Tuesday, December 15, 2009

a day of broken glass and new friends

One thing I like about observing flora and fauna is that "what's playing" in the variety in what I'm seeing changes with the seasons and even in the different weeks of the seasons. I've learned by watching for the changes in wildflowers back home, from spring, summer, and fall, that it's like watching the waves roll in. Even during different times of the same season will bring different kinds of wildflowers: early, middle, and late spring, for example.

I'm finding the the South African birds are coming to me in this way, and I have two new friends to keep me company in this middle week of December. The small little green one is an African bee-eater. I watched a pair yesterday feasting on hoards of those little butterflies I told you about.

By the way, I think the butterflies I have noticed too, come in December. We had a day of two of constant, really hard rain and then I noticed the butterflies. I'm sure they need the rain to reproduce; in fact, I have seen many males "puddling" around the remaining puddles of water to make their "bridal gift" for the females. They probably count on this rain to come in December and that is why I am seeing them now.

The other, thicker bird, is a South African Black-collared barbet. I like him because, well, he's new to me but he (like all other barbets) have thick hairs about their beaks that remind me of nose hair. I don't think this photo captures that distinction very well. His call is very distinct and loud, and has been described by one bird book as "an alarm clock that has lost it's bell." (An old-time, wind up alarm clock, I think.)

I'm not up for posting the Latin names right now and the photos aren't mine. (See bib note at end of post.)

I just wanted you to see a picture of my new friends.

So, yesterday was a day of broken glass.

I broke a full bottle of peppercorns yesterday and almost cried. At one point, I thought of sweeping the corns up off of the floor and separating the glass out of it. But, having worked in the restaurant industry and having had melted hundreds of ice bins because a bar glass had shattered over them, I knew better. The thought of dying in South Africa by internal bleeding wasn't pleasant either. I also had mental pictures of my mom, Deanna, my friend Ellen, and my aunt all screaming, "Don't you dare!" at the same time.

Fresh ground pepper is one of the two things I would request if given a life-sentence on a desert island. (Blue cheese is the other.) I always have a spare bottle in the pantry lest I run out, and this bottle broken had just been opened the day before. I'll get another tomorrow, but it was a huge loss and I understand fully why the spice trade is, and has been historically, so important (and why spices are so expensive!).

The breaking of the peppercorn grinder foreshadowed what would come later. As you can see, hopefully, by one of the photos below, a window in my room was shattered in the wind (I think).

When we first arrived in S. Africa, it was winter. However, the very cold mornings warmed up nicely in the afternoons and about the same time each day (around lunch time), a significant wind would pick up. This significant wind would almost always raise "dust devils." Dust devils are mini-tornadoes of wind and dust that often kick up daily now that summer is here. They are very small and die down as quickly as they blow up. But they are very powerful winds.

I remember asking if S. Africa had tornadoes, like those we experience in the US, because I somewhat recalled that tornadoes are only weather phenomenon experienced in North America. (Scientists?) I was told, "No, South Africa doesn't experience tornadoes."

Now I know why. South Africa doesn't need to have tornadoes because the wind picks up nicely and is plenty strong enough without them. When the winds are at their strongest, you can't walk about as if on a breezy day. You need to be inside for protection.

I'm not sure what happened to my window, but the wind was blowing ferociously yesterday and the night before. Our windows here open out and have a latch that locks them in place, but when the wind is blowing as it does, I close them in fear that the latches will be ruined (and the windows broken, like this one!). So, although my windows were closed yesterday, I think the wind, in being so strong, somehow either jarred it strongly enough or perhaps even blew some type of hard object into it and broke it. Also, the glass may have been flawed and was broken without a bang or jarring.

What was surprising about this break is that there was no glass on the floor in my room; all of the glass fell outside. (Later, upon closer inspection, I did find small, tiny fragments of glass and cleaned them up.)

Since everyone is off on holiday break, I was unsure what I should do. There is a wonderful woman here named Marina, who seems to be my personal guardian angel, and I will post about her later and in-depth (and yes, include a photo), and she advised me. In short, a repairman is coming to provide an estimate for repair today.

