A Passion for Peace

Responsibility, respect and a loving connection with all beings and for this Earth we share.

You Give, I Give, We All Give!

"Your life is all variables and no constants," a friend said to me today, appealing to the math major in me. Except for the lovely people in my life and idealistic area of work I am passionate about and determined to somehow earn a living doing, there are no constants here, it's true. I am very excited to be starting to use my brain productively, though! It's a bit hard to believe it took this long to even find suitable volunteer work. Oh, Australia and your delightfully slow pace. I'm beginning work on two projects this week, in talks for a few more after Christmas, and have my name on a temp agency list just in case. Money will follow, I have faith, and in the meantime I am blessed by Aussie generosity with free places to stay, and even some food and keys to local dumpsters, and positive sentiment, as in, "Wow, that's your line of work? Boy, the world really loses out when you're between jobs." (Photo: handmade chocolate-y window display)

Project #1 involves stopping child sex trafficking on the demand-side, through a documentary about the approximately 2 million children trafficked for sex work every year, mostly through Southeast Asia and Australia. The Advocate to Eliminate Team is producing & distributing Corridors of Children, watch the trailer here. I'm working to develop a training strategy and materials for educating the public and spreading the word through the tourism/hospitality industry, the legal/government prosecution/enforcement side, and critical mass/university/public forums angle. We are looking for 30,000 adult names to match the 30,000 child sex workers in the Thailand alone. Please add yourself to the list, take a stand & pass it on!

Project #2 involves advocacy work with In Good Faith, for victims abused by priests in the Melbourne diocese, where the church is not appropriately, nor legally, responding to perpetrators and compensating victims. Example: 300 substantiated allegations of sexual abuse since 1996, and only 1 defrocking. Stories of burning evidence, advising victims they don't need lawyers and forcing small settlements, not reporting crimes to police--in a word, appalling.

In sum, Australia, I really appreciate the hospitality and optimism about paid work opportunities, I appreciate the warm weather even though it doesn't feel to me like Christmas at 26C/80F, I appreciate the bike paths and lanes and lack of rain when pedaling around in a suit, I appreciate the hidden high-quality $5 lunch venues, and I appreciate all the kind people who meet with and call me offering an ear, share stories of their inspiring careers, as well as advice and contacts. I am not exaggerating when I say I have met roughly 100 people and emailed easily 300 in the month I've been here. "No one can say you're not enthusiastic," said one friend. "Do you go out at all?" asked another. No one can, and yes, I do a lot, though I can't be bothered to cycle half an hour away to first start salsa dance at 10 pm on a weeknight. Start something earlier, Melbourne, por favor. I am a healthier, happier me when I exercise a couple hours of cardio a day, do yoga regularly (slipping the past few days due to excess cycling, sorry shoulders!), and sleep with the sun. (Photo: street art attitude I'm aspiring not to have)

Sometimes one has to shift some of the variables into constants to promote stability and sanity, for reasons both sensible and silly, and even random. I've been asked so many times what I'm doing for Christmas, when I was concerned instead with sorting out where I would be sleeping the next night. Enjoying the journey, grasping at dreams, giving and humbly getting, and thankful for the ride. As Bette Davis said, "Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night." Yee-haw! (Photo credits to sneaky friend)

Posted byValerie at 1:45 PM 0 comments  

Patience, Ladybug

Wow, what a great CV/story. We're doing xyz. We wish we could use your skills, and have no openings at the moment. Abc would be a great person for you to meet.
The current chorus, followed by:
You'll find a job after the holidays, in
Jan or Feb for sure. The country shuts down now, everyone heads to the beach for Christmas and school holiday, and picks back up in mid- to late Jan.
I've just about met nearly everyone remotely in my field in Melbourne, and it's to the point that I'm starting to be referred in circles. Few new avenues left to explore without expanding out into other lines of work. Looking into volunteering in work I'm interested in part-time to start using my brain and get experience, and temping part-time in order to eat.
Now enter a potential job in US next fall, worth an interview for sure, since visa runs out next November anyway. (Photo: namesake Collingwood Cafe)
And then:
We have a job opening immediately that you'd be a great fit for. Interested?
In Washington DC, human right's work, opportunity to move up and run projects abroad in the future.
Result: Confusion.
My meditation today discussed the rocking chair test, thinking with your head or heart:
Imagine following a path your whole life, and sitting on a rocking chair in your old age, reflecting. Are you happy with the decision?
Is it a decision unveiling your highest possible destiny, or an easy, comfortable solution that fits into your outer life?
Someone said I'm juggling so many maybe-balls in the air, one's bound to hit me in the head. Sounds potentially painful, yet I'm sure the sentiment of whatever happens will be great, whether it's a US yes or maybe's here congealing into a yes. And "helpful" stories of someone taking 6 months to find volunteer work an hour outside the city are as helpful as a cancer patient being told, I knew someone with cancer, and he died.

Speaking of meditation, I've been yoga-ing and meditating mostly daily, which in addition to cycling is such a lovely mind and body-detox. I can't repeat enough how much I love non-driving cities. This year instead of a list of new years' resolutions, I'm compiling an annual (and even farther back perhaps) list of accomplishments, and a list of what I will let go and what I will call into my life. As my favorite healer said, What we seek seeks us, so your job is waiting. (Photo: surreal city art & architecture)

I'm keeping a gratitude journal and sending out notes, thoughts and energy of thankfulness. I can't afford to send bought presents, and this, at least, is personal. Last weekend I went on a (free!) meditation/yoga/qi gong/vegetarian/etc retreat for a day in the countryside. It was nice to escape the city, tree-ful as it is, to a place people grow their own vegetables again. Even getting dried spices (unground) from an Indian or Asian spice shop instead of the standard grocery store makes a huge difference in taste. Fresh food is more satisfying. I reckon (Australia speak) you eat less because it's so sumptuous & scrumptious you savor the splendid flavors. The meditation took up about half the day, maybe even 4 hours, and was not quiet contemplation but group Hare Krishna guitar-led chanting. I'm used to kinesiology, quiet contemplation, mindful yoga, and this was very different. Not quite my scene, though interesting.

