The Caves of Phong Nha

After a brief stay in Hue, I took a bus to Phong Nha. The small town is the base for many local and international travelers visiting the national park of the same name. Apparently, ten years ago, the main road in the town wasn’t paved and businesses were sparse. While the road is tarred and small businesses catering to travelers are plentiful, the town maintains its small town feel. The biggest attractions of the national park are the caves.

After meeting up with some other backpackers at a local hostel, we walked along the main road to the Phong Nha-Ke Bang Tourist Centre. This is where you can buy entrance tickets and rent a boat to go to the Phong Nha cave. Boats seat up to ten people and cost the same price regardless of how many people (up to ten) are in the boat. Thankfully we were able to divide the cost among seven of us. The return boat trip includes a captain and assistant. To visit this cave, a boat is necessary as a river flows through the cave.

While I’ve been to caves and caverns before, this was my first time exploring one with an actual river inside. During the war, the American military bombed the region heavily during the day. For protection, many local people lived in the cave. There was a field hospital, school, and living quarters among other things. As we floated through the cave, the sheer massiveness of it was impressive. It was like a small town into itself. As I walked around the caves, I remember thinking, “it’s truly amazing what millions of years can do”.

There are other caves in the park open to visitors as well. To my knowledge, none of these were used for similar purposes. The only other cave I visited was the Paradise Cave, and it was just as massive. I wouldn’t be surprised if entire communities and market systems existed in it at one point. While I didn’t visit the Dark Cave (named such because it has no artificial lighting inside), I was told that it was amazing and included a lot of fun activities like zip-lining, kayaking, and a mud bath. A motorbike ride through the national park was quite spectacular with sights to rival nature’s most picturesque scenes.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Advertisements

Monday in a Picture – School Farewell

Today, I moved out of my home in a rural southwestern nook in eSwatini. Later this week, I will officially finish my service to the kingdom of eSwatini. Similar to entering service, there will be meetings and paperwork

At school last week, I gave a farewell speech to the student body. Following my speech, one of our senior students spoke on behalf of the learners to thank me for all that I’ve done at the school. Some students gave written notes of gratitude. It’s amazing to know that the students are always listening, watching, and learning.

On my final day at the school, my school co-workers organized a farewell lunch for me. There were speeches as we enjoyed one of my favorite Swazi street foods, chicken dust. The staff presented a t-shirt they had made for me. On the front is a black and white photo of me eating a piece of meat. I was told that the reasoning for this was because I have introduced myself around the community on numerous occasions saying, “Nginu Sibusiso. Ngiyatsandza inyama”, which means “I am Sibusiso. I like meat”. On the back of the shirt, it has my Swazi name (Sibusiso) at the top, “eSwatini KuseKaya” meaning “eSwatini is home” in the middle, and my blog signature at the bottom.

I am thankful to have joined such an amazing core of teachers. The above picture was taken by one of our students after the farewell luncheon and features many of the teachers from our local high school.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Let’s Talk About Sex

Sex is a very personal subject. Some people get uncomfortable at the mention or discussion of sexual acts. This is especially true of public spaces. The decision to write this post was an internal struggle. Two things pushed me to write this. First, I consider myself a sex positive person. Second, I would have liked a post like this two years when I was preparing for my service. I’ve seen a few threads on the topic on the Peace Corps subreddit, including one while I was writing this post. Most of the Google searches show results relating to sexual assault in Peace Corps.

Recently, I was reflecting on my service with another volunteer. The conversation shifted as we discussed some of the more challenging parts of service. It’s difficult to learn a new language and customs. But Peace Corps prepared us for that. Several PCV blogs chronicle the process of language learning and navigating new cultures. The other PCV and I agreed that one of the most difficult things about service in eSwatini is the lack of sex and intimacy.

Sex and intimacy happen in Peace Corps. Sex and intimacy happen in eSwatini. Things just may be a bit more rare. For me (and other PCVs here), there are a few different options. There’s the possibility of finding sex and intimacy by dating another PCV. There’s the possibility of finding sex and intimacy by dating someone local. There’s also the possibility of finding sex and intimacy by random sexual encounters with other PCVs and/or locals. Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages to each of these options.

Dating another PCV is great because you can commiserate with this person. Also, there are things that they will probably understand because they’re going through similar things. The not-so-great side about this relationship/situationship/arrangement is that the distance between you and your PCV bae may be long. You may not be able to see them as often, and in the times that you do see your PCV bae, there may be group gatherings. There’s also the fact that PCVs are a relatively small community. In eSwatini, there are about 80 of us. Sometimes when PCV relationships go awry, group dynamics shift and it’s not always pretty.

Dating a local can be great for several reasons. Many times, local bae is local meaning that you can see them more often. There are also the aspects of integration. Circumstances may dictate learning the language, culture, and customs at an accelerated rate. However, there is a personal teacher with a vested interest in your learning. On the flip side, there are challenges. Dating in eSwatini, especially in rural communities, looks different from the dating I’m used to. Casual dating isn’t really a thing. Dating is marriage-focused courtship.

