Friday, February 15, 2008

The Benefits of Exercise

We have finally taken up running again. Though we consider ourselves runners, we had not laced up our running shoes in over two months. In fact, because I can wear leather sandals to school, I do not believe I have worn shoes for the last two months. It is not that we are opposed to exercise; in fact we really enjoy our running and find it to be rejuvenating. Recently our largest deterrents have been the added laundry that accumulates and the uncompromising African sun that has decided to shine relentlessly for the better part of the last month. The laundry really should not be an issue. Yes, we have to do it by hand, but either way we are doing laundry each week. The dry-fit clothing we run in is actually the easiest to wash anyhow. My attempts at rain dances at the top of our mountain have failed, so we are stuck with the blazing heat. The only respite we receive is in the predawn light of early morning and the last rays of sun in the late evening. If you know us, you know that predawn is out. Though I do not sleep until noon as I might have as a teen, 4:45am is too early unless I am hunting, fishing or playing golf. So we have opted for the waning light of day to reconnect with one of our favorite pass times. Fortunately for us we have a half marathon looming in our not so distant future that requires a bit of training.

Therefore last week we dusted off the cobwebs from our shoes (literally), dug out a pair of once white socks and made our way the front gate at a rather slow gait. The first few times out have been a bit rough. Apparently my body has not only lost its ability to sleep until noon, it has also lost the ability to recover quickly from a relatively feeble attempt at physical activity. Despite those frustrations it has felt great in so many other ways. I most certainly have more energy, which has been especially helpful as my workload at school steadily increases. It forces me to organize my evenings and I have been more productive as well; all the same arguments made in support of exercise, in all its forms, in every magazine and talk show from Runners World to Oprah. However, one benefit I had not considered, and which is usually not found in the 'get fit quick' guide, is that as we increase our distances during training, we make our way into the parts of our village we see less frequently. At this point we are part of the village and people know us. The surprise for them now is that we are out exercising or 'gyming' as some of my students like to call it, in their neighborhood at a new time of day. When our routine changes, the whole village knows and comes out to see.

Running is not a pass time adopted by many in our village. The youth are intrigued yet unconvinced that this is really a great idea. Old women smile and wave from behind their large black pots of steaming bogobe as their grandchildren run to the gate yelling our names and waving, not letting up until we say hello and wave back (towards the end of our run when we are short of breath this becomes more of a labor). Old men resort to the one finger wave with a slight nod of the head, commonly used between farmers in their trucks on gravel country roads back home. We pass the open field where men and women from the ZCC church gather for evening singing and dancing, as well as the bottle store across the street where men are always sitting. Both groups of people are always smiling warmly at us. Though one set of smiles is warm with faith and the other set warm with drink, each are happy to see us. We see people coming in from the fields with their cattle, women carrying enormous bundles of wood on their head, navigating winding dirt tracks yet not needing a hand for balance. Boys playing soccer are around every corner and sometimes we just have to run right through their game in the middle of the road. They do not mind at all, in fact they want us to stop and play. Just this week I was out on my own and a small group of boys took up a sprint alongside me and continued to stay with me for the last few kilometers of my outing. They were huffing and puffing their way down dirt and gravel paths littered with broken class and pieces of barbed wire stride for stride with me. One wore old Converse shoes, one flip flops, one his nice school shoes and the last boy was barefoot yet never once slowed down! I was amazed. They are all students our schools and they ask me now if I will be out running again each night. The village likes having us around and they show it when we are out on our evening runs. It is a great way to be visible in the community and we often find ourselves in conversation with neighbors as we take a cool down walk back to the house. It is possibly the best benefit I have gained from starting up again.

