Socks and Underwear

Socks and Underwear: August 2011

Wednesday, August 31, 2011


I wore through the soles of my nice shoes within the first year. It turns out duct tape is not a viable material for cobbling.

I walked a lot during service. One of the primary schools I worked in was about 4 km from my house, a 8 km round trip, and I would go there 3 times a week for the first year and every weekday for the remainder of service. Walking into the next village for transport to a larger town or for the post office was 14 km total. I could have bought a bike but I thought this would only be available for a short time before the sand pits and tire-shredding debris (see previous post) would get to the tenderer parts of the bike and then I would have an expensive goat scratching post. Aside from the rainy days when I couldn't negotiate a car ride from one of my principals or when the heat was too unbearable, walking was not a disadvantage, rather I enjoyed this part of my life here.

It was much more than a means than getting from here to there. First of all and most evident is that it provided copious amounts of exercise and even agility training when, with my headphones on, I would have to dodge donkey carts/cars coming around the bend . Anything I wanted or needed to do outside my house bumped me from sedentary to highly active. Second, it filled a social function by being a sort of South African promenade, it was an opportunity for me to see and be seen. Furthermore, this was also the time when I felt most competent in Setswana because I have mastered all the varieties of basic greetings. My integration level went from foreign doofus to village elder (except when I was caught talking or singing to myself, those times made me look insane). Finally and what came as the biggest help was the ease and clarity with which I could organize my thoughts and reflect when I walked. I recently read an article about walking that I quite liked and it quoted an author (Solnit) who makes an observation that is true, in my case anyhow:

“I know these things have their uses, and use them—a truck, a computer, a modem—myself, but I fear their false urgency, their call to speed…I like walking because it is slow and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.”
I think having the time to myself and having the blood flowing greases the mechanisms of my brain and gets the little gray cells in order. Sometimes I'd take a stroll when I didn't even need to go anywhere in particular. It was just an aimless wander that boosted me from rigidly reptilian-brained to a theta-waved, frontal-lobed, thinking machine. This in turn would help me adjust my mood and I am sure the fresh air and sunlight never hurt.

I hope I will be able to walk wherever I go for the rest of my life but it was the peaceful and scenic walks that I took here that might be difficult to match.

Pointy Things

Acacia Branch or Camel Thorn/Giraffe Thorn branch or as it was known during training "death bush"

South Africa is the land of security fencing. This is true of the urban areas where just about every property is outlined with a wall covered in razors, barbed wire, spikes and high voltage wiring (for good measure) but barbed wire is also the go-to property demarcation for the rural areas as well. Beyond cattle, horses and donkeys, the barbed wire does not really keep anything out, everything else easily slips between the wires. It's more of an irritating obstacle that poses a slight nuisance rather than an impregnable barrier. It's an eyesore and fencing is available that would also keep out chickens, goats, sheep, dogs and people. I've seen enough barbed wire.

Nearly every family in my area also makes use of acacia tree branches as fencing because of the long sharp needles. It is not a good choice for larger scale operations because of the time and resource required but it can get the job done. My issue is that I can't seem to avoid stepping on them. Even when I am not walking around my host family's compound barefoot, I still track them into my house and then eventually my soles will find them. I used to have the soft, supple foot of a patrician infant but now you could grind diamonds with my feet. Bonuses to foot durability aside, acacia are interesting looking trees but I prefer the ones that aren't so hostile.

Host Family

This was the 10th and best picture I had taken over two days and I couldn't allow myself to make my host family sit through another one. This was early in the morning before school started. You can tell because my younger host brother was trying his hardest to keep his eyes open.

I was lucky to have been placed with an excellent host family. I have heard stories from other volunteers of just how unpleasant an experience it could have been and I am thankful for just how open and kind my family was. All of the most important points of what I was looking for and expecting were met. They included me and never made me feel like I wasn't supposed to be there, which I have gotten from other people even in my own village. My private space and time were respected just as much as I respected theirs. And above all, they are all good people.

Sure, I was disturbed by the youngest kids sitting outside my door and counting to 5 in Setswana repeatedly or screaming goat (pudi!) non-stop even when there was no goat in sight but it was also nice to hear kids playing and laughing almost everyday. And I wasn't always open to hearing the pounding of Tswana medicinal concoctions and burning of strange smelling incense next door but I learned more about their culture this way. All of the things that upset me were only trivial and fleeting. There were also plenty of little things that would brighten my day like saving me a few magwina (fried bread) when they were made and knocking on my door on my darkest, most hermetical days to make sure I wasn't dead.

