to another country and finish out your term there. Direct Transfer was my only real option and I was eager to put my name in for it—mainly to see what was being offered. Direct Transfer is difficult to get (‘the stars need to align’). Medical requirements are different for each country, spots are limited, and many have language requirements (Malagasy not being one of them). After reading over my options I put my name down for two programs (the only two that didn’t require a language). After a sleepless night and hours and continual self-questioning, that next morning I told the conference facilitator that I wanted my name removed, I was pursuing direct transfer for the wrong reasons—I was looking for closure and I wasn’t going to find it.
When I was serving with AmeriCorps in Alaska (before Peace Corps) I had the opportunity to site-in on a Native American tribal discussion on land ownership and oil exploration. When the meeting finished, the audience could ask questions to the panel of elders. I don’t remember any of the questions asked, but I vividly remember a response that was given. Old, frail, and eyes shaded by his long thinning gray hair, an elder stood up to respond. “My father never understood why the white man asks so many questions.” He said in a raspy voice. “The white man is always seeking answers to the questions that he already has answers for. You know the answer, it’s just not an answer you like, so you continually search for a new one.’’
My God…Is She Crazy?
We loved to joke about the women who facilitated our staging (two days spent in D.C. before flying to Madagascar). She was informative but very opinionated, pushy, and a bit over zealous. Staging was our first bonding experience and as an outcome she would become a person we would refer to throughout our pre-service training. It was a way to bring a laugh and a smile during stressful times.
Our last day at Staging she read us a story about sunglasses. I don’t remember the details, but the point was simple. You see the world through a certain shade of sunglasses, but through your Peace Corps experience you learn to see the world through an entirely different shade. When your experience is finally finished and you return home, both shades (the pre-existing and the newly acquired) blend together to form a shade that is new and unique.
“What!” a friend said to me during a break around the Holiday Inn water cooler during staging.
“Did that even make sense?” Another friend joined in on the conversation
“Red and yellow don’t make green,” a buddy added “It’s not possible.”
We all had a good laugh!
As I wait in Heathrow airport for my connecting flight. I’m sitting in an airport terminal that resembles more of a shopping mall. The man in the business suite on my right is pounding away on a keyboard. On my left is a women filing her nails and her perfume aroma is starting to make me a bit nauseous. On the bench in-front of me is a man in a kilt who has now passed-out after too many drinks from the pub directly behind me.
Boy…I don’t know what color I am seeing, but it is defiantly different.
The Cheetah Inn
Before heading home to the U.S. of A. I did get to go on a South African excursion through Krugar National Park. It was a good trip minus the fever on day four. We did get to see four out the BIG five (water buffalo, leopard, lion, elephant). Unfortunately, we never spotted the (apparently rather elusive) rhino.
I would like to share this memory from the charming Cheetah Inn
We arrive late at night, jumping out of the back of the safari trucks. It was a long ride from JoBurg to Krugar and although we just went on a sixty minute ‘sunset’ drive and spotted zebra, impala, and giraffe. Many of us can only think about food and a warm bed. A woman greets us with the keys to our rooms and tells us to hurry back because dinner is waiting.
The charming Cheetah Inn, although in the middle of ‘nowhere’ is well maintained—it has a swimming pool, nine hole mini golf course, a large Cheetah fountain (think high school papier-mâché project) and well trimmed gardens. All surrounded by an electric fence for our protection, which keeps out large dangerous predators. Even with all this ‘charm’ the hotel does feel a bit eerie—the buildings are all painted the same tacky light pink and the lobby floors are carpeted with green astrocarpet. It also doesn’t help that we are the only guests staying at the Cheetah Inn (that night).
We gathered by the fire outside, where dinner was waiting. A soft spoken woman of short stature wearing a very flashy cheetah print blouse greeted us all and began to review our itinerary for the next day.
When she finishes a friend asks “what is your name?”
“Pearl” she says softly, “Pearl, like diamonds and pearls.”
Pearl served me some soup and after a few spoonfuls I immediately begin to feel better.
“This place feels surreal.” I say to Chris who is seated next to me. “I feel like I’m at grandma’s house.”
Pearl sits across from me and begins sipping her soup from a spoon. Feeling a need to break the awkward silence, I start to think of a question to ask her, but she beats me to it.
“I had a very sad day today” she says in a soft single monotone voice while staring down at her spoon and bowl.
Startled, awkward, and feeling a bit obligated, I follow her socially awkward comment with a question.
“Oh… Why is that?” I ask.
“I went to a funeral today, my closest friend died” she says, finally breaking eye contact with her spoon to briefly glance up at me.
“It was a wonderful little funeral, they spread the ashes at a beautiful little park near by” she puts her spoon down and begins to slowly fold the napkin placed in-front of her.
“God” I respond “I’m really sorry to hear that Pearl, I’m sorry for your loss.” I try to show some sympathy.
To be spared from any more awkwardness, I excuse myself, grab my plate and walk to the women serving food.
Chase is already waiting in line.
“Wow, this looks great!” he tells the kitchen staff as they serve him some meat.
“Yea, it sure does” I say with a smile
As I wait in line I can hear Pearl’s voice from the other side of the room. “I was in-love once,” she says to a group of people at the table “he was the man of my dreams..”
Over my shoulder Pearl is still seated, but now slowly unfolding the napkin she just folded moments ago. As the women dishes me out some salad. Chase turns to return back to the table.
He stops in transit and whispers in my ear. “Dude, I have seen a lot of horror movies that start this way. No lie, half of us will be dead by morning.”
It was enough to make me think about the electric fence—is it really for our protection?