I've been trying to meet a friend's sister since I arrived, and she wants to catch up Sunday next (2 Sundays from now). People ask what I'm doing to celebrate Christmas. I didn't even celebrate Hanukkah. I meant to go to an evening candle-lighting ceremony while it was monsooning (the 13-year drought is so over), and would've been stuck in the city waiting around for hours til then, so I went home and helped my hosts pack instead; they're moving house. Here's to being unable to plan, instead meditating in the moment.

What are you grateful for? (Photo: amusing & popular food shop at Melbourne Central Mall)

Posted byValerie at 7:37 PM 2 comments  

"You're a Refugee from America!"

So said one of the lawyers I met this week in my networking & job-hunting palooza. (Apologies to Spanish friends who ask, 'Where in America??' when people from the US say they're 'American.') Unemployment here is around 5%, and people are shocked when I say in the US to continue my career path I would be competing for unpaid internships. I've met a nice group of expats, including many Spaniards who stay here because of 20% unemployment in Spain. With the 1-1 dollar parity between Australia and the US, plus working hours and lifestyle here, Australia sure is attractive! (Photo: Royal Exhibition Building)

And so is the art scene & interesting population here. After attending a local "sexy" film festival Wednesday, wandering toward the train station taking pictures of graffiti in the rain, a prostitute tried to befriend me. It was her birthday and her boyfriend was in jail, her ex-husband was "giving her shit," so she was "a good sport at the party and let them hang things all over her." I'm not sure I want to know what that means. She left the party because her friend is paranoid and has 27 cameras in his house, and once she sling-shot them all out the window to make a point, but what she really likes to do is build and then rip out gardens, and now she's in the ripping out stage at her house. Her drunken companion asked me for a light. I said I don't smoke, so he asked if I smoke pot. I said no, and he asked if I drink. She chastised him that she was talking politely about gardens trying to make a new friend. She offered to take me to a neighborhood across town to show me "the good graffiti" after they smoke up at his house for just five minutes. I politely declined, and wished her a happy birthday. Then I miraculously found a Korean grocer open and bought some seaweed & kimchee. (Photo: nighttime exploration of art in the Fitzroy/Brunswick area)

My Thursday networking day was cut short due to monsoon-style rain resulting in a lack of presentability as my hair lost three inches in length and gained five in width, so I hung out with a friend and worked from her house, then met another friend at a Japanese restaurant with a gluten-free menu. They still managed to poison two dishes, accompanied by massive apologies ("Here's my card, if you get sick we'll pay, please call"). Luckily the headache didn't last long, and while we got those dishes free, I suddenly realized I was a bad Cinderella and was about to miss the last midnight train. My friend ended up driving me all the way on his motorbike, which was actually quite fun, since I got to see a new piece of the city. After a lovely eat-and-chat-for-hours-in-the-rain day, followed by dancing and discussing US politics (which people love to do with me here), despite checking train times, I missed the last one again, and the motorbiker came to my rescue to avoid the $60 taxi. Again. Oops.

So on Saturday I was determined to be social-lite and not out late. I spent the day emailing every registered family law firm in Melbourne, then enjoyed the new Harry Potter movie & a delicious lamb dinner. (And my friend helped me find an umbrella for $10 instead of the $30 I kept finding. Here's hoping it lasts at least 1/3 as long as those!) I was telling my friend that I am so ready to be working, and it feels like a silly use of time to search for appropriate work. She had such a good response: it's not a waste of time, because it's spent finding a way to continue your life's work. Hurrah for positivity, and to all my other un-, under- or unhappily-employed friends, here's to waking up every morning and believing, 'Today I am reaching the perfect job for my skills and growth.' (Photo: Chinatown, obviously)

Posted byValerie at 9:24 AM 1 comments  

Operation 'Make a Life in Australia' Has Begun

Monday I arrived in the Land Down Under. My bags decided to join me two days later. I woke up the second morning un-jetlagged and had a mini panic attack that I once again moved to a new country with no set job/friends/permanent housing/etc. My mom talked me down, saying, "You've been there 2 days. You are not expected to have a job yet." Still, I started networking meetings the following day, and everyone I've met & emailed with has been really positive and helpful, and suggest finding something before Christmas fever sets in when the country apparently shuts down to holiday on the beach. I hadn't realized how European the lifestyle is here: shop hours often 10-3 and closed one or two days a week, complaints about "working late" when staying in the office past 6. (Photo: Rush hour & typical modern architecture)

Melbourne is very, very, chill.

Not to say there aren't crowds, festivals, parks, interesting architecture, underground pubs, bike paths, hidden graffiti art, and loads of other interesting things to explore. In my limited experience of festivals (Spanish and Polish, so far), they seem to consist of small handicrafts (10%) and food and drink (90%). Australians like to eat, which is interesting considering how sticker-shocked I am at prices. Example: pecans grown in Australia $13/lb, lemons (in season) for $4/lb, even Target clothes start at $40/top. An ode to American stores--K-Mart, Safeway, Target, Borders, the list goes on--it's all here, for twice the price!