The host family (in South Africa anyway) can really make or break a volunteer's service. A lot of the experience rides on it and I don't know if I would have stayed the entire way with another family. I wish mine all the best things in the world.

Sunday, August 28, 2011


Just when I couldn't be any more peculiar, I go and make a line-up of my Morvite selection. There just wasn't enough light in my room for a picture and a picture was mandatory.

I have mixed feeling about the food situation, I am happy to eventually be going home to all the delicious meals I have been missing for the past two years but there are aspects of my current diet that I will miss. I eat very healthily and the times when I don't it is usually my own fault. Getting food was an inconvenience so when I would make trips, I loaded up with food that would last me as long as possible and be as cheap as possible. This was out of laziness and in an effort to avoid traveling but also as a way to save as much for vacation time. So my diet was restricted to fruit and vegetables, rice, beans, eggs, and Morvite for a majority of meals.

Out of the food I eat now I will miss Morvite the most. If you don't know what it is I must inform you. It is a sorghum based meal replacement with vitamins, minerals etc. added to it. It is basically a daily vitamin crushed up into a carb paste with added flavors to make it more palatable (Best - Banana, Strawberry; OK - Vanilla, Pineapple, Original; Hot Garbage - Honey). I wouldn't say it is delicious nor is it repulsive. It is merely fuel and a cheap fuel at that. I enjoy having the options to just add water to a bowl, stir and consume and have most of my nutritional needs met. I savor a good meal and my taste buds are not deformed. I simply appreciate the availability of options. Is it sad that a grown man will miss a nutrient glop? I'll let myself answer my own question with another question: Am I really a grown man? And to that I say yes, I think I am. I digress, maybe I don't have anything to worry about because I don't really know the state of quick and cheap meal replacements in the United States. Maybe there is something better than Morvite and everything will be ok. If it isn't on the other hand, I might just have to talk to the Morvite people about a wider distribution or go to the lab and create the perfect food for my own mad purposes.

Aside from Morvite, food isn't that much different in the United States, there are just less options, at least out where I am. As a bonus, things seem to be cheaper, I do not recall the prices of food in the United States because I never really had to hang on to my scrimpings the way I do here. Fruit and vegetables are cheap, especially when in season. I remember one particular shopping excursion where pineapples where on sale for 3R each. That's less that $0.50 per pineapple! I bought a lot of pineapples that day. When orange season comes around you can buy a large sack for 10R. Eggs are consistently fairly cheap, I buy them in carrying cases of 48 eggs which is usually ~1R per egg meaning about $0.15 per egg. If I was really trying to stretch my money I could go about 1 month on 200R (~$28) and still be pretty healthy and happy. I have done it for less and once because I didn't get my stipend and ran out of some of my better food. Those were some cranky and irritable times and I only had myself to blame. Take it from me, food is important to be able to function properly.

Additionally I am for all intents and purposes (intensive porpoises if you want to be exact) a vegetarian (ova-lacto-vegetarian). This is only because meat is expensive and I don't want to deal with meat juices where it is difficult to uphold more hygienic cooking practices, in other words I would have to wash all my things much more I think and I am anti-washing more things here. I would buy meat (KFC is truly finger licken' good, way better here) on the days I go shopping as a treat to myself since shopping days usually puts me into a dark place. Then I will go without it for long periods of time. I don't feel particularly healthier and if I am it could just as easily be attributed to eating more fruits and vegetables. I don't think I will continue being a vegetarian but I do like the idea of valuing meat as an occasional specialty item rather than something for every meal.

