We have a previous blog post about the amazing beauty of Sossusvlei, a region in the Namib Desert of Namibia, but we returned as part of our Close of Service trip with a rental car and a wide-angle lens so that we could enjoy the remote scenery for a couple of more days before we departing Namibia. Sossusvlei is truly one of the must-see destinations of Namibia and even though it is popular with tourists, it is still like visiting a underused U.S. national park on a slow day. There are some tourists, but you can easily get away from the crowds, climb your own dune and relax.
Monthly Archives: July 2015
Just south of Tiger Reef Restaurant in Swakopmund, Namibia is a very shallow lagoon with a very diverse mix of birds. I identified 13 different species on the very cold and windy morning that I was there, many of which were new to me.
We recently started our “close of service trip” which we hope will be even more fun than our second Great American Road Trip that kicked off our Peace Corps adventure more than two years ago. Our travels along the coast of Namibia, much of which is protected as national parks, were a great way to begin. We had visited the resort town of Swakopmund a few times during our service, but always on public transportation. This time we had a rental car for our ten day finale tour of southern Namibia so we could drive and stop anywhere we wanted along the way. Due to the long distance between our site of Rundu in Kavango Region and the south, we never got to explore much of this scarcely-populated but fascinating part of the country.
We camped again at Desert Sky Backpackers right in Swakopmund which is a great place for budget accommodation within a few blocks of restaurants and the beach. After a day to recover from the stresses of closing our Peace Corps service and saying good bye to close friends, we headed north on the coast towards Henties Bay, a much smaller town. It was a sleepy Sunday, we saw very few people and everything was closed. It felt like a ghost town or a movie set.
On the way north, we passed a shipwreck and mile after mile of treeless sand-covered landscape. North of Henties Bay, we stopped at Cape Cross which has a large cape fur seal colony. It is maintained by the Namibian government and a day pass is required, but the small fee is worth it. The thousands of seals there were very entertaining but also very noisy and smelly. Some photos of our day trip are below as well as a photo from when we passed just north of Walvis Bay on our way to Sossusvlei.
Well we did it! Two years of Peace Corps service in Namibia have been completed, and we are still healthy and happy. There is relief in knowing that we have made it through some tough times and to have finished the many bureaucratic hurdles and sad good byes of the last few weeks. It is finally sinking in a bit that this is not just a short vacation from our work and that we won’t be returning to our site of Rundu anytime soon.
We have just started the “close of service” trip that many Peace Corps Volunteers take after they finish their commitment but are still overseas and highly-vaccinated with a passport that needs more stamps.
For our very extended COS trip we decided to split our time between Southern Africa and Southeast Asia with a goal to be back in the U.S. for Christmas. We may never have another opportunity like this in our lifetimes so we want to make the most of it! We plan to travel for the next five months on a budget but still allow ourselves to splurge for cool experiences (like Devil’s Pool at the top of Victoria Falls or the boat ride tomorrow to see penguins). We will try to post highlights of our trip here, and yes there will be plenty of birds! In preparation for this epic trip, Josh even treated himself to the Sasol Birds of Southern Africa app that should take his birding to the next level.
We don’t know what the next level in birding is really but we do know that we will see even more than the 98 different species of birds we have currently spotted in Namibia and Botswana. In fact one of our first stops will be the Nata Bird Sanctuary in Botswana.
Here is a rough guide to our upcoming travel:
- Namibia – Swakopmund, Skeleton Coast, Sossusvlei, Luderitz, Quiver Tree Forest, Brukkaros
- Botswana – Okavango Delta and Nata Bird Sanctuary
- Malawi – Mount Mulanjie, Nkata Bay, Nyika Peninsula, various other places
- Tanzania – Mount Kilimanjaro and Zanzibar
- South Africa – Cape Town and Stellenbosch
- Indonesia – Bali, Java, other islands?
- Thailand – Bangkok, Chiang Mai, beaches
- Cambodia – Siem Reap, beaches
- Laos – Mekong River, still planning
- Vietnam – still planning
- Myanmar (possible)
As you can see, we don’t have a very set agenda for the Asia portion of our trip, but if there is one thing that our time in Namibia has taught us it is not to plan! Just kidding, we are planning as we go and the nice thing about a trip like this is that we don’t have any reason to be tightly scheduled, so if we want to take an extra day somewhere (as we are doing in Luderitz, Namibia right now at the very pleasant and quirky Element Riders Backpackers) we are able to do it.