In addition to friends-of-friends and random newly-made friends, I have had some other love from this town. The first time I walked into a grocery store I was asked to do a survey on meat advertising, and 3 minutes of opinion netted me $5 (money is 1-1 with the US$ at the moment). Then two days later I met a nice local for a bike ride, and as I went to pay for a rental was asked to do a survey on the bike service, which has earned me unlimited bike access on those bikes-around-town for a week. I must look like a good little consumer. I've been taking advantage, cycling every day for hours, which would've cost more than $20/day and allows me to bide my time this week buying a bicycle. I've missed functional public transport, though the downside is one spends a lot of time in transit. So far that is more than offset by awesome hosts and ipod entertainment through fancy headphones from my newly-acquired not-in-Australia boyfriend. Two points to us for timing. (Photo: tram & downtown shopping area already decorated for Christmas)

My brother pointed out that this is my final frontier: I've now been to every continent (depending on how they're defined, and there are only baby penguins to work for in Antarctica). Thanks to support from wonderful people like you & friendly Aussies, I'm sure this will be another fulfilling year in the trenches. If Yogi Tea is right, and "Happiness is nothing but total relaxation," then Australia may be just the place to find it. (Photo: Busy Sunday in the Royal Botanic Gardens)

Posted byValerie at 3:56 PM 1 comments  

Slacking in the USA

I suppose I am a new girl in the US now, so the title is still accurate. I wish I had some excitement to report, but actually I spent my first few weeks here pretty much sleeping, cooking, and seeing my family. My first weekend back, walking around the ridiculous Mall of Georgia I was struck by the juxtaposition of the kids I had been working with who owned a handful of shirts, and the kids clicking away on their Blackberries in $100 shoes.



I'm finally feeling back in the swing of things, applying for jobs and visas, cycling and yoga-ing and practicing energy work and catching up with friends, which this week includes a visit to Colorado. (Photo: orchid & my favorite graffiti park in Atlanta)

The only true Seinfeld-style craziness I've had here concerns my grandmother's 80th birthday ice cream cake. My grandfather went to order it, and after waiting around for twenty minutes the guy in the shop said he was too busy, so my poor flustered 84-year-old grandfather went home upset, and my mom went to order it instead. She said to them to make sure it's not vanilla-vanilla, but butter pecan and chocolate chip. We had a birthday dinner and poker game (her choice, no money bet) early to celebrate when my brother was in town. Cut open the cake and voila--vanilla vanilla. Grandy was disappointed. She only has ice cream like once a year. So my mom saved a slice in a tupperware, and I brought it back to the shop to show them and ask for a redone cake with the right flavors for her actual birthday. I showed the guy the slice: no chocolate chips, no pecans. He insisted I bring in the original box, which my grandparents took and threw away, and said he knows he made it correctly and that he "doesn't want any trouble." He accused me of bringing in an outside cake in order to get a free one, and said how does he know if he makes a new cake I won't bring in another outside cake, over and over? It was insultingly absurd. Since he was Indian I was pushy and put on a bit of a scene to make my point, to no avail. My parents went over later and the guy ignored my mom, too, but once my dad talked he got quiet. So sexist, and yet still no progress. $20 and 20+ years of lost business. Moral of the story: avoid Carvel, and one hopes there actually are some ice cream swindlers out there or this is a whole lot of nonsense for a whole lot of ego...from a guy who serves carvel. (Photo: Atlanta Botanic Gardens)

The need for the restorative justice idea of taking responsibility instead of blaming and shaming is so apparent. I hereby take responsibility for being a slacker about this blog. My life is pleasantly boring, which is a welcome change. As much as I enjoy the conveniences and perks of the US, and appreciate the time to rest and recenter, I miss the craziness, excitement and challenges of living and working abroad. I'm about ready to get back out there!

Posted byValerie at 5:02 PM 2 comments  

Sala Kahle (Stay Well)

Last weekend I drove around Weenan Game Reserve with the express purpose of spotting a giraffe. Three hours into my self-guided safari, I’d had no luck. Then I passed a car full of people playing the game How Many India Men Can We Fit into a Vehicle.

“Is something back there?” I asked.

One of them wagged a dismissive finger. “A giraffe at the third set of trees. Is there water that direction?” he asked, indicating where I’d come from. I nodded, but all I’d found at the dam were a mess of muddy footprints of formerly thirsty animals and two exotic-looking water birds.


I parked the bakkie and walked into the bush about a hundred meters when staring into the sun, I saw a silhouette that reminded me of a Loch Ness monster with two little horn-like protrusions from the top of its head, and wide ears on the sides. I went closer, then stopped, closer, then stopped. All the while it stared, occasionally turning its head so I could see its profile, sweeping its magnificent mane of reddish brown. Its fur was cream-colored with sienna-brown spots, and overall was a bit dusty. Maybe I’ve gotten used to being around rhinos and zebras and have been swept up in the novelty of it, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an amazing creature. Then two more approached cautiously from my left. One went to stand behind the one I was watching, and the other, a bit younger, stared from farther away. If I inched forward slowly for another hour, I might’ve been able to touch one like an African Snow White. I thought of Isak Denison, I had a farm in Africa...

This week has been full of farewells, and a chance to greet the owner and show him the project before I go. Months ago when I first got that annoying rash on my neck, my healer friends said I wasn’t speaking my piece (or my peace). I went to see one a few days ago, and she told me it’s good I’m going home to rest and be safe, that I’ve made a huge impact and am very brave and other such kind reassurances from other dimensions, that as we talked a series of strings all around me were being cut, and my guardian beings reappeared, that upon my return from India I reacted to an evil spell here and have cleared it myself, and that all the energy I felt when she first met me was her wrapping me in white light of protection. I thanked her, and she asked me to pick a tarot card. The card I picked simply stated ‘Success.’ And another labyrinth walk this morning provided thankful confirmation.

My work here has been really rewarding and really difficult. With much idealism and heart for everyone, if all I did was touch a few people and expand their knowledge and confidence, then this has been a success. People are the best investment there is. “We’ll never find another like you,” they say. But we found each other, and one at a time, however slow and disheartening it may feel, we’ll each pay it forward and keep making steady positive progress.

For the final movie night on Saturday, I picked up The Gods Must Be Crazy. With all we’ve been through these last few months, they must indeed. It was an amazing community send-off, the usual chorus of ‘We need you’ and ‘My heart is breaking,’ and lots of people requesting pictures, and I've been receiving Zulu send-off calls all day. I’m complete and ready to go. Thank you, South Africa, for letting me into your heart. Keep in touch.