And then the last photos, unfortunately, are of my bathroom, and unfortunately, indication of my new roommate.
When joining the Peace Corps, the Peace Corps emphasizes over and over, and over again, how important it is for volunteers to be "flexible and adaptable." How I interpreted this request was, living in South Africa is so different from living in the United States, that volunteers must be very good at being flexible and adaptable to new living situations.
I had expected, and felt confident in complying with, living without the conventional comforts of American life: indoor plumbing, heat, air, refrigeration, malls, cars, etc.
What I hadn't expected, however, was that I would be expected to adapt and be flexible concerning situations that would be completely unacceptable if living in the United States.
When we first arrived, and were living at our training site (which was a former teacher's college), one of us would frequently comment, "I see health code violations all over the place." I would smile to myself, and think, as we're all prone to now say, "Welcome to South Africa."
But she was right; so much of what we live with here is a health hazard.
And that's just it: In America, we have systems in place to keep us physically safe.
Of all things I've taken for granted in my life, this one is perhaps the biggest.
What I'm struggling with, in living here, is "How bad does it have to be before it is unacceptable?"
When I posted weeks ago about the area's water going out for a couple of days, and how I couldn't believe that classes weren't cancelled due to the health threat, what I didn't realize is, living without safety regulations, policies, and procedures is normal here. It was no big deal for the college to continue classes without water because it happens all the time.
One of the things I'm helping my primary school with is policy implementation. One of the things I had asked about was an emergency evacuation plan. There currently isn't one and when I asked what the teacher would do in a case of emergency, and how she would move the students out, etc, she didn't know. We also talked about the importance of the school needing shelving, an event hall, etc.
When we went to prioritize the "needs" list for the school, the emergency evacuation plan was moved to the bottom. It was more important, to the educators, that the school have more shelving than an emergency evacuation plan. (This is a primary school for very young children.)
When I was staying with my host family, the family was very, very sick. I noticed that their food dishes were washed in cold, dirty water, not rinsed, and often washed in laundry detergent instead of dish detergent. (Yet another question for the scientists, because I have seen others doing this. Is it OK to wash food dishes in laundry detergent? Someone has explained to me that soap is soap, but I thought laundry detergent was unsafe for consumption. Isn't it a caustic agent?)
One of the ways I "adapted" to this unacceptable living condition (for me), was to assume the dish washing duties of the household. In this way, I "adapted" and kept myself safe. This adaptation felt reasonable to me, I was happy to wash dishes, and knew that in living in South Africa, I could always do my own dish washing--or at least most of it. (I have since eaten and helped clean up in situations where very many people are eating-over one hundred--, and then to find that the dishes are washed in dirty water, not rinsed, washed in laundry detergent, etc.)
There are other living situations that I've encountered that have prompted me to ask myself, "This is an unsafe living condition. Am I willing to risk my health (or even my life) to live this way?"
And so it goes with my new roommate. :-)
I had the wonderful opportunity to meet the former PC volunteer at my site. In fact, I'm living in the very same spot that she has occupied for two years. She has managed just fine to live here, as has everyone else who has lived in the dorm for over forty years: students and other overseeing adults.
One thing she mentioned, and seemed to be frightened of, was that there were "rats" living in the hostel.
Now, I'm pretty easy going. On my tour of the hostel, I was careful to watch for things that could be a problem. I did see a "rat," but quite frankly, it seemed a small "mouse" and I can do fine with those. She seemed particularly frightened though, so much so that she kept her dorm room windows latched all day, even in the hottest part of the day. When I asked her why, she said, "The rats come in through the windows." I thought she was over-reacting.
So, I've been living rat-free in my little abode for almost three full months now. I hadn't seen even a mouse inside all of the dorm. I had seen a few critters outside in the bushes adorning the buildings, but these seemed harmless and of the "kangaroo rat" variety I had kept as pets as a child. No problems. Or, as in Tswana, "Ga go na molato!" (The literal translation here, which I love, means, "I have no debt," which is used here as "No problem!")