I somewhat fear my upcoming change because the routine I have become comfortable with will be turned on its head. I am afraid my willpower has been eroded to non existent. Any snack food or candy that was sent to me from friends and family from home was consumed that day (this includes 5 lbs bags of peanut m&ms), not because I wanted to but because I had to and I could not stop myself. I mean there is an entire aisle dedicated to delicious cereals in the United States, how am I supposed to not eat all of those all the time, how are you all able to resist it right now!? Think of your favorite meal. You can go out and get it if you wanted to, either by buying the ingredients and preparing it yourself or actually having it made for you. That's a remarkable thing and I am ready for it but I will need to rebuild my self-restraint. Moreover, for the most part I eat healthily because my circumstances force me into it. It is just the case that rice and beans and fruit and vegetables are cheap and plentiful. If candy and cheese were cheap and plentiful, I suppose I would have a perpetual blood cheese content (BCC) of 0.1 and have gotten diabetes by now. And because I have a limited and boring diet most of the time a new and tasty meal is all I need to have a good day. I think I will miss being pleased quite so easily. I suppose it is not impossible to have every meal be a good meal and be appreciative but I think one of the greatest human abilities is the capacity to get used to anything. This has its positive qualities as a lot of my Peace Corps experience has been an exercise in becoming accustomed to a different way of life (more difficult) but it can obviously have its drawbacks as well. So while I am looking forward to all the choices and easy, tasty food I am going to get when I am back home, I think that eventually I will become oblivious to how good I have it and stop being quite so healthy. Perhaps it will be a futile mission but I will try.


The novelty of pumping wore off after the first session. I am suspicious of anyone that says they enjoy pumping water and you should be too.

Living from bucket to bucket is not ideal. My water supply is normally replenished from the tap about 50m away from my house but when the water was off, I needed to go at least twice that distance to the manual pump. While hauling the fresh water to my house and waste water out of my house has probably made me stronger, I would rather have plumbing with running water and lift weights. Since I choose the lifestyle of a lazy person, I learned to use very little water with laundry days being a dreadful exception but I think it was a portion of my personal energy and thought that could have been better spent elsewhere, and likewise for everyone else that has to live this way. Like most of the things about my life here, I have certainly learned a lesson from it but I am ready to completely ditch the method that has taught me the lesson for the easier and more convenient way and try to be more mindful in the future.

I understand that water is a precious resource but I also believe that it is a precious resource because energy is a precious resource. As things are, we have vastly more water on this planet to fulfill it's billions of people, personal swimming pools and desert golf courses (and also dessert golf courses), the limiting factor is our ability to use it. It is possible to desalinize ocean water and transport it to wherever it would be needed but this would take an enormous amount of energy. So much that it seems impossible our given technology and means but I don't always think this will be the case. The population of my village right now would not be able sustain itself without the municipal water tower which pumps up water from the ever-depleting water table. I think this is the case for the rest of the world as well; technology has provided the ability for people to live where the natural water supply simply would not normally allow it. Relying on the fresh water in the water cycle won't cut it as stresses on the water supply continue to be ramped up. It's a big idea and one that might not be realized until I am gone but I think it is something to be hopeful about. Until then, I will remember that at one time I was able to drink, cook, wash myself and dishes on a two buckets of water per day and that I can get by with less, but that doesn't mean I want to.

Saturday, August 27, 2011


The sun, or at least it's effects, is different here in both good and bad ways. There is at least one part of the day that is worth stopping for and usually it's the sunset. I will miss it.

Here are just a few of the reviews of this sunset from people that I made up:

"If I had to use thumbs to rate this sunset, I would rate this sunset with 1 billion thumbs up! "

"It was a tour-de-force, this baby would win all the Oscars, Emmies, Grammies, Tonies, MVPs, Congressional Medals of Honor, and Pulitzers if enough people would vote for it!"


"It had me white-knuckled and on the edge of my seat. I had a heart attack because of the tension. Really, I almost died"

"It was full of all the things I like and had none of the things I don't like."

"I was just Staring at the Sun and now I am Walking on Sunshine. It's not a Waterloo Sunset but unlike Elton John, I do want the sun to go down on me if it means seeing another one of these!"

"This sunset was alright if you ask me."

"A treat for the whole family. Not the graphic parts though."

"It had the 3-S's: scintillating, spellbinding, and most importantly sinister."

"If there is one sunset you should see this summer it's this one. You would be an absolute fool to miss it. What is wrong with you, do you hate beautiful things? I get it. Fine, be jerk then!"

Friday, August 26, 2011


If it was not apparent from the post title or the picture, this is about outhouses. I like to make jokes so expect poop humor.

When I fist arrived at site I had been fairly accustomed to outhouses. I used them along the AT and was reacquainted during training. It was a relief when I found out the toilet I would be using for the next two years was fairly close to my house and in good condition. I didn't realize how good I had it because about halfway through my service, the toilet reached maximum capacity and everything turned to shit (HA!).