Posted byValerie at 9:18 PM 0 comments  

She's Got a Ticket to Ride

I realized on Monday that my original plane ticket back to the US was in time to visit my dad for his birthday in August. I have done "better than my best" (as She & Him sing), and though we're not where I hoped we'd be, we've made such amazing progress. I've worked with so many motivated, wonderful, smart people. When people protest that they need me, I remind them I was never meant to stay forever. I aim to be a Mary Poppins: build their confidence and pride in their work, stabilize by using input to form workable systems so they can sort out future crises togther through positive collective action. It's a community project, and I think it's imperative the community, with helpful guidance from professionals, be empowered to dictate its direction. Otherwise we'll never break the cycle of the have-not's asking and not doing themselves, and the have's giving and thereby deciding, and the mutual resentment that such a system breeds. I say, 'You are doing this work! You are amazing. You started this project without me, and you'll continue without me. And I am teaching a few of you to use the computer so you can better do your jobs, but also selfishly so we can keep in touch!' (Photo: a hard day's work making thatch)

Which reminds me, last night my brother said he got all the selfish genes. He was sitting by the beach sipping sweet tea and eating a muffin and asked, "Don't you want this?" Yes and no. I appreciate that more when it's not an everyday occurence, when it's in contrast to, for example, what I did today. Coming full circle from my child sex abuse work in India, I learned of a man in one of the communities who's raped at least two children, one at age 6 and one at 13. The 13-year-old is now 16, and suffered a heart attack earlier this year before finally getting up the nerve to report what she's been living with, the poor stong girl. The man threatened to kill her and her family if she rtld, and now she says she feels much better that it's out. Her heart was breaking physically and emotionally, and now she can heal instead of hide. The good news is she has tested negative, and now victim counseling will begin at school and the local hospital for her. People have been pushing her to file a police report, and she doesn't want to. I told her she doesn't have to and tried to tip off the police. They weren't interested, but said her mother could report it. I treated mother and child to KFC & Coke for the ride home, which delighted them and honestly didn't smell appealing or like real food to me. I'm so spoiled from this fresh farm food.

Where to now? Looks like a visit to the land of plenty to see my very relieved family & see how many friends I can summon to visit me (or fund me to visit them, ha). I wish everyone here the best, and bid farewell with a heavy heart, full of admiration for all the hard work and positive people I've had the pleasure to know. In the spring the burnt grass will grow back a lighter, fresher green, and the buffalo, rhino, and all the people will keep on keepin' on. (Photos: friend's drive, and a close-up of the red: things are not always as they appear when close up)

Posted byValerie at 8:20 PM 0 comments  

Playing with Fire

This post should be about a monsoon wedding during a peaceful countrywide strike. Of colored rice, Sanskrit vows, bright red saris, mehendhi and a foreign family feel on the soggy beaches of Goa. Of a drizzy train ride of 500 rummy, dream discussions and Flight of the Conchords,, followed by reunions while rediscovering a deliciously delicate dew-coated Bombay, dew that washed the pollution to the gutter, muddy-greened the streets and trees and slid down in short sheets so as not to spoil shopping stock-ups. Of finally going inside Gandhi’s old house, which was less remarkable than overdue since I’d lived a block away and then moved to South Africa where lawyer Gandhi got his start preaching ahimsa (nonviolence). I could write about catching the final World Cup match in the Dubai airport with the most international crowd possible, screams at the set-up screen in seventeen languages, and how even in the middle of the night the Arabian desert was so hot that sitting on the airport toilet the water beneath the bum felt fit to boil. But what’s really on my mind isn’t ahimsa. It’s violence. (Photo: Ahimsa is the highest ideal, Gandhi library)

South Africa has a bad reputation. Even in India they ask me, “Isn’t it a poor country?” And if I say I live here, the first European or American comment is always, “Be careful, don’t get raped!” A few weeks ago our mentally unstable mechanic threw a fit and quit. Clearing out the workshop it was discovered that he had been grinding knives like this one. He said they were for hunting.

I returned here from India to striking and a general state of unrest. Eight to ten people threw fire inside the reserve and burned about half of the land. It looks like hell and smells like singe. Before I even knew about the fire, I awoke sick with food poisoning my first morning here and retched for over an hour. I peeled myself off the bathroom floor and back into bed and barely got any work done the rest of the week. Given all the calming appearances of 37 in India (and by the way this is my 37th post), it was an especially grim sign. So far all the threats I’ve heard through community rumors have come true, down to raise demands and these fires. Now there’s talk of killing someone to “show they’re serious.” My translator is the most likely target. I talked to him about it on Friday.

“What’s your safety plan?” I asked. “Why don’t you move your family out of the community for a while? I’ll help you find a place to stay.”

He said he’d send his family to his sister’s and would stay home alone. He knows which five people are likely to attempt attack. He’ll wait to defend himself.

“Do you have a gun?” I asked.

“No, a crossbow, and the support of the spirits of my ancestors.”

“What happens to your family if you’re hurt? Who’ll support your wife and eleven kids? You’re probably the most important person on the reserve, and who else can take over when I’m gone?”

“If I go, it’s admitting they’re right. Sometimes you have to fight violence with violence.”

“This place is not worth dying for. Don’t be a martyr. You’re not Jesus. Think about a safety plan this weekend, and Monday I’ll help you find a place to stay.”

“Okay, I’ll think about it,” he said. “Thank you for this talk. Thank you for caring.”

He can’t even tell the police about the death threats because the threateners are friends with the officers. It would just fuel their fire. No one should have to live that way. And I can’t do my job. Never mind the stress—I can’t build community while they’re burning it down. It just takes one gust of wind blowing fire back into a community to wreck hundreds of homes and lives. The Education Trust is too young to sustain such a storm. (Photo: insane zebra post-cull)

I suppose the silver lining if, I dare call it that, of the slow evolution from slavery to abolition to voting to segregation to affirmative action to today is that blacks in the US had generations for their education to catch up so they could fill equal jobs. South Africa’s trying it all in one go: throwing blacks into jobs and responsibilities they’re not prepared for which they’re floundering and often failing at, whites resentful of black incompetence and greedy lining of pockets and sickened watching the white systems slowly collapse, with racial tension piled on top. Tall order for the Rainbow Nation.

