Saturday, February 26, 2011

Ebb and Flow

I walked into a house where a young woman named Philiswag sat on a couch. She looked weak and wore a hat, even though the sun was scorching outside. “Moloweni!” she greeted us with a bright smile. She was very thin, but her stomach was distended and her left ankle was swollen—symptoms of an HIV infection. From her purse, she withdrew her ARVs and other pills and set them on the table to show us. She has to take them all at scheduled times throughout each and every day. If she misses a dose, everything could go wrong.

On Monday, our South Africa routine began.

In the morning, work starts when our taxi driver, Percy, drops us off at the medical clinic in Kwanokuthula at 8 o’ clock. We then set out on foot for the next five hours as we follow Priscilla from house to house for her patient check ups. Arriving at each house, we’re greeted with smiles and cries of “Moloweni!” (which is hello in Xhosa.) We visit patients with varying degrees of illness and living conditions. About half of our patients are HIV positive; of those, many have Tuberculosis additionally. Philiswag was the first patient I saw. She was also the first person that I think I’ve ever been face-to-face with who has had HIV. Maybe I’ve been sheltered, but HIV and AIDS have just never been real-life issues in and around my community and life at home. But sitting feet away from Philiswag as she held her ARVs provided a jolt of reality for me. Everything I’ve learned, heard, read, and watched about HIV/AIDS crashed down on me with full force. Seeing the epidemic in person really illuminated the immensity of the issue and true necessity for a solution. We’ve seen patients with other ailments as well. I was surprised to note that, after HIV, the second-most prevalent condition afflicting the patients I’ve seen is diabetes. The case of one man sticks out to me most poignantly. We entered his room to find him sitting with his legs in a bucket of water. Withdrawing them allowed us to see the raw sores running up the sides of his calves and ankles. We wrapped the sores with wet gauze and a cloth bandage, but that’s just a temporary fix. If these sores get worse, he could lose the ability to walk. If they get too bad, he might have to have his legs amputated. We’ve seen other patients with arthritis, high blood pressure, and strokes, too. Priscilla is teaching us to take insulin finger sticks and use the blood pressure monitor in a very “learn-by-doing” way, meaning that she hands us the tools and tells us to use them on the patient. Lauren and I were both confused and lost at first, but we’ve got it down now.

On our walks between houses, we have time to talk with and get to know Priscilla. Home caregivers like her spend their whole days—rain or shine-- walking from house to house. Since they don’t have scheduled visit time, sometimes patients won’t even be home. So they continue walking to the next house and check back later. I just want to buy all of the caregivers bikes. Sometimes Priscilla will take us to one of her friends’ houses for tea or juice or for her to get some lunch. And at one, Percy picks us up and drops us back in Plett. But Priscilla keeps doing her rounds until four.

After lunchtime, we head down to the beach for seminars. Yes, our seminar room is above a restaurant that is right on the sand. We hear the waves crashing and can watch the lifesaving team (there are like 100 little kids in speedos that are on some sort of lifeguard training team that come to the beach for hours every single day.)

While our days are filled with some pretty heavy stuff in the townships, things lighten up back in Plett. On Thursday, I met the local running club for their weekly time trial. It was neat to see so many people of all ages. I had a good time, but was not expecting for it to actually be a time trial with timing and everything! I also went bungee jumping! I conquered the Bloukrans bridge, which at 216 meters, is the highest point you can bungee jump from in the world! It was awesome. And there’s more: a chartered catamaran sail around the bay. We even got to see a pod of dolphins and TONS of seals. Bruce cooked us our first braai, a South African barbecue, too.

Don’t be too jealous, though. Unfortunately, all of our activities in the sun have given me some pretty funky tanlines…. :)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Even Better Than the Ice Cream

We’ve now been in South Africa for a week, and so far it’s been fantastic. When we first arrived, we were bussed to a hostel/retreat-type place called Rocky Road. I don’t know if I can even describe how happy I was when I got there. Driving down the dirt driveway through pastures filled with (healthy-looking) cows, horses, and ponds, I could breathe fresh air again. Butterflies flocked around the flower bushes. I could hear birds singing. I felt like I was in heaven. Even though we had been traveling all night, Rocky Road gave us all a second wind of energy—everyone kicked off their shoes and jumped around on the grass. It got even better, as that night Mac (the owner of Rocky Road and one of the directors of Willing Workers in South Africa, the NGO we’re working with here) made us delicious hamburgers. Sorry India, I missed beef.

We were at Rocky Road from Saturday until Thursday, mostly relaxing, taking hikes to the beach, doing orientation things, and adjusting to culture shock. South Africa is such a huge change from India, but I’ll talk about that a bit more later.