We have booked flights to reduce the amount of overland travel in some stretches of our African itinerary but so far we are only firmly planned to Zanzibar which we should reach in mid-September. After that we want to make Cape Town our finale in Southern Africa before really shifting gears and flying to Indonesia to begin experiencing a totally new continent and set of cultures.
Yesterday we officially closed service! Our two years of Peace Corps service is now complete. It is a surreal feeling no longer being a Peace Corps Volunteer. We begin our COS trip by taking a 10 day vacation in Southern Namibia and then we go to Bostwana next.
I am down to the final three best memories, moments and lessons of my Peace Corps service. My last three points all have to do with people. Before we began this journey any Returned Peace Corps Volunteers we met shared that the people were the best part of their Peace Corps experience, and mine has been no exception.
It was not difficult for me to come up with the #1 best memories, moments and lessons of this entire experience. Hands down, the best part of this experience has been sharing it with my very best friend.
Josh and I have had some of our best times and some of our worst times here in Namibia. Going through such a rich experience has brought us closer together. I can’t imagine having gone through this experience without Josh.
We worked as a team at home and here we did too, but we had to learn the new role each of us had to play. Problems arose here that didn’t at home, and together we came up with solutions.
We had picnics in the back of bakkies, we shared safaris together and we celebrated hot showers during holiday. We discussed the things that puzzled us about our host country and home country and formulated strong opinions on both.
I’ll always think of the 5k race we ran together in Rundu when I think of our Peace Corps service. At times we ran together, at times we needed to go on our own, but always, we could see each other, and we were cheering one another on. When the going got tough, we kept going. In the end, we crossed the finish line together. Our Peace Corps experience was very much the same.
I have grown to appreciate Josh even more since being here. Living in a society where women are not treated equally, I value so much that my husband treats me as his equal.
“Happiness is only real when shared.” I don’t know if that is entirely true, but happiness certainly feels exponentially more fun to share it with your life partner. Only 7% of volunteers are married couples and I’m happy and proud to be in the 7%.
When the difficult task of reintegration begins, I know I’ll have Josh by my side to help navigate the murky waters. I’m so glad I get to take the best part of my Peace Corps service home with me.
#2 My Namibian Friends and Family
When you’re a stranger in a strange land, you hope and pray that you’ll meet some people in your host country who will want to make friends with you, the foreign weirdo. Lucky for me, I met some people who weren’t shy to make friends with this weirdo.
There are so many Namibians that we grew close to so it’s hard to single out people, but a few stand out for my service. My life is much richer for knowing these great Namibians and their families.
Our host family was so gracious in opening their home to us two years ago. They had never hosted Americans before and made us feel at home. We have wonderful memories of hanging out with them and their kids after long training days.
My friend Tanya is Portuguese-Namibian and I met her my first week at site. She has a heart of gold. She is the sole care taker for so many dogs and cats in Rundu. We’ve spent many great nights with her and her fiancé at Kavango River Lodge, out in Divundu and at braais in Rundu. We collaborated on projects to try and help my school to improve. I’m going to miss seeing her a lot.
Some women have grown up on different continents, with very different backgrounds and different skin color. They may appear to have nothing in common, but inside, their souls line up and speak the same language. Such is the case with my Namibian friends and colleagues Eve, Namkasa, Lucy and Hamutenya. Our friendship was instant and real.
As Americans we see images of women in Africa on our tv screens and we begin to develop this idea in our head of the “strong, African woman.” At least I did. I have been so lucky to get to know four very strong Namibian African women.
My days and weeks these 2 years in Rundu were filled with great conversations with these women at Hungry Lion, my kitchen, Hamutenya’s house and lodges. Collectively these women have gone through some incredibly tough stuff and always manage to find the bright side of things. My friends are always striving to be better people. They always want to learn.