As the villagers have come to accept us, we in turn have accepted our position here and I frequently find myself forgetting that we are the only white people living here. Half way through my run on Monday I was passing by our every smiling friends at the bottle store when a truck slowed down behind me. I veered to the shoulder and kept pace, waiting for it to pass. Instead I heard a voice asking, in English, if I was ok. I turned to see a white farmer in his truck, most likely heading back to his farm for the night. My seemingly logical response that I was fine and just out for my evening run earned a rather puzzled look from the farmer. I followed up by mentioning that I live in the village. He shook his head in disbelief as he ground the gears into first and continued on his way. It took me by surprise that my presence was shocking to him, but it reminded my as I continued on my way that I was indeed a rare sight. I half expected the headline of the local paper the next day to read 'Tall White Kid Resides in Local Village!’ We move so easily in between town and the village that we sometimes forget we are the exception, not the rule when it comes to many interracial interactions. It makes it that much more enjoyable for me, knowing that I can be the person who will hopefully provide a bridge from one person to another, even if it all it takes is finally putting on a pair of shoes and stepping out the door. Who ever thought running could be so beneficial?

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Routine Par

For those of you who have had the privilege of following my father and I around a golf course, you will know that we like to inspect every corner of the course to ensure it is up to our high standards. Having been employed in the grounds crew maintenance field in the past, I am always eager to know if the current crew has properly groomed around large trees in the middle of the woods, edged and raked the fairway bunkers, trimmed the grass near the creek and the pond, and properly marked any out of bounds areas along the course. To do this, I frequently play my ball directly into these areas; bouncing, crashing, swatting, chasing, and cursing my way to the flag stick. On the rare occasion, all of those lawn sized divots, errant slices, botched chips and trips to the beach still result in what my father terms a 'routine par': running this way and that, never knowing quite how you got into the mess you are in, definitely not sure how to get out, but somehow ending up in the cup with a decent score ready to move onto the next hole.

Recently I returned from a week of IST (In Service Training) that all education volunteers attended. We discussed our training, first months at site, successes, failures, challenges, future plans and more. It is meant as a transition point from early stages of our time here into the meat of our service. When we are out in the village on our own, it is easy to get caught up in all of the small things (many of which are still very important) and lose sight of the large picture. It is common to lose oneself in trying to make each and every thought and moment count, going 110% everyday. By the end of a week we are exhausted and reflect on what seems, at the time, minimal gains in our work or community integration. Knowing that our time in South Africa is short, despite having just begun, there are times where we struggle with thoughts that we will not have the time to be able to accomplish all the things we would like to during our service. It is difficult sometimes to recognize all of the great experiences we have had and positive things we have done. Peace Corps recognizes this and plans for it by setting up our week of IST.

All of us education volunteers came together as a group and realized that everyone has been bouncing this way and that through their first months. Via workshops, seminars, discussions with staff we came to see our small gains as indeed rather large accomplishments. Making friends, gaining trust in the community, grasping the language and settling in are huge factors to our success in the coming years. We began to look at the past months in different ways and reevaluate our work in ways that gave us more direction for the months ahead. Many of us had hit similar roadblocks along the way in schools and the community. Each of us tackled them in different ways and employed a variety of methods to create entry points into our respective worlds here. This gave everyone the opportunity to share as well as learn from each person in the room. Collaboration was a huge part of our success for the week.

Perhaps though, the most important part of the week took place outside the conference room. Socially we needed, and took advantage of, a week of fun and games. Just having the ability to catch a drink with friends and relax felt great. The pool table, and an actual pool, were immensely popular. Impromptu plans for each evening were always amusing and everyone participated. In short, it was just fun to be together again. We reminded each other that while we may be in the village on our own, we are in this job together and are able to support one another. By the end of the week our stress was alleviated. We had new ideas heading back to work and a renewed sense of purpose, reminded of all the reasons we love being here. I came away with a more defined game plan for the remainder of this first quarter and even more ways to try and implement my strategies.

After a crashing and careening our way into a new home, new culture and new language we are holding onto the positive strides we have made and are building off of them. Big picture we are on track to do great work in the time we are here. We continue to be optimistic and excited about what lays ahead of us. Routine par.


The opinions expressed are our own and do not reflect those of the Peace Corps, the U.S. Government, the Republic of South Africa, or and other person, party, or organization mentioned on this website.