While most people here take no interest in my love life, some Swazis, like my host mother, want me to date and find a wife here in eSwatini. Make wami (pronounced mah-gay wah-me), or my mother, says that I should stay here in southwest eSwatini, marry, build a home, and have many children (little Sibusisos, she calls them). Some Swazis don’t want me to date in the kingdom. A respected elder in my community cautioned, “Sibusiso, you can’t date any of the women here (in the community)”. When I asked if there was a reason, she stated that HIV and other STI rates were extremely high in our community. She also asked what I’d be doing with my girlfriend or wife when I left for America. She explained that I would ruin that wife or girlfriend if I didn’t take her with me. She further explained that such (in)actions would sour the relationship that our community/chiefdom has with Peace Corps. While I have taken the community elder’s advice about not dating in the local community, I have been on some individual dates with a few Swazis outside of my chiefdom. For reasons that I won’t get into here, things didn’t work out.

There are some PCVs who abstain during their service. Similar to folks stateside, PCVs abstain for religious, self development, or other personal reasons. There are also PCVs who choose to maintain long(er) distance relationships with significant others outside of eSwatini. Like various other relationship structures, some succeed while others fail. There is the very real stress that Peace Corps service places on a relationship, romantic or otherwise.

Earlier, I mentioned random sexual encounters. This happens from time to time among PCVs, and to a lesser extent with locals. Of course, there’s always masturbation. While every Peace Corps experience is different, I would recommend packing any toys and masturbatory aids that tickle your fancy. If you enjoy watching porn, I’d also recommend loading some of your favorite on your phone/computer/external hard drive/etc. Your future self will thank you.

My hope is that this post (and this blog, in general) serves to answer some of questions left unanswered (and often unasked) before I began service (for invitees, Peace Corps curious, and other interested parties). Of course, everyone’s experience varies and these are my musings from the kingdom of eSwatini.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – The Night Sky

I have come to appreciate many things about Swaziland. The flora and fauna are quite awesome. Living in a rural part of Swaziland, I get to see beautiful birds and fantastic flowers. I also get to see stars in a way that I’ve never seen them in the US. It’s no secret that I’ve spent most of my life in cities. In a world filled with city lights, the light pollution isn’t as evident. It’s normal.

Rural Swaziland introduced a new normal. I don’t know the names of various stars. I’ve never studied constellations or astronomy. My community doesn’t have street lights. Instead, the community is lit by lights on homesteads that have electricity. The rest of the light is provided by the moon and stars. The views are definitely one of the perks of being here. The above picture is of the night sky as seen above the electricity pole across from my house.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – Wikipedia

In late 2017, I was at home browsing Reddit as I had done many evenings prior. I’m not sure what I had searched or what sequence of clicking had landed me on this page. At first glance, I thought it was one of the internet’s jokes. One thread read “…Wikipedia offline…”. My interest piqued, I decided to take a look.

The Wikimedia Foundation decided years ago that they would make the entire Wikipedia database available to the public. In other words, someone could now download the entirety of Wikipedia’s content and have access to it without internet connectivity. Various programmers and organizations developed offline browsers that could be used with the database files. One such organization is Kiwix. The Kiwix platform uses .zim files and features many products from the Wikimedia Foundation including WikiVoyage, Wikitionary, and Wikiversity.

With knowledge of this possibility, I immediately thought about conversations at the school during the past year. Our students were trying to keep up in the information age without reliable access to information. We had a computer lab, but no internet connectivity. I spoke to my head teacher and counterpart about the possibility of equipping the computer lab with offline Wikipedia. They agreed, but wanted to see something in action. I decided that I would put together a proof of concept presentation. I downloaded Kiwix for Windows and the Simple English .zim file. When I showed my colleagues how the program worked, they began to share my excitement. My head teacher requested that we move forward with the larger Wikipedia files. I spent half of November and all of December downloading Wikipedia for Schools, Wikipedia (in English) without pictures or videos, and other wikis.

Now, the 2018 academic year is under way. The computers in our lab are now equipped with the offline Wikipedia resources, and I am teaching students and colleagues how to use the software. Many of my colleagues and students are very excited. The software is being used by teachers to brush up on some subjects. Students are using the software to better understand the topics covered in class and to prepare for their external exams in term three. Throughout this term, students have stayed after school to study and print Wikipedia articles to use at home.

Last week, I was invited to another volunteer’s school to present on the Wikipedia resources to their students and staff. Apparently, their students really enjoyed the presentation. On the day following the presentation, they convinced their teacher to take them to the computer lab. Once there, they debated advantages and disadvantages of social media use. One of the teachers at their school also took her students to the computer lab to better understand iodine and its properties.

I’m beyond excited to see this project taking shape. In my vision for Swaziland, all schools would be using Wikipedia offline if they don’t have internet access. I’m also excited about chipping away at the digital divide. The picture above (taken by one of my students) is of me teaching my Form 4 students about the various wikis.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – A Bug’s Life

Swaziland has opened my eyes to many new things. I have a newfound love of ice water and mangoes. Learning siSwati has introduced a culture of depth and tradition. I have also taken a special interest in the small critters I see in the rural community.