To over-generalize, in my experience in Asia when a poor man looks up at a rich man he thinks to himself, ‘How did he get there? I must work hard and get a good education and get there myself. I want what he has.’ In Africa, a poor man looks up at a rich man and thinks to himself, ‘Why does he have that? I want what he has. I deserve it. I’ll knock him down and take it.’ There’s a sense of responsibility and valuation of education missing. It’s easier to unite against something (apartheid, slavery, Saddam, Mugabe, colonial rule—) than for something (even Obama’s uniting for Change has provided profound disagreement about what that Change should be).

People want opportunities they don’t know how to create. They don’t know what they don’t know. Some apartheid-like patterns are still very much in place. Toxic clouds spew blame like acid rain over everything. How to harness ahimsa here? Patience, listening, respect—the usual. Fire doesn’t figure. More fire will sadly force me to leave. As one of my friends said last week, "There are plenty of other babies to save." (Photo: unfortunately 20 km later another such sign appears)

Posted byValerie at 7:47 PM  

Soccer Zulu-gans

We were there! Friday I drove the ladies down to Durban for the Brazil-Portugal match. They were alternately in Bafana Bafana jerseys and church clothes. I had to arrive by 1 to fetch my passport from the American Embassy, and of course we arrived at 1:05. Last time I parked downtown I scraped the side of the vehicle in the garage (cities & Valerie-drivers were not designed for 4x4s), so with a bunch of ladies in the car I was confident could talk us out of anything I decided to double-park the double-cab and make a dash for the passport (and of course the Embassy's on the 31st floor, the very top). Since I called ahead someone kindly got my passport anyway (thanks, USA!) and I ran back to the lobby to find two ladies waiting. "The police are there, hurry!" They had asked the security guard, "Do you know Valer?" to which he replied, "There are a lot of people in this building." I froggered across the street back and apologized profusely. The ladies had made up a story of my being an overseas driver not used to the vehicle and that I had to go into a shop to ask for help because it was broken down, but neglected to tell me so I could keep the story straight. The officer let us go, with some words in Zulu that the ladies should be ashamed for making him "look like a fool" and we were off to sit in traffic and avoid the psychotic weaving of taxi vans til I found safe non-garage parking. (Photo: soccer balls of the world & a typical Brazil fan.)

It took about 2 hours to walk 2 km, what with photos, complaints and the slow shuffle of black people (hey, you US blacks know you walk slowly, too). We passed approximately 37 Brazil fans for every 1 Portugal fan, and the ladies collected discarded plastic bottles to fill with seawater. I asked what the water was for, and one said, "We need wives!" Silence and confusion ensued. Another corrected, "husbands!" and we all laughed. I asked the one who has a husband what she'll use it for, and she said she will wash with it everyday and "it is very important! the most important." It reminds me of New Orleans, the mix of traditional customs and ancestor worship with very heavy Christianity. By 3:45 they were all hungry as none had heeded my advice to bring lunch, and kept fruitlessly hoping the next shop would be cheaper. With the game set to start in 15 minutes, half went on a hunt for KFC and half sat at Wimpy Burger. I said I didn't come to Durban to sit at Wimpy and made my way onto the sandy Fan Park. (Photo: Moses Mabida, the best-looking stadium)

Portugal and Brazil were so well-matched it was a rather anticlimactic game. For all the pre-game vuvuzela-ing, parading and yelling, afterwards the fans were all rather subdued as yellow and green with a hint of red streamed out of the stadium. After driving in Durban during World Cup I think I could maybe handle Bombay on a weekend. But I don't care to test that theory. On the way back when we stopped for gas the ladies talked the attendant filling our tank into buying them a big Fanta to share. True teamwork.

Sunday early we were at it again: another community movie showing (Mr. Bones was requested again), using our new popcorn machine. We sold over 100 bags, and everyone was SO excited. Some people in the community walked over 20 min each way just to buy popcorn and not even see the movie. As I started my taxi-ing home with children screaming singing in the back of the cruiser, the ones who remained played Bingo, for the first time. They loved it. This weekend ladies are going to do a popcorn and community Bingo afternoon without me, because I am heading back for a visit to India! And here's hoping no one else breaks into my translator's house to do more witchcraft. (Photo: popcorn & a movie ala generator)

Posted byValerie at 2:08 PM 1 comments  

I both am & will never be Zulu

Last weekend the community was amazed that I went to Bonisiwe's funeral. "You are different," they kept telling me, shaking their heads, impressed I thought to wear a long skirt and black top. "Valer, you are the only white to come to our funeral. And your dress is right." It was a long (9-2) and very lovely ritual. First we paid respects in the house. I'm rarely invited inside houses, as mostly people are embarassed to show me how they live. Usually they bring chairs (or if they're really poor, sagging wooden benches), and no one sits until I do. I'm not sure how much is my being white or in a position of authority. When I do go inside like on Saturday, while everyone else kneeled on mats on the floor (a richer home, instead of a mud floor it was covered with patches of three different kinds of linoleum), I was instructed to sit on one green plastic chair. I felt like I was on a throne above everyone, but when I protest such special treatment, they insist and I don't want to be rude. Then all of us women sat on plastic chairs under a tent. The coffin was brought out and people took turns speaking and leading songs. The pastors interrupted with prayers, while outside the men all dug a huge hole in the yard and piled the rocky soil neatly with planks of wood on top. Once one of our volunteers spoke, we rose and laid a newly bought blanket over the coffin, then folded and handed it to Bonisiwe's mother. We then carried the coffin to the burial site, and the men took over. They lowered the coffin in and covered it with perfectly-cut wood, then ripped a mat and put the mat in, and poured a bag of what I presume were some small things from Bonisiwe's four-year-old daughter inside. While men shoveled, the children Bonisiwe taught in the pre-school symbolically buried her by throwing small fistfuls of soil into the grave. All the while the women sang spirituals, and when we finished we all washed our hands and sat down for a delicious feast of chicken curry, pumpkin mash, yellow rice, baked desserts, roasted beetroot, cole slaw and a host of other food that had been carefully cooking all morning to feed about a hundred people. We paid the family Bonisiwe's salary and each donated some money on top, which may have just covered that food. Funerals cost families small fortunes they don't have. We presented a quote for a group funeral plan, and the ladies opted for the most expensive package, nearly 1/6 of their salary. Sadly, it makes sense: death is damn expensive and way too common. (Photo: you can't see the mountains for the fog)