We moved into our homestays in Plettenberg Bay on Thursday. Our homestays here are very different than they have been in previous countries—here, we’re divided up into only two houses, seven students in each. I’m living with McKinley, Kasha, Hannah, Maddie, Lauren, and Alex in a house owned by Bruce, a single man in his forties. Our house is so cute and perfect. We even have a pool. It’s located about a five minute walk from the main street of Plettenberg Bay, with all of its shops, cafes, restaurants, and bookstores. Plett draws many tourists due to its location right on the beach and proximity to myriad outdoor adventure activities. To get to the beach from my house, it’s about another ten minute walk from town, down a HUGE hill. It’ll hopefully get me back into mountain climbing shape for when I come back home! The food has been delicious, too. We even have salad to accompany our dinners…it’s amazing. Bruce, our host, is a really nice, incredibly interesting guy. On our first night, we all sat around the dinner table for at least two hours, talking about things ranging from racial issues to the science behind HIV/AIDS to natural plant medicines to cooking.

All of the Western conveniences we need are here—reliable showers, clean tap water, familiar food. The language barrier is virtually non-existent as well. It’s a bit odd to feel so at home, yet be halfway around the world. On the other hand, though, things are still very different for me here than at home. For example, the townships. The wealthy community of Plett is surrounded by poor, black settlements. I haven’t spent extensive time in any of them yet, but you can immediately tell the huge differences driving by. Fortunately, in this area at least, it seems that there are many initiatives coming from volunteer organizations and NGOs to provide help to these communities. I don’t know if that’s being done nationally though, or how much they are actually helping. Coming from seeing the slums in India though, I have to say that these townships were in better shape than I was expecting. We start our work in the townships on Monday, so I’ll soon be able to get a better look. For work, we’re all matched up with caregivers, either in singles or in pairs. Lauren and I are paired up and matched with Priscilla, who works and lives in the township of Kwanokuthula, which is about a ten minute’s drive out of Plett. I’m really excited to work with Priscilla or, as she told us to call her, Big Mama.

The sun is shining and I’ve got a free day, so I’m thinking I’ll go down to the beach later. Or into the pool. Or both!

I miss everyone lots!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

If I knew how to say goodbye in Hindi, that would be the title of this post

Today is our last full day in India! I can hardly believe how time has gone by. It seems like not so long ago when we all nervously met each other at the Miami Airport. And now we’re getting ready to leave for our last country abroad.

Last Friday, the last night in our homestay, Hannah and I went with our host mom to visit some temples nearby. When we returned, our host dad excitedly had us pose for pictures. We took probably around 50 pictures, from different angles and in different positions. I felt like a model at a photo shoot-- our host dad just kept on clicking away. The next day, we loaded up the bus and departed on an all day drive to Agra to start off our enrichment week. Agra is the home of the Taj Mahal, and really nothing else besides horrible odors, pollution, grime, and harassing rickshaw drivers. I was less than ecstatic when we arrived, grumpy after a long day of travel. On top of that, we were informed that we were getting up at the crack of dawn the next day to go see the Taj Mahal. I’m not a morning person. The fact that it was the TAJ MAHAL that I was getting up to see though got me right out of bed the next morning. Although we ended up missing the sunrise, it was still worth it. It was truly a beautiful sight—so surreal to be there in person.

Our next destination was Delhi, which meant another completely full day on the bus. The length of time we spent on the bus may have been lengthened a bit due to our bus driver’s apparent lack of knowledge as to where our hotel was. We would stop, he would get out of the bus, then come back and we’d start driving again. A few minutes later, it would happen again. Until the one time when he got out, locked us in, and didn’t come back to the bus for a good half hour…We eventually made it though. Our hotel is located in the middle of a bazaar—meaning tons of people, beggars, cows, cow poop, noise, and smells. Not exactly the relaxing enrichment week I was picturing. We did some sight seeing around the city our first day here, but other than that we’ve had free time. Yesterday, a few of us went to an art museum and then out to a nice lunch near a sunny park. I’m amazed by the number of parks and green spaces I’ve seen in Delhi actually. There are some really nice parts of the city—huge hotels, fancy houses and malls. I’ve only been here a few days and have hardly seen the city, but I’ve noticed immense contrasts. Poor and rich, parks/green space and trash/poop-filled bazaars. Cows block traffic in some places, but on the other side of town is a mall with Louis Vuitton and Gucci stores. It’s a strange thing to witness such extremes like that.

And we have yet another huge shift coming up. Tomorrow night, we’re traveling to South Africa! Every day in India has been a crazy, chaotic adventure. It seems everywhere you turn, you see a new, bizarre sight. But I’ve learned a lot here as well—about things ranging from sustainable agriculture to Indian culture and food to history and art. I definitely would like to come back to India at some point, especially to see the Southern areas. But I might need to take a bit of an India break first…

I’ll have to make sure I get a last cup of chai before I leave!