Apparently, this is a thing for PCVs in many countries. A PCV in Mozambique organizes and curates an Instagram account (@woahinsecto) featuring insects from all over the world. Growing up in an urban environment, I found insects to be a nuisance. When I did journey to more rural places on family vacations, the insects were huge and had stingers that left itchy bumps. The only insect that had redeeming qualities was the firefly because it lit up the summer sky.

I’ve seen creatures here that are truly stunning. Some of the tiny critters are extremely hairy. Other critters are incredibly colourful. A couple of weeks ago, I was at school heading to class when I saw the critter pictured above. I thought it might jump when I got close, but it didn’t. It did start walking away. Luckily, I was able to get close enough to snap this picture.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

P.S. – According to @woahinsecto, the creature above is the Pygromorphidae and their colors are a warning to predators that they are chemically protected!

Monday in a Picture – Yebo Thishela

I teach. My school and community have been very welcoming and receptive to my teaching. My students ask questions and engage in discussions. While some classes have lessons prescribed and guided by the Ministry of Education, I’ve been given much freedom to adjust to meet the needs of the students. 

Lessons have included drugs, love, and consent among other things. The phrase, yebo thishela (pronounced yay-bow tee-shay-la), is one that I hear often. It’s direct translation is “yes teacher”. This picture was taken during a lesson with Form 1 students. 

This week, my students will start taking their internal exams on various academic subjects to showcase what they’ve learned so far in the school year.

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

Ever wonder what is Kirby doing? Follow the blog!

Monday in a Picture – Operation Smell Good

Bathing is super important. Work hard. Play hard. Get smelly. Bathe and smell better. During my first six months in Swaziland, I took bucket baths. For those of you who may be wondering what a bucket bath is, worry not. Boiled water is mixed with cool water in a bucket or small basin. I stand in a large basin and use the warm water from the bucket to wash myself. Just add a washcloth and soap. 

While bucket baths get the job done, they can be messy and leave water on the floor outside of the basin. I knew that there must be a better way. While in the PCV lounge, I saw a solar shower in the free box. I decided to grab it. After trying to figure out how to rig it, I finally decided on a setup. Two concrete nails hold up the solar shower. Four tree branches are suspended from the rafters and tied together to make a shower stall frame. Used flour sacks maneuvered around the frame direct water into the basin. 

With this setup, I use less water and have less cleanup. Also, bucket showers take less time than bucket baths. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

Ever wonder what is Kirby doing? Follow the blog!

Monday in a Picture – Inspiration from Mother and others

​Everyday before I leave my house, this is what I see. It’s important to stay motivated and inspired while serving. People have sent postcards, greeting cards, and letters from all over the world during my time in Swaziland. I’m extremely grateful to all of those who have taken the time to write kind words and send them to me. 

To make my house feel more homey, I added pictures of those responsible for my being to the inspiration wall. They include my great grandfather, his daughter (my grandmother), and her daughter (my mother). It was on this day seven years ago that my mother passed away. She’s actually (partially) responsible for my serving in the Peace Corps. She pushed us to serve others with compassion. She instilled a sense of exploration. She made sure that we respected and embraced those who might be different from us.

Having these visual reminders has been great for keeping me motivated in the rural community. It makes my service feel a little less lonely. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

Ever wonder what is Kirby doing? Follow the blog!

Monday in a Picture – Cutting Grass

It was the summer of 2006. This was the summer before my senior year of college, and I was spending it with my uncle and his family in Fayette County, Georgia. All of the single family homes seemed to have perfectly manicured lawns. There wasn’t a blade of grass out of place. On one Saturday morning, my cousin, uncle, and I got up early. It was time to cut the grass at our house. 

This was a new experience for me. I had never cut grass, or done any yard work. My cousin and uncle taught me how to start and use the gas powered lawnmower. It was hard work. I wasn’t able to achieve that perfectly manicured look that I saw at the neighbors’ homes, but I got the job done. 

Almost eleven years later, I am responsible for maintaining the grassy area around my home on the homestead. My host mom reminds me of this when my grass grows too high. She warns me that high grass gives snakes places to hide. 

Lawnmowers are a rarity in Swaziland. They are practically non-existent in the rural community. There are two options for cutting grass. There’s an older pair of garden shears, and there’s something called a siheshe (pronounced see-heh-shay), or slasher. It’s smaller than a bush knife and has a modest handle with a thin, long metal blade. When my host brother was home for the Christmas holidays, I saw him using the siheshe to cut grass. I asked him how one cut grass with it. He responded simply, “just beat the hell out of it”. I remembered that on one weekday afternoon as I attempted to cut my grass, Swazi style. Eventually, I found a rhythm. I also found a new appreciation for lawnmowers. The slasher gets the job done and gives you a workout. Luckily, I only have to cut the grass twice a month. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

Follow What is Kirby Doing? on WordPress.com