Monday, July 1, 2013

Arrival, Internet Challenges, and Clarifications

I made it to Swaziland! I have so much to tell everyone and I’m sure you all have questions. First off, no pictures yet and the internet is really, really, rreeallllyyyy slow.

So on Wednesday (June 26th), 34 volunteers woke up bright and early at 2am to bus our butts from Philadelphia to JFK airport in New York City. Some of you may be wondering why PC goes through all that trouble. It was basically cheaper and safer than conference services in NYC. We made it to the airport at 6am just in time to wait an hour and a half for the South African Air desk to open and to go through security. Unfortunately, my brother had already cut off my cell phone service and wi-fi wasn’t free. No internet state-side or in Swaziland! Whew talk about separation anxiety  The flight was 14 hours….yes foooouuur-teeeennnnn. Luckily we escaped the ten hour bus ride and took a 45 minute flight to Manzini, Swaziland instead. If you thought flights out of Burlington used small planes, you haven’t seen this dinky plane. It was three seats across and four of us had to move from the back to the front for “weight balance.” It was concerning to say in the least but it all worked out in the end.

We arrived at Matsapha airport in Swaziland which consists of on building and four hangars. As you can imagine, it wasn’t difficult to find the two PC staff members when we arrived. All my luggage arrived with our plane AND intact (except for a little shampoo explosion that escaped the plastic bags it was contained in). Only two volunteers had issues with luggage and luckily they had their belongings by the following day. Where the heck was that kind of service when I suffered three days in Senegal with no clothing?! I was thrilled I had everything and we had an amazing greeting crew made up of current Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs). They helped us load up and take the 20 minute bus ride to our training center. For the sake of safety, I’m not going to post the name of our training center but it’s in the Manzini area if you care to Google Map our surroundings. It’s really beautiful with mountains all around. I’ll get pictures as soon as I can but it’s been a bit foggy lately so that would be a waste of internet posting efforts honestly.

The training center is like summer camp as one volunteer adeptly described it. We live in dorm like “hostels” with two beds and two desks per room. We have a shower! YAY for running, hot water! It’s a gated campus with these hostels and several training buildings. So for my parents who are undoubtedly reading this, I’m safe I promise. When we arrived on Thursday (yep 20 hours of travel time if you add the six hour time difference), we got the quick tour and a little bit of logistics stuff out of the way. Nothing too noteworthy. Plus I’m too tired to remember all of that because I cannot sleep on planes. I knew I should have taken something to sleep…

Day two we got to sleep in a bit. Breakfast at 8am and classes at 9am. What I mean by class is orientation really. We met the staff, signed documents for our bank, got photos taken for our IDs, put down deposits for packages, etc. It was basically like herding cats. We also had medical interviews to discuss our medications, immunizations, vaccinations, yada yada yada. Unfortunatley, I had to get typhoid again. Who knew it expires every two years dang! The staff has been amazing this far. It’s easy to find material bashing PC because they are bureaucratic, disorganized, etc. but I have found the staff in Swaziland to be extremely helpful and understanding. PC varies by country because here they have one group per year of about 35-40 volunteers. In other countries, they may have two or three groups arrive in one year of over 100 volunteers, so keep that in mind if there are any prospective PCVs reading this.

Day three was the most exciting so far in terms of logistics. We got to meet our language trainers for SiSwati classes. This is important because we will be living and working closely with our LCFs (Language and Cultural Facilitators) all throughout training. On Tuesday, we move out to two different villages for the remainder of PST (Pre-Service Training). One village has the Health volunteers and the other has the Youth Development Volunteers. We attend training Monday-Saturday 8am-5pm. People who think PC is an easy replacement for a normal job in the U.S. should seriously reconsider joining. We also got Kindles to hold all our training materials. We are the third PC site to try this and so far it’s not going super well since the internet is kind of down…possibly.

For anyone who didn’t catch this while I was home, I am a Youth Development volunteer. We get more specific training as we move forward, but honestly there is a ton of overlap between the two programs because the focus on HIV/AIDS is so essential. The statistics I read before I left the U.S. said Swaziland had an HIV/AIDS prevalence of 26%. Sadly more recent statistics seem to show 31% prevalence. Prevalence vs. incidence is important to understand. Prevalence is the population living with the HIV/AIDS virus and incidence is the number of new cases in a particular span of time. One of the main goals of PC in Swaziland is to effectively change behavior (not culture) to improve the health of the Swazi population and improve HIV/AIDS awareness/prevention. As our country director said today, Swaziland is an easy PC post on the surface because transportation is fairly reliable; there are grocery stores and normal commodities; and, the country is fairly small so it’s easy to get most places. On the flip side, it is a very difficult post emotionally because of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. There is an incredibly large population of single and double orphans (one or two parents have died) which makes our post with Youth Development especially difficult and rewarding for many reasons. We are also warned that it is entirely possible for one of our counterparts or close community friends to die while we are here. That provides a whole new set of challenges.

Moving back to the happy stuff, the group we have here is great. We are now a group of 33 since one person decided PC wasn’t the right fit. Unfortunate but not unusual from what we were told. We now have 5 men and 28 women separated pretty evenly between the two programs. I can’t wait to start training in the village. More importantly, it’ll feel so nice to UNPACK and let loose! Wohoo!! Living out a bag has been rather irritating but hey at least my bags made it. We had heat in our dorm room using this ceramic wall hanging thing but then our outlets stopped working so that’s kind of a bummer because it is actually cold here. I mean I was prepared for cold but 64 degrees at all times with no heat has kept me a little colder than I expected.

That’s all for now and I’m sure there are still many questions so feel free to post them. I don’t know when I’ll get to them but we have a signup sheet so we don’t overload our poor little router. I have a time slot tomorrow as well but let’s face it the internet could go down at any time. Look out for a post hopefully next week at some point about the 4th of July celebration we get to have at the country director’s house and news about my first host family.

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