These ladies were the ones who checked on me to make sure I arrived places safely when I traveled, they were the ones who hugged me when I cried. They showed up at our flat with food to share in my grief when I returned from the USA to attend my dad’s funeral. They texted me when I was home in the USA and told me they missed me and wanted me to come back. They were a big reason I did. They were the ones who shared special American and Namibian holidays with me. They have been my family for 2 years and I am most sad to leave Namibia because it means I am leaving them.
Words do little justice to show my appreciation and gratefulness to all of them for being kind and for befriending this weird foreigner. When I didn’t know the right thing to do in a cultural setting, they guided me to make sure I didn’t offend anyone. When I didn’t understand something about Namibian culture, they gave me answers. It’s not easy to hear your culture or ways of doing things being questioned by an outsider, but they did it with such ease.
I know in my heart that our friendship isn’t restricted to geographical place, but I am so sad that I won’t be seeing them every day anymore. Even though our friendship will evolve, it will never be quite the same.
I will always, always remember the beautiful moments with these women. I know this is just the beginning of our friendship, and what a beautiful beginning it has been.
The two quotes I keep thinking of are “I am a part of all that I have met.” and “You’ll never feel at home again because you’ve loved people all over the world.” These women are with me forever. They give me a reason to smile wide when I think about Namibia.
#3 My Learners
Peace Corps is a weird thing. From the first Day I’ve arrived, people have asked when I was leaving. They know your time with them is limited.
“Miss, why don’t you just stay?’
I’ve been fielding this question for the last 6 months. It’s a hard question to answer. We could stay longer – PCVs can extend their service for a year if wanted. And why not? I’ve got friends here, I’ve got a job. Why don’t I just stay? I usually tell them my mother wants me to come home. Wouldn’t your mother want you back home after being gone for 2 years? While that excuse is partly true, it makes people laugh instead of watching me fill up with tears. Needless to say, it’s hard to leave.
My learners surprised me. Every day. In good ways and bad. Upon arrival, I was so surprised with how much they knew about America. On some topics, more than me! On the contrary, I know most Americans (myself in 2012 included) couldn’t find Namibia on a map.
On good days we could appreciate our differences. On bad days our differences made us angry at one another.
My learners are good at languages. I am not. My learners are good at sharing. I wasn’t when I first got here – I’m much better now. My learners are good at inconsistency. I am not. My learners are good at being flexible and forgiving.
I know some I will always keep in touch with. Many inspired me. The ones who worked hard motivated me to wake up every day and try to teach them everything I could for the year I was their teacher. In some I saw small improvements, in some I saw absolutely none.
On any given day, my learners made me incredibly angry, depressed, sad, happy, fulfilled. A fellow PCV asked a group of us PCV teachers scattered throughout the country to describe our learners. Here were the adjectives given: Helpful, respectful, reserved, motivated, unfocused, loving, confused, surprising, talkative, angry, eager, thoughtful, aggressive, emotionally stunted, confused, eager, sweet, mischievous, distracted, earnest, generally teenagery, some are angels, some are stones, reserved, passive and submissive, easy-to-please, determined but easily distracted (and/or hungry/tired). As you can see, it’s hard to sum them up. I know kids in the USA probably have similar qualities.
Reading my learners essays was tough these two years, and a way for me to get a real glimpse into what issues they were dealing with. My kids had to deal with a lot more hardship in their life than I ever had to deal with. Early marriage, HIV/AIDS, severe alcohol abuse, malaria, early death of family and peers, sever gender inequality. There’s no toys, games, community centers, pools, organized sports with weekly games, arts and crafts, running trails, etc. in our community to let kids blow off steam.
My learners don’t complain as much as I think I would if I had to deal with all that they did. They deal with hardship and adversity. Some walk an hour + to get to school. They aren’t obsessed with fairness and truth the way I have come to realize I am.
My learners had a knack for turning a bad day upside down, but also a way of turning a good day upside down. They inspired me, they frustrated me, they made me laugh, they made me cry, they made me mad. I will never be able to comprehend what some of them go through on a daily basis, but I am so grateful that they opened up to me when they did, and that I had the chance to teach them. I’ll never be the same because of their shared perspective.
One of the best things I received before leaving was an envelope full of letters from my learners. Here are some of my favorite quotes:
- “You were always there for me when I was bored.”
- “You gave me power to believe in vision.”
- “You are the most determined teacher I know.”