So, the other night, as I'm lying in bed reading, I hear a strange noise in the bathroom. It was a strange enough noise that I got up out of bed to go investigate. It was dark in my bathroom, but a very quick movement caught my eye. I thought, "Oh oh."
(The photo down at the bottom shows his entry-way. This is an opening in the tile that is probably the result of a plumbing repair. The former PC volunteer had had the metal plate propped up with the bricks, I had tried to duct-tape it closed (hilarious, I know) because roaches were coming in, and now, I've added the bucket, which is full of water to add weight in my futile hope that no critters can come in.)
Again, I'm pretty easy going and have been known to gently scoop up spiders to let them go outside (rather than squash them). My boys have been known to say, when they were very young, "Mom doesn't kill nature."
In only a moment, the creature, which I'm pretty sure was a RAT, came running out of my bathroom. I emitted a noise that was very near in quality to like those sounds you saw coming from women in the shows of the 50s and 60s, when a helpless woman, like Jane Jetson of the Jetsons, would see a mouse, scream, and jump up on a chair (only to be rescued by her knight in shining armour, in this case, George Jetson) .
Such a noise came from my body.
My scream startled both myself and the RAT, (I had never heard this noise before, and it was coming from ME) and he whipped himself out of my bathroom to disappear into my kitchen, which doesn't have an escape route that I know of. (But HE would probably know of it.)
Now, this animal is either a rat, or a very, very large mouse.
Since this creature was now in my kitchen, and it the middle of the night, I asked myself that one question that keeps popping up: "Is it OKAY to sleep with a rat in my room? Is this a normal thing to do in South Africa? Am I safe?"
Me being who I am, decided there was nothing to do at the moment, so I was going to sleep. I opened my doorway out into the hall, so he could leave, as I'd hoped, and wrapped my mosquito net around myself and tucked it in firmly. I remember wryly thinking, "My anything-but-mosquito net has just gotten a promotion" and hoped that it would keep the rat out. (It did.)
In the light of day, I decided to run my problem by a few people to see their reaction. The first was my nearest friend, Emily, who is a very bright young woman with much more experience in these matters: she has lived many years in the Philippines and cheerfully relayed her experience, along with a cheery, "Welcome to South Africa," that yes, the netting kept the rats away from her in the Philippines.
I was somewhat disappointed with this response so I tried another trusted friend, this time my guardian angel friend Marina, who is someone practiced in campus matters (she too, lives and works here), and she said, "Be sure your food is put up. They (the rats) like quick meals!"
Oh dear, I thought. Living with a rat-room ate might be something I must "adapt and be flexible with."
In my ever-cheery disposition (being sarcastic here), I decided that my rat's visit was just a fluke, a rare and un-reoccuring occasion that just spiced up my day and gave me an interesting story to share. He was lost, he'd made a mistake, he was gone and would not be returning! We both enjoyed the little visit, but both felt confident in knowing it would not happen again.
Guess who was back last night?
So, I'm thinking of options and requesting your help.
I've thought of a cat, of course, which is an option. However, cats aren't universally liked here; in fact, most native South Africans fear them greatly. I'm not the only one living in the dorm, so my house-mates probably wouldn't go for it. Also, I'd become attached to the dang thing and have to spend a gajillion dollars to bring it home. And I hate cleaning a cat box.
Another is the mechanical rat traps that have to be picked up and disposed of. (Not my favorite option.)
Anther is poison, which is not really an option, because a friend had the traumatic experience of having a poisoned, dead rat under her house that proceeded to decay, making the house uninhabitable and causing lots of clean up problems.
And I suppose there are those live, humane traps. But here again, I would have to pick it up and let the creature go... Which might not be so bad...
Any other suggestions out there?
Soon, Karen
PS. The photos were taken from the Internet at the following addresses:


  1. I would like it very much if you come home now.

  2. :-)

    Mr. Rat did not come last night and I feel confident that our meeting was chance, and that I will not see him again.