Thursday, February 21, 2008

Living in a Maize Field

I have no idea how a place can have such consistently beautiful sunsets, amazing clouds, wispy colors floating in the sky, but here they are. Makotse, my village, is a beautiful town. Not take-your-breath-away gorgeous, but reddish-brown dirt roads, rocky foothills in the distance, gardens everywhere and big blue skies. Just yesterday I realized why I kept thinking of the beach whenever I walked out of my house. Basically, the air is so fresh and clean, one of the few places in the US that has such fresh air is the ocean. Plus, the elementary school teachers use whistles just like lifeguards.

Let's see, I've been here a little over a month and am still settling in. I have been gone almost every weekend, and last week I was at training for the incoming volunteers, but I like it here. It feels like home. I have a house to myself, rare for volunteers, but it suits me well. I'm living in the old office of Makotse Women's Club, the NGO where I'm volunteering. In fact, the backdrop for my living room is a big hand-painted banner that reads "Makotse Womens Club Empower and Develop our Community With Pride" and my "rooms" are actually makeshift cubicle walls. But it's a fabulous set-up. I live right next door to the founder, Ma Mello, who owns this land. When I first moved here, the land was being used as cow pasture, which meant that the flies were insane until all the cow patties dried up. Now, they plowed the land and planted maize. It's up to my knees now and starting to grow over the path to my pit toilet.

So, even though I feel like I'm not here that often, I'm happy to be here and content. I have to catch myself not to stress myself out with all of my ridiculously high standards and what I "should" be doing here, but that's just me. Makotse Women's Club (heretofore known as MWC) is a great good of hard-working women, well-organized and dedicated to the work. After living through and hearing horror stories of corruption, lack of motivation, and pettiness, I'm lucky to be with MWC. And I get to do cool stuff for an NGO-geek like me. Currently, I'm helping with the strategic planning implementation (they have a strategic plan! Non-profits in the US don't even have those!), a fund-raising strategy, development of their training center, and various typing projects. A new priority is to get them to be faster typers so they don't automatically look to me for that. If my mom comes to the center with her 90+ wpm, they might just explode! They're just impressed that I don't have to look at my fingers.

It's odd. I'm finally where I'll spend the remaining of my Peace Corps time (barring those wacky unforeseeable circumstances), and the situation was almost exactly as I hoped it would be: rural village, fabulous woman's organization, internet access through my cell phone and a place of my own, cooking my own food while gently exposed to traditional food (if you ever wondered where the chicken feet and chicken heads go, I think they're deposited at Makotse for stew. Not so easy to eat, those chicken feet). Things I didn't imagine were the cows jogging through the streets at sunset, their bells jingling as they go. A much nicer alternative to sitting in rush hour traffic on the Beltway. And the butterflies that swarm the puddles by the pumps. They look like yellow and white flowers growing out of the mud until you get close, then the flutter away for a minute and go right back to drinking (or whatever they're doing).

My goodness, this entry is much too positive. And I'm not making anything up just to feel better! Fortunately, since this is life, everything is subject to change. Check back later for the next installment. Ya never know what it'll be!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

This Too Shall Pass (and other words of wisdom)

It’s amazing how time can so quickly zip by, yet feel like it’s barely creeping by when you’re in the middle of it. Einstein gave one explanation, but I have neither had my hand on a hot stove nor been in the presence of a pretty girl. Well, that’s not exactly true. All my girl friends are pretty! Anyway, time has passed me by and I’m trying to catch up with my blog and email, and with all the other endless hours of distractions I now have access through the internet. Ah! So that’s where the time went. Just realized that I was supposed to call Peter May and Izolda on their birthdays, and royally screwed that up. Hi guys! You’ll get an email and belated call soon!

So, my meditation retreat or “How I Spent My New Years” (answer: by missing it completely! One day, it was Dec 30, then Jan 1 the next.) At one point, I would have said that it was the toughest thing I’ve ever done. But living in South Africa for two years seems to be winning that prize, even though I’m not even half-way through. But meditating for ten hours a day is no piece of cake. Meditating, not talking, no eye contact, no touching, no reading, no writing, just you and your thoughts. Rambling thoughts, sarcastic thoughts, nasty thoughts, depressed thoughts, weird dream-like thoughts. One the first day, I was wondering to myself, “and this is the way to happiness? More like the way to completely make myself crazy, not that I need any help.” Oh, and the songs. Songs I haven’t thought about or heard in YEARS! (“What’s that on your head? A wig!”) But the ego is a strange and slippery thing. It will fight, beg, and negotiate, anything to stay in control. But it’s not like the ego doesn’t have a place, it just needs to be trained (so Vipassana teaches). So I started thinking in terms of training, and my thoughts became a pile of puppies (“Look at me! Whee! Let’s play! Let’s go over here! Let’s scratch! Let’s scratch some more!” “OK buster, back in your box. And you, too, back in the box. Yes, you too! And you. And you.”) A bit more manageable. Everyday got easier, but every day has some major, major challenge.

The whole point of Vipassana is awareness: aware of your breath, aware of your body, aware of reality, not as it appears to be, or how you want it to be, but how it really is. And along with that awareness is the absolute certainty that this too shall pass. The good stuff passes, so why bother clinging? That only leads to addiction or misery. The bad stuff passes, so why bother fighting it? You can’t avoid it, but it will pass. Accept it, and you won’t be so likely to make bad decisions just to avoid pain and loneliness (oh, yes, I’ve made a few of those).

I tell you, this retreat was tough, but so much what I needed. I needed to see the good side of South Africa. I needed to see its beauty, to meet people who weren’t crazy racist, or psychopaths, or depressed, or drunk, or sick, or or or… And this was the place. I took a train to Port Elizabeth, a beautiful town with a gorgeous beach, met a great guy there who made me think of Greenbelt in his fun, laid-backedness (yes, I said laid-backedness), met a fabulous woman who picked me up in PE (as the locals call it) then drove me back to Pretoria after the retreat. I met artists and activists, spiritual adventurers, and people just trying to do the best they can in the world. Afterwards, I met up with the fabulous friends I’ve made in Pretoria, and we went to the best gay bar EVER!! and sang our hearts out to the Grease soundtrack and Abba. And then went to my site, which I love, LOVE, LOVE! So things are looking up.

Or were.

See above: this too shall pass.

A good friend of mine was badly hurt. She’s OK, she’ll be OK, but it’s been hard for me to not shake my fist at the heavens, swear heartily, and get morose all over again. I blame it on South Africa, of course, but it’s not South Africa. It’s life.

This too shall pass.

I'm grateful for the retreat, just wish I didn't get such a quick and sucky way to practice what I learned. But at least I have something. South Africa, this is for you: you are a place of beauty, and place of pain, and this too shall pass. I will experience more beauty, more pleasure, and more pain before I'm through, and I thank you for all of it (please give me something nice next, though. I'm tired of all this crap).

I am happy with my site, however, and will give more details in my next installment. Stay tuned for cow rush hour, chicken feet (well, maybe not), maize fields, and hard-working women. MWAH!