- “Don’t worry, I’ve mastered advice and advise, I know the difference now.”
- Thanks to you I now use the phrase “Old fish go boil your head.”
- “Miss don’t be selfish send a present from the USA.”
- Pretty as a dove, Smart as a wizard, Nice as a strawberry
- “You are the first foreign teacher that made me cry because you are leaving.”
- “I love you more than my father, that’s for sure. “
- “I enjoyed being part of your team.”
- “Thank you for remembering my name.”
- “No one can really say goodbye to a teacher, for they forever stay in the hearts of their students.”
- “In our culture we do not say goodbye, but we say see you again. Thank you for the things you taught us and making us leaders of tomorrow.”
- “Thank you for believing in me when no one else did.”
- “You helped me to realise that life is what you make and never to let go.”
- “I want to thank you for being my English teacher, even though you always taught each class, you never even skipped one period. Why couldn’t you give us one free period?”
- The best thing to do when you miss us learners, is to relax, close your eyes, and you will see all the Noordgrens learners.”
- “I won’t promise to come visit you because money is a problem, but I will try to do so.”
- “Please have a baby and name it after me.”
- “Miss even though some people say that you made them fail their math exams, you are still the best English teacher in Rundu.” (still trying to figure this one out lol).
- “You made me discover there is more to myself than I did.”
- “I just want you to know that you are going but your teachings will remain.”
- “I hope you enjoyed all the dust in Rundu.”
- “We’ll miss your laugh, jokes and last but not least, your undeniable support in everything we do.”
I think my colleague put it best: “Naughty or nice, they
find a way into your heart.” I’ll miss my learners.
|This last week I haven’t gone a day without crying as I slowly come to terms with the fact that our time here is about up. Last night was our goodbye braai and it was an incredibly special night to remember with thoughtful speeches and dancing.I’m down to 5 remaining memories, moments and lessons of my Peace Corps experience that I want to share. Please excuse any grammar errors as I am short on time and sleep. : )
#5 – Fulfilling Goal #3 – Sharing this journey with friends and family back home
There are three goals of the Peace Corps and our third goal is to share your experience and what your host country is like with friends and family back home. I want to take this opportunity to thank you all for being part of this incredible ride with us. How fun it has been for me to text you, blog, and share via FB about life here and catch up on news back home. Our interactions have meant a lot to me. On days when I was feeling low, you don’t know how fun it was to see messages from you on text, email or Facebook. You laughed with me, you were puzzled with me, you sympathized with me. Thank you.
Many of you went beyond just keeping up with us. Many of you sent us love in the mail. THANK YOU FOR THE BOOKS YOU SENT, especially Beth and Ziggy Cooper. You helped fill up our library. Thank you to those of you that sent packages, cards, words of encouragement. We really appreciate them all. Please know that all your gifts were used in our community and spread throughout. I shared the food you sent with friends and staff, I gave away the gifts you sent as prizes to my top learners and I used your school supplies in my class.
A huge thank you to those of you that visited. We are so lucky to call you friends and now we have many fun stories to enrich our already great friendship. We really enjoyed sharing our experience with you in person in Africa.
So many of you have been here with us when we would hear certain songs on the radio, saw signs that reminded us of you, met people with your same name, etc. Gentle reminders of home always made us smile. I know when we go home there will be many things that remind us of people and places in Namibia.
According to our blog stats (which I’m obsessed with) we had over 2,000 visitors to the blog this year alone! I hope you learned a bit about this beautiful place we’ve called home for the last 2 years. Now what you’ve seen from us these last 2 years is just that – two people’s perspective. It’s hard to capture all the heart, complications, spirit, frustrations and challenges of a nation in just 2 years of living and observing.
Taking you all on this journey with us has been one of the best parts. It took a big support network to get us to this point, and I thank you all for being interested in our journey.
#4 The NamFam and PCV friends
The fourth reason this journey has been so enriching and fulfilling has been sharing it with other Americans. Other PCVs are fascinating people. They’re fun, curious, innovative, crafty and just all around good people. PC tends to attract strong personalities.
When we first found out we were placed in Namibia, I found some Namibia RPCVs online and they said to us “Welcome to the NamFam!’ Peace Corps volunteers in Namibia refer to ourselves as the NamFam or NAMily.