My new toilet was considerably farther away in the neighboring field. The added distance completely disrupted my timing of when I should start making the trip outside. I have since learned to minimize my commute time by heading in a straight line through the barbed wire fence rather than go around it. My fence crossing skills have now become sufficient but if you had told me that someday I would damage clothing, suffer cuts and scrapes, and tread across a minefield of cow pies to get to the toilet, I would have called you a madman or madwomen or madpeople. Additionally this new toilet was just not very good. It is not ergonomic which besides being a place to get rid of and in this case store human waste, is of supreme importance. My legs don't quite reach the floor and I am probably the tallest person in the whole village perhaps the whole district so I don't understand why it was made so far from the ground. More frustrating though is the lack of overlap between the hole in the concrete and the hole in the toilet seat. I won't go into detail exactly why this is uncomfortable and unsanitary but hopefully my saying it is uncomfortable and unsanitary will clue you in.

I visited a waste processing plant in college and while it was probably the most vile and overwhelmingly malodorous place I have ever been, I sincerely resepect and marvel at it's function and efficiency, especially now. There is very little I appreciate about the lack of flush toilets. I do not enjoy the smell of a high volume outhouse on a hot day. I do not enjoy the journey outside on a cold rainy night to take care of imminent bodily evacuation. On a good visit, there will be nothing more dangerous than a goat or lizard hiding behind walls, which still manages to startle me almost every time (not a good time to be startled), but on almost all occasions expect to be assaulted by flies or other insects which call the pits below home. Sure there are such things as composting toilets but I assure you that these are not composting toilets. I have thought about it and the only real positive of the experience here is that it is almost never occupied when I need to use it. It is only a toilet, not a sink/shower/bath which means people do their business and get out. There is no dillydallying. This is a pretty pathetic silver lining though and can be easily be matched by having more than one bathroom. Good riddance to the longdrop I say, bring on the water closets!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Night Sky

Nabbed from Wikipedia. My camera can't handle this sort of thing, at least I don't even know if it can.

The electricity going out last night prompted me to step outside and appreciate the night sky. I am no where near knowledgeable enough about constellations and celestial bodies to notice a large difference between the Southern and Northern hemispheres but I have made a point to locate and analyze the Southern Cross (Crux). I did not see how that particular constellation makes finding South any easier. In fact I was only really able to find it by knowing which way South was first and then looking up and to the right. Perhaps it was brighter in the sky earlier in human history and made it obvious but I didn't quite grasp it's importance.

The bigger difference is the lack of any light pollution. The splendor of outer space can only properly be seen in total darkness, from the ground level anyway. This is something a rural village in the middle of nowhere can offer. At the same time, the utility of a full moon is really evident when you've tried to stumble your way to the outhouse during a new moon. It is easy to forget that we are living on a pale blue dot when our influence over our planet overpowers the light from the rest of the universe. I will certainly miss being able to go right outside my door and place things in perspective.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Baby Harness

This was probably one of the last times this baby was carried around like this. Normally, babies are strapped in with their legs tucked in and not, as in this picture, completely vertical.

This is the preferred method for baby transportation for the majority of Tswana women. Additionally, I think it is a way of getting children accustomed to being in tight, hot spaces so that taxi rides later on in life are manageable. I am not sure of the mechanics of how they are able to fold that towel so it supports the weight of a baby. All I can say is that it works and to a high enough degree to entrusts a baby's safety to it.

I might be happy to be leaving this aspect of Tswana culture behind if I had to regularly carry around babies but I simply am not required nor have I had the desire to carry around any babies and if I did I might want to use some other device anyway. I might also be happy to say farewell to the practice if I were a baby because it looks damned uncomfortable despite the benefit of not having to walk anywhere. In the end, my opinion is swayed from indifferent to somewhat sad to not seeing this regularly because occasionally it provides a little chuckle.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Internet: Not Really a Series of Tubes

This month is going to be dedicated to wrapping up my Peace Corps life. Sadly, I have underused this blog even though I found it useful in processing and voicing my experiences. With that in mind I will be blogging much more frequently as a way to keep me busy and to try to bring closure.

Ryan has been doing a couple of posts of things he will not be missing about South Africa here and here. I am inspired to do the same even though I suspect many of our opinions will be similar. I plan on also alternating the list with those parts of South Africa that I will miss so it doesn't seem like I hated ever aspect of life here. It should be a healthy exercise and a decent way to reflect on my past two years.