Sunday I was invited to another Zulu church service. I have mixed feelings about the churches: they are a morally positive force, and they also bleed the community of more money they don't have. I present what we're doing, that I'm a volunteer, and then open for questions, and they always ask me to do X, Y, and Z, when (1) I'm not Christian, (2) I'm here for the kids, not the churches, (3) white ≠ money, and (4) I'm overworked as is and giving up a Sunday to be with them without taking up even more causes. Also, religious services in an unintelligible language despite lovely singing, are rather wearing. Which is why we are all SO looking forward to tomorrow. A lovely friend who runs a soccer league offered to pay for petrol for me to drive the ladies down to the Fan Zone in Durban for the Brazil-Portugal match. "Unbelievable!" and cheers of excitement were among the sentiment. In the afternoon, one of the ladies ran down the road to tell a reserve employee how thrilled she is, even to be bumping along in the back of the buggy for the 2.5+ hour drive down. Crossing fingers we aren't deafened by vuvuzelas. (Photo: cheap Coca-Cola vuvuzelas for sale)

Have I mentioned recently how much I love my job? Today I taught the ladies bingo, as a potential fundraiser to go along with our new popcorn machine. They loved it. "That game is right! Number one!" So we're doing our first community bingo afternoon on Sunday, without even a bingo game set, just printed pieces of paper in a bag. If I've learned anything living outside the US, it doesn't have to look nice or even make much sense so long as it functions.

In closing as a homage to the stupidity of McChrystal, I bring you some South African political humor, including the popular quote, "Don't Touch me on my Studio!" And the most hilarious gift against the cold I've ever received. (Photo: even the spiders are frozen!)

Posted byValerie at 7:34 PM 1 comments  

A Bit of Buddha in South Africa


In need of a little zen, I went to the Buddhist retreat centre last weekend for a mini yoga and meditation vacation. As suspected it was a mostly-female retreat for the kickoff of the World Cup. But we knew South Africa didn’t lose with the vuvuzelas bellowing from the valley below. Which was easy to hear since the lodge where I stayed was 24/7 Noble Silence and the entire Centre was nobly silent from 9 pm to 9 am. One would think that would be calming, but I get plenty of silence every evening on my own, so when I go out I prefer some conversation. So I skipped evening meditation Saturday night to make some phone calls, and got sad news.

One of the ladies passed away on Saturday. She was thirty-three, had a four-year-old and was taking care of her elderly mother since her brother had been murdered last year. She didn’t take a day off from working with the kids. One of the ladies visited her just Thursday to finish putting together portfolios to complete pre-school teacher certification training and found her hunched over her binder in pain unable to walk. She went to clinic Friday, was transferred directly to hospital. Tomorrow morning we’re going together to visit the family. We decided to pay her entire month’s salary, pitch some more money in ourselves, and buy her family a warm blanket. Snow’s set into the mountains, and firewood is scarce (or if you’re me, firewood is useless with a half-built fireplace). I feel truly spoiled at twenty-seven that this is my first winter without climate control. When I was easing the buggy up the mountain on Sunday I was reminded of Red Velvet and how maybe someday I’ll drive a car that I doesn’t slow to 40 kilometers per hour huffing up an incline. Then I thought nah, I’m lucky to have a car to drive at all. Money can be better spent than on an fancier car. People live so day-to-day I’m loaning each the $4 (R 30) we’re donating. (Photo: evening retreat view)

This is why last week I decided to monetarily empower them. This is a community project, and the community should decide how to spend the money. There’s too much drama about money on the reserve, so to stop it from spilling into our work, my translator and I walked an hour from the office to meet the ladies at the Resource Centre and had a money meeting. I wrote on the chalkboard how much we started with, what we have now, and the expenses so far. After we talked about ways to cut costs and make money, they voted themselves a very reasonable raise. Information is so empowering. There’s so much potential waiting to be tapped. That’s really why people here are so excited about World Cup: the chance to Get Out. Out of poverty, out of the same small community and culture they’ve only and always known, out of Africa… (Photo: sunbird)

So many people I work with are so bright, talented, and eager for opportunity. They’ve been oppressed, first in the Zulu culture by following an induna much like an American Indian chief, then by the apartheid system, and now by the current corrupt government and some employers. We need to ease into increased responsibility. Do something once, walk someone through it once, and let go, remaining on stand by. Last Thursday when a government agency didn’t show to speak about how to get grants. I smsed to see how it went and was told they were all still waiting 1½ hours later. No one called the agency to confirm or find out what happened. The instinct was to blame, not take responsibility. Things like this make whites frustrated that blacks don’t take charge or seemingly appreciate opportunities. There’s also frustration people make decisions they’re not prepared for. If you don’t know what you don’t know (and are rather isolated), you don’t know that you need more information, much less how to get it.

I don’t know why Bonisiwe left us. I don’t know what I’ll say to the family tomorrow. I do know she worked harder and smiled through more than I’ll ever experience. (Photo: retreat dam view)

Namaste.