More so than ever in my life, I’ve been part of this Peace Corps community that helps one another out often. We have to do things for each other because our transportation is limited and things don’t work the same in Namibia as they do at home. We pick up items for one another when we go to the capital or home to America to visit, we share lesson plans and we do errands for one another. I’ve never done so many favors for people, and I’ve never had so many people do favors for me.
We took the whole NAMily concept to another level when we became Peace Corps parents. I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but Josh began referring to our fellow PCV Mary Grace as my little friend during PST, despite the fact that Mary Grace is eight inches taller than me. She is, however, 10 years and 15 years younger than Josh and I, respectively, so we started to take on a bit of a parental role with her once we heard she was being placed in a village not too far from our town. I believe Josh one day said “I feel like Mary Grace is like our daughter” and since Mary Grace seemed agreeable to having Peace Corps parents, our first Peace Corps daughter was born. Mary Grace calls us Onane and Otate (Mom and Dad in Rukwangali) and we simply call her “Daughter.”
I highly suggest to anyone on the fence about parenting to begin with a 22+ year old who lives in a village. They are fully functioning independent adults who are overjoyed when you feed them some cheese and salad. It has made my job so easy.
Mary Grace is one of the most considerate and thorough people I know. She helped me pass Rukwangali during our Pre-Service Training, and she has been a source of sanity for me while trying to navigate the difficulties of teaching in Namibia. She has had an extra level of environmental challenges living in a village during Peace Corps, and I’ve learned that she is one tough girl. Knowing how hard she works motivates me to work harder.
Mary Grace is so smart, thoughtful, humble, motivated and fun. Even though I am her Onane, I learn so much from her, and she keeps us hip by letting us know the things that the young kids are into these days. We have shared some of our happiest and toughest Peace Corps memories together.Soon after Mary Grace came along others asked to join our NAMily and we agreed. Our other group 38 daughter Alyssa lives in the Erongo region of Namibia and we had two other Kavango children whose service was over in September of last year (group 36).
Also a part of our NamFam is JT, my female husband. She says things Josh would say when Josh isn’t around. She is our sister, and Mary Grace’s aunt. JT also lives in the same town as us, so we see one another quite a bit. We’ve collaborated on some projects together and when I had a bad day at school, I know I could count on JT to be up for a glass of wine at our place or Kavango River Lodge.
JT is a whiz at project management. I can hardly believe how much she can manage in her life, and this often includes reminding me of reports due to Peace Corps as well as making the most delicious hummus and salsa in Namibia (with her immersion blender she bought in Swakop which she’ll tell you for hours is the best purchase she made). She has been through some of the toughest personal challenges of anyone I know, and despite it all, is one of the most optimistic people I know. I know after I’ve hung out with JT that I’ll have sore cheeks from laughing and feel rejuvenated about life.
I admire the way she has truly integrated into our Rundu community. For the reasons I rely on her, I wish I could be like her. She is always well-oriented wherever she is, she is always on top of her game. She is honest when it isn’t easy, and she reads the census for fun.
JT was there when I found out the news that my Dad died, and she hugged me and got me through that traumatic time just as much as Josh did. When I was back in America during that time, doubting if Namibia was where we should return, I heard from her daily that she missed us, and things weren’t the same without us. If I didn’t feel confident about having a good enough support network to come back to here, I don’t know if we would have come back. I’m so grateful we did come back to finish our service, and having people to support me and understand how difficult that was made all the difference. I am so glad we come back to finish our service.When we had to leave the country for my dad’s funeral and my brother’s wedding, our NamFam put our minds at ease with taking care of things for us on the homefront.
So many of our weekends have been filled with great conversations, intense workouts, chocolate and wine with these two amazing women. They have been my rocks on bad days, our support system and a laugh when we need it. They’ve helped me work through cultural frustrations and sad anniversaries. We have camped together, hitch hiked, celebrated, brainstormed and collaborated.
They truly feel like family to us, and it is going to be a pretty big adjustment not texting one another 50-100 times a day. I’m going to miss these two like crazy.
I didn’t come to Peace Corps expecting to leave with great American friends, but I am so grateful we crossed paths. As much as it’s sad to leave, I remind myself of how lucky I am we ever met. I look forward to hanging out in the USA or somewhere else in the world to laugh and remember the good stories of our time together as Americans in Namibia.
