Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Last Bus Ride

Now that I am “this side” I am reading about Africa, watching a TV series about a family running a game camp in South Africa, looking for Africa in the news. I would never have thought I would miss Africa this much, but here I sit in a park in New York City listening to people talk about personal trainers and watching them parade by in their slinky dresses.  “Three percent rise in portfolio” drifts by on the air and I am seeing the bus rank in Gaborone and the women dressed in long white dresses with white head wraps, their bulky bodies seated on broken plastic chairs under the skimpy shade provided by anorexic trees or tipsy umbrellas
while they wait all day to sell three bananas or a roll of toilet paper.
            I see the tall slim fellow enter the bus with his bag of frozen ices. “Metsi!, Cooltime!” he calls and tickles the children under the chin and makes the women laugh despite the sweltering heat and for the first time I wish I had learned more Setswana. I wish I could understand what he is saying that pulls people out of their stupor.
            I see the beautiful conductor on the 3:30 bus to Kopong. She was a woman of indeterminate age, dressed more modestly than most. Her shoes were solid leather always polished. Her skirts were long and her blouses did not reveal the usual six inches of d├ęcolletage. I don’t think she was Motswana. Her face was more sculptured, with rounded eyelids and a generous mouth. When I saw the carved wooden figures in the main mall, I bought one immediately—it was her face. I kept it on my desk, thinking I would give it to my son, who has four daughters. It was called family tree and had the heads of four women carved out of a single piece of wood. After a few months of admiring it I realized one of the heads had an eye that seemed to wander. The Irish in me was superstitious, afraid it could be unlucky and so I found another family tree for him (these carvings are everywhere) and kept the flawed one for myself.
            The last time I made the trip back to my village I stood on the side of the A12 highway in the sun, resigned to a long wait and a packed bus. As if in a dream, the bus pulled up within minutes and when I boarded I was stunned to see I was the only person on it. This had never happened in the two years I was in Africa. Add to that, it was the bus with my favorite conductor. I sat down across from her and asked if I could take her photo. She smiled at me and nodded. I told her I thought she was the most beautiful woman I had seen in Botswana. She smiled at me and nodded.

            When I unpacked my shoes here in America, red dust fell out on the bedspread. That red scrim covers the edge of my notebooks, sits inside the zipper of my backpack and filters out of things even now, three months after I walked across the tarmac at Sir Seretse Khama Airport, boarded the flight to Jo’burg and looked out the window at the dry cattle and sparse branches of my village, five miles away.
            What do I miss? I don’t miss the chickens and roosters under my window waking me throughout the night. I don’t miss the dogs barking and jumping all hours day and night. I don’t miss the bus windows locked tight while people sit on top of me and cough. I don’t miss the nonexistent customer service, the frustration of finding no one available to do the job they were supposed to do.
            What do I miss? The sky. The clearest bluest largest sky I’ve ever seen. And time. I miss time. There is plenty of time in Africa. Time enough to wait for the bus, the combi, the hitch.  No one is late, unless they have died. There is always the possibility the bus will come, the person will show up, the meeting will begin, if not now, at some point. If there is no possibility, if the breath has left your body and you have been sung into your grave, then and only then, are you “late.”

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Long Good-Bye

It's been almost three months since my last post. Three months during which I struggled with issues both public and private. There was no water on my side of the village during those three months, constant power outages, and despite my resolve to do things differently during the next term, no real support for programs and projects within my school. I often felt like I was taking two steps forward and one step backward--some days like I was taking one step forward and three steps backward.

When you have no water you have to buy drinking water, often in bulk, and drag it home. You have to boil the water that has been stored in the jo-jo (large plastic silo sitting next to the house) to do dishes, wash clothes, and wash yourself. Each day you face the decision of how much water to use for cooking or for washing, not knowing if there will be water again the next day. The house gets dirtier and dirtier as you don't want to waste precious water on scrubbing floors, etc, and the daily sweep doesn't always do the job. You use your 'gray water' for flushing the toilet and watch as the garden dries up. Some volunteers, and certainly many Botswana, live with this all the time. And Peace Corps is quick to remind us that we signed up to work in "hardship" conditions. Having no water and intermittent power is not really a hardship, particularly when one is a bus ride away from friends who have that and will open the door and allow you to take a shower and relax for a day or two. So why was I so exhausted all the time, and finding it harder and harder to get motivated for the projects I wanted to do?

There is a kaleidascope of reasons, all of which came into focus when I had a blood test and discovered my thyroid was out of whack. Way out of whack. It took a couple of weeks of soul-searching and the patience and support of some fellow volunteers (you know who you are) to accept the fact that I needed to be "medically separated." That is Peace Corps talk for 'you need to go home and take care of your medical issues.' I was 'separated' on Valentine's Day and although my body flew across the Atlantic in 16 hours, it is taking my consciousness a while longer to catch up.

 The decision to leave seemed like a long time coming, but when it came things moved faster than expected. Especially when one has been on "Africa time" for almost two years.

On my trip back to my village to say goodbye,  I took photos of my favorite people at school, in the village and on the bus ride. My next blog will be a portfolio of these photos.