First up on the list of things I am glad to be leaving behind: the Internet. What I mean by that is the quality and quantity of the Internet I can get at my site. Initially I had planned to talk about something completely different but after failing to upload one picture for about 2 hours I figured I might as well rant about the sorry state of things while the irritation is still fresh. My preface is that having any sort of Internet access has been a great deal of help for bleasure (i.e. business and pleasure). Furthermore, I am only describing what it is like in my corner of South Africa, larger towns or cities will have better options I am sure. I am aware that things could have been worse for me but that doesn't mean I have to be entirely satisfied. I am almost completely sure that I don't have to be satisfied with anything ever because I am an American and that's what makes us great. And now onto the complaining!

Complaint number one is that it is expensive. Here is a quick price break down from Vodacom which is the best telecom company for my area:

Data (mb) Price (Rand) Price (USD)* mb/Rand mb/USD
8 9.25 1.37 0.86 5.85
30 28 4.14 1.07 7.25
110 88 13.00 1.25 8.46
175 119 17.58 1.47 9.95
300 139 20.54 2.16 14.61
600 189 27.93 3.17 21.48
1200 289 42.71 4.15 28.10
2300 389 57.48 5.91 40.01
3000 520 76.84 5.77 39.04
5000 989 146.15 5.06 34.21
10000 1989 293.92 5.03 34.02
20000 3899 576.16 5.13 34.71
I would like to point out that I made a table of my free time...for a personal blog. Sometimes I really surprise myself but really this is a very efficient way to get across the point.
*Exchange Rate

For comparison I did some extremely light research into how much I would pay for the cheapest broadband service in my hometown. Using this website I searched for only Internet packages and from a quick glance it seems like a standard price is between 20$-30$ per month for 12mbps(d)/2mbps(u). It used to be the case that these prices were for an uncapped Internet connection which would have made the comparison between the Internet prices even more ludicrous. Now however, most Internet service providers have a data cap, meaning if you go over that amount of data you will pay more money. For Comcast, which offers their services for 20$-30$, the data cap is set at 250 gb per month. Using these figures (250 gb per month and 30$ per month), I would be getting 8333 mb/USD. This is two orders of magnitude larger than the most economical option provided by Vodacom (2300 mb for 57.48$) 40.01 mb/USD. I would also be getting two orders of magnitude more data in the US deal (250 gb vs. 2.3 gb).

The second complaint is that the service moves at a snail's pace. The way I get my Internet service is by tethering my phone to my computer and unfortunately the cell towers in rural South Africa have not gotten around to being upgraded to the fastest wireless broadband. The fastest I am able to get at my site is ~25 kbps (kb per second). Again for comparison, the cheap broadband service I mentioned above in the US offers 12 mbps. Assuming you are able to consistently get a quarter of that speed (3 mbps) that is still 2 orders of magnitude faster than what I can get here in my village.

Lastly, the expensive and slow service I get is unreliable. The speed and the ability to use the service at all varies from hour-to-hour, day-to-day. Which brings me to the reason why I started writing this in the first place. I tried to upload a 1 mb picture repeatedly but failed because the connection would drop out. This means that I ended up wasting couple of expensive mb's restarting the process and ultimately getting nothing out of it.

I think this is unfortunate not only because it affects me negatively but also because I know it's potential and want to see its use in the rural village I live in and others like mine. It is hard enough to get people to use a computer and describe to them the benefits of the Internet without also adding on these barriers. I really believe that bringing a fast, cheap and stable Internet service to a place like this would do incredible things. Some of the immediate benefits would be that people would be able to keep their anti-virus programs up to date and functioning properly. This alone would save many hours of work and frustration. Second, it would sidestep the problem of having a lack of certain resources in remote locations. Not only would reference material be available but also lessons on just about any topic you would ever want to know more about can be viewed at any time from some of the best teachers in the world for free! I really don't have to tell you why the Internet is a good thing though do I?

For all I know Vodacom and other telecoms are upgrading the local cell towers right now, although I doubt it. Without any hard proof, I believe that they would only gain more customers and more profits by offering a decent Internet service to more and more people. This next month will be my last of having to deal with it and I am happy about that but I wish that it comes to the people that will be living here for the foreseeable future and the sooner the better. Having more of a South African presence on Youtube can only add to both Youtube's and South Africa's excellence.