Last week we gathered with our Peace Corps group for the very last time. We shared stories, ate delicious large meals and talked about our excitement, sadness and anxiety concerning our imminent departure. We got back to our home in Rundu on Saturday, celebrated July 4th with some friends and then reality set in – the end is very near. 😦 We are scrambling to finish our lengthy to-do list and spend quality time with our Namibian friends and family as we close this chapter of our lives. We leave our site on July 14th to head to the capital for more medical tests and exit paperwork. Our last day as PCVs will be July 17th.
Continuing with my list, here are numbers 6-9 of the best memories, moments and lessons of my Peace Corps experience. Numbers 1-5 to follow in the next week. You can find 10-18 here.
#6 Getting better at saying No and disagreeing with people
Saying “no” has never been really comfortable for me. In Namibia I was forced to learn to say no to people. I couldn’t possibly help everyone who asked and I couldn’t possibly give everyone what they asked of me.
Living in a different culture (or sometimes your own!) you find there are many differences you have with people and you learn to become more comfortable with saying, “I believe in something different.” I’m glad I had a chance to live overseas this long and see for myself what I like about America’s values and what I don’t. For example, Namibia is still a country that is figuring out where its cultural gender norms lie. Speaking out at times to say that women shouldn’t be expected to be the sole cook or childcare giver in a household could often make me an outlier. Lucky for me I was usually with Josh and he could share his same sentiments which were often the most shocking to hear since he is a man.
It may sound trite, but I’ve worked hard on saying No when I really felt like it, and disagreeing with someone when they say something I don’t agree with.
#7 Cute babies, kids and our pets
In the U.S. I didn’t really interact with babies and kids as much as I do in Namibia. I have very fond memories of spending time with babies and kids here. Dancing with our host family’s kids in Okahandja, playing duck-duck-goose with the little kids at my school’s Kid’s Day, making faces at little kids on long combi rides, reading weekly to the primary children at our school and scaring little babies in the village with our white skin.
We tried to resist it all these years, but we became animal lovers in Namibia. They’ve helped make our time special. After a tough day, these furry faces really helped cheer us up.#8 Appreciating life more because death is so close here. Learning to slow down and not sweat the small stuff.
I’ll never forget when I heard about a baby dying and someone’s response was, “Well, at least they won’t have to suffer here on earth.” The child died from malaria I believe, not a long term illness. At home, we would struggle to think of anything positive in response to the death of a child. Many struggle in Namibia to provide enough food for their family. Suffering and extreme poverty make you see the world very differently. I’ve known children to pass away here as well as people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Most learners at my school only have one living or active parent. Being closer to death makes you appreciate daily life and big milestones even more.
#9 Growing a deep appreciation for all the opportunities and life I had growing up in America
Where we are from is a big part of who we are, but where we’ve been also defines us.
In America, if you want to become better at soccer? There’s camp for that. Interested in learning piano? Take some lessons. Bored? Go to a park or play with a toy. The opportunities we are given to develop ourselves in America are never-ending. At times it’s hard not to get down thinking about some of the talented people in Namibia who won’t have the resources to develop and grow to their full potential.
Children in America don’t have to worry about as many diseases, and it’s not likely you will know many people who have died before you turn five years old. Such is not the case here.
At home, learners get textbooks, a chair to sit in and a clean environment in which to learn. American kids have easy access to technology and books in local libraries. All Americans have access to clean water and most families have a giant cupboard overflowing with food. I never had to go to school or bed with an empty stomach.
As a woman at home I knew my rights and that a man had no right to touch me inappropriately. There are laws against it in Namibia, but it’s still common for minor girls to be coerced into having sex with older men. They often do this because the men will give them money for food, clothes, school fees and other things. Namibian women are fighting a long, hard battle.
Corruption is found in every country, but I have seen it happen much more often here than I am accustomed to. Almost everyday, the newspapers report another story about corruption in the government. There’s corruption and nepotism in schools. There’s less of a system of meritocracy here.
While there are some things I would like to change about America, serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer abroad has taught me to be an even more grateful person for where I was born. I had so many advantages given to me simply by growing up in the United States.