Posted byValerie at 9:07 PM 0 comments  

Green Eggs, No Ham

From a chicken’s head to an emu egg, for dinner last night I baked an emu frittata. Rewind: Saturday I was driven 45 km, dropped off and walked 6 km to pick up my bike from the shop, rode 25 km and the pedal fell off from the crank. Not what one hopes after picking it up from the shop. Top-notch customer service: owner drove out to fetch me, took me back to the shop and fixed the bike, then to his house for lunch with his wife and kids and sent me home with two emu eggs from his farm. The friendliness of rural people is heartwarming: I wasn’t even hitching and three cars stopped while I walked my bike. And someone sold me an avocado. (Photo: emu eggs & peace-sign of a feather)

Seventy-five people turned out to watch Up for movie night number two. The sound still hasn’t been sorted. They prefer to have a quiet movie now to a perfect one later, and don't understand much English anyway.

Family in crisis update: teenage mother had baby a few weeks ago, a sweet little boy. Her mother, who had a grant, moved in to help. Then sadly, she died a week later. Seems like the teenage mom is slowly stepping up. Lately when we visit there’s talk in Zulu with little translation. I'm glad to be less necessary as they sort it out.

New family in crisis: five orphans, two women on one gogo’s old age grant. Mix in TB and a five-year-old who holds up his head with his hand due to a neck injury, with a pained ache of a face and big hungry belly. I asked if they have enough food, and they said yes. We left and they called us back, and said actually there is just half a bag of mealie meal for the lot of them. And the list-of-needs floodgate opened. We offered to help them get an emergency grant and apologized we can’t afford school uniforms for the kids. One of my ladies shook her head and said, “We offer them a hand and they ask for an arm.” I smiled. “Yes, and if they grab our arm when we reach out a hand we’ll all fall over.”

Whites are guilty and also resentful their help doesn’t seem to be appreciated and feel imposed upon to do more and more. Blacks are resentful and angry for lesser education, opportunity, income and feeling of self-worth and feel entitled to massive improvement in circumstance. The effects of apartheid fester. Wonder if this was what it felt like when Jim Crow ended in the South. (Photos: flowering winter grass & perched oriole that brings sunshine to the cold office with his song.)

Helping is important and fraught. Jealousy so rampant. I’m having a meeting to explain why I’m scared if we give too much of a raise we’ll finish the money and all be out of work. Scant consolation for people who struggle to buy food. Growling bellies are understandably less patient. Empowering people to do for themselves is a slower and more stable & sustainable solution. There’s resistance to change yet resentment of the status quo. My translator is getting such threats from coworkers he took out a huge loan to pay a sangoma to put a safety spell on his house. (One threatener was thrown into jail last week, accused of murder for stabbing a man in a bar who was stealing his friend’s wallet.) No one should have to live with such a feeling of desperation.

I aspire to dwell on positive sentiment and am thankful for the friendly ears I’ve been bending lately. I admire so many people I encounter. Like the government lady who helped the new family in crisis. She’s not only on the ball, she’s throwing passes and running as she’s tackled from all angles. Example: she gets hot chocolate donated for people waiting on cold mornings, and someone else donates condoms. Local paper headline: government encouraging sex. Superiors say stop all innovation. Or: schizophrenic is given an R500 loan from an R250 grant. Not surprisingly, he couldn’t pay. The loan officer illegally seized his grant card as collateral. She went to the loan office and yelled that this poor schitzo man wouldn’t remember he got the loan even if he could pay it back. The loan officer opened his drawer to reveal 1000s of seized cards. Each card costs R65. She started thinking of all the grants people could’ve gotten if the government wasn’t busy paying to remake those cards, so she called the police. The police officer was friends with the loan officer, and arrested her. She got a restraining order. She can’t enter an entire block of a very small town, cutting her off from the Old Navy-like clothing shop, Mr. Price, until July. In July she’s going back to call the police again. Here's hoping a different officer comes. (Photo: world cup fever in Shoprite)

Posted byValerie at 11:27 AM 0 comments  

Calm, cool and collected. Who, me?

No news on my coat, and the following week a couple coworkers bought me some pepper spray. It's the third time I've been given pepper spray, and I think I shall actually practice using it once and carry it around this time. I got some wonderful birthday wishes, and on top of it, two of my favorite people said they want to buy me a new coat as a belated birthday present! Thanks for all the <3. href="http://www.daltoneducationtrust.com/newsletter-advert-may.htm">newsletter!(Photo: rhino dad and mom & baby very suspicious of me. By the way, rhinos are nearly blind. So did they see or smell me behind an electric fence?. Other photo: winter sunrise)


My conflict work and "crazy outsider" status has turned me into a bit of an ombuds-woman, and I have a lot less to lose by trying to implement change than the other workers here. I also think that if one continues to work within a fraught framework without working within to implement positive change, that one becomes complicit and has responsibility for one's inaction. Something interesting came up in conflict class this week, too: why do we think other people say or do things to purposely hurt/annoy/degrade/etc us, yet we don't do/say /think with those intentions. Why do we think others do? Let's assume the best! Also, I've started conflict work with schools and teaching about the peaceable classroom model in exchange for donations to the project. Peaceable communities, workplaces, classrooms, ole!

Speaking of peaceable, I had a such a difficult visitor last weekend I have been apologizing and de-compressing from it all week. From refusing the dinner I made because it has potatoes and then eating potato chips, to when my boss was kind enough to invite us to dinner dictating what would be cooked and how, to putting files on and burning music from my computer without asking (computers are personal and it took me 2 weeks to get blank cd's out here), to leaving half-eaten sandwiches and dishes all over my house knowing my gluten allergy, to making kids ride in the back of a buggy on a cold night while he sat inside...it was horrifying. Twenty-five going on five. Driving to the community movie I visualized a healthy, calm, cool and collected aura with white energy bursting from the top of my head so his murky stormy aura wouldn't penetrate me. One apology for bringing him round to a friend entails volunteering for a school survivor-style fundraiser this weekend. Building a raft from sticks and mud, eating a mouse or a raw egg--I think I have signed up for Crazy. (Photo: another winter sunrise)

This week's motto: be zen.

Posted byValerie at 6:27 PM 0 comments  

Please Press 1 if this is an Emergency. Then Hold.

“Valerie, call the police! There’s a man with a knife outside the window!” I ran for my phone and dialed the emergency number. I had to listen to a recording and press 1 that This Was An Emergency, then I was put on hold, then had to explain to a switchboard operator, presumably in Jo’burg, where I was so she could connect me to the closest police station. She did not understand my accent, nor was she familiar with my location. As I repeated myself in frustration, my friend found her phone and called the local station directly.


To rewind just a bit: at about 2:30 AM my friend and I realized we’d been chatting by the fire, exchanging music and enjoying her delicious raw cuisine and spice tea with no regard to time, and that I had better stay the night. She lives in a small town about 40 minutes from the reserve. She walked over to shut the music and turned around to the lit guest room to make up my bed, where she saw a man with a knife standing outside the window, on the lit porch, peering at her. She screamed to me, then turned to scream at him: “Go away! Get out of here! We’re calling the police!” He waved his knife at her. My first thought as I dashed for the phone was her three kids asleep in the bedroom. I felt completely powerless. (Photo: another bathtub with a view from a tea spot in town.)


She got through to the local police before I made it through the switchboard. “Hi, there’s an intruder on my property with a knife. There’s just women and children here. Please send someone quickly.” Not sure which direction the man ran, we roused the kids in case he’d gone around the back. The eldest, a boy, was content to keep sleeping. The middle girl came in quite scared and sat next to me by the fire. She drank my tea, I stroked her hair, and she said, “I wish we didn’t have money. We should go back to swapping things.” Trying to distract her, I asked how many carrots one would swap for a haircut. We chatted and waited, and the youngest girl joined us. We were all a bit shaky. There’s something incredibly brazen, illogical and especially scary about a man--without even any facial covering--coming to a lit house with music playing, in which people are clearly awake, and trying to break in. After waiting over half an hour (the station is about an 8 minute drive away, tops), my friend phoned back to see if someone was coming. The officers were lost. She repeated her directions. Then, “No, I will NOT come outside to meet them—did you not hear me that there’s a man with a knife outside my house?!” The middle child cringed and lay her head on my lap.


A few minutes later the police arrived and did a perimeter search. They found nothing. I walked outside to check my vehicle. In that cold weather with a choke the robber would’ve made a faster getaway by foot than trying to steal my buggy. While my boss sorted out the strike and tension on the reserve, I met a friend and spent the morning playing with poo (rhino, zebra, and buffalo), working on our new product, biopots and cute manure-made instantly-plantable indigenous seed discs, so the back of the buggy was full of manure and a bag of kids’ shorts from our psychomotor training. He’d peered inside and passed on those. In the front I had some papers, a Tupperware, my black straw hat and a new white winter coat I’d treated myself to on my trip to Jo’burg. The passenger door was unlocked, and the coat was missing. I wondered if my hat should be offended. (Photo: malfunctioning fountain in the Jo'burg botanic gardens that seems appropriate here)


The police came in to take down a report for my stolen coat. There were two, one in training, who mimicked the constable he was working with, down to when he lifted his pen or sipped his tea. They worked through their forms, asking questions and filling boxes. “What is your date of birth?” I suddenly realized. “It’s today, actually.” They didn’t flinch. “Year?” The girls and my friend all chorused an oh shame, happy birthday, sorry about the coat! More so than the coat, even though I didn’t see him, I’ve got an image in my mind of a middle aged man brandishing a knife glinting in the light, and the cockiness of his attempted armed robbery. My friend has lived in that house for about 2 years, and this is her 4th break-in. The 2nd time, a year ago, she was home and at 3 am heard a noise. She and her dog walked into the kitchen and saw a man at the window. She screamed and ran for her phone, and he stayed there and kept banging as if to break the glass. She was alone. Then he went around to the front door and banged and rattled around as if to try and enter from there. She locked herself and her dog in the bathroom and talked on the phone to a friend until the police arrived, over 30 minutes later. Then the officer proceeded to hit on her and tried to force a kiss when he left.


The officers thanked my friend for the coffee (she'd made them tea). After a couple hours of sleep, we four women in one room, I head to toe on a twin mattress on the floor with the middle girl, I led my friend in a little yoga and we sipped smoothies. The kids’ dad arrived, and after hearing our encounter told us his friend’s girlfriend in Durban was in the ICU. She had just admitted to her husband whom she’s separated from that she’s been seeing someone else. He’d gotten mad, and then later apologized and asked her for a hug to make up. She went to hug him and with a knife in his hand he stabbed her chest. With their kid in the room. I do not envy the life of a single mom in South Africa. Hats off to you, ladies, truly. (Thankfully I still have my beautiful vintage black hat to take off!) (Photo: contemplating at home)


What I needed was some sleep and a long walk. I hadn’t been in a proper humid forest since camping with a friend in Tennessee in August. A long wintry walk amid trees was just what I needed: wet, crisp, and comforting. The forest was also full of blackjacks and bramble, burring all over my leggings and skirt. My skirt was also soaked about ten centimeters up as I sloshed in my socks and shoes. When I drove home the kids presented me with a basket of naartjie and hand-dipped candles they’d made. My parents phoned to say happy birthday, and my house smelled from the lovely roses a coworker left on my table with my mail. I opened cards and a few packages (hooray for my new Opex watch!) and was treated to a yummy farm-fresh dinner at my boss’s house, and had a long chat with a coworker friend. The next day I redecorated my walls with the cards & wrapping paper & a new lovely screen print, and another coworker brought over a present. I readied the next batch of cards & quills and watched Strictly Ballroom, missing dancing and mostly thankful I was safe on the reserve. I locked my doors for the first time in a long time. The cats will have to sleep with their owners for a while. (Photo: view from home)

Posted byValerie at 11:00 AM 1 comments