Peace Corps Volunteers: Only As Strong As Their Support System

It takes a strong person to stand beside someone hell-bent on volunteering with the Peace Corps for two years. John did just that and more. While I was first applying I had to submit three recommendations: from a professor, a previous employer and a good friend. I decided to ask John to complete my friend recommendation after only dating for two years.

This letter would be private so he could have easily written something that would hinder my chances of advancing onto the next stage and thereby keep me home. But he didn’t. He wrote a letter so convincing of my “good character” that when a Peace Corps representative interviewed me via Skype and drilled me with the uncomfortable questions: “What if you get pregnant,” “What if he proposes,” or “What if he breaks up with you,” all I had to do was direct them to his letter. They never made my relationship an issue again.

Swear in

John proved to be an even better partner while I was in South Africa. He spent an embarrassing amount of money on international calls when I was on the brink of losing it from homesickness or frustration. When I chose to summit Kilimanjaro instead of coming home for Christmas, he not only accepted my decision, but he helped raise money to make my dream of summiting Africa’s highest peak come true.

Kilimanjaro Summit

Thanks John! I made it!

But my favorite thing John did during my time volunteer service was visit me. Countless friends had enthusiastically promised to visit me in South Africa when I got accepted, but then the realization that flights cost at least $1,000 set in and no one followed through. Except for John and my mom.

Hiking Cape Town

 

My mom flew back home and John and I continued our stay in the Bo-Kaap region of Cape Town. It used to be a township and sadly, before that, slave quarters. Today, the houses are all brightly painted, in an attempt to mask the walls’ dark history.

Bo Kaap

Refusing to smile for one more photo

 

Then came the time for John too to fly home. It was much harder saying goodbye this time as it was now him leaving me. When I woke up the next morning, John had already left for his flight. Loading my bags into the airport shuttle, I was not looking forward to flying back to Durban and then the long day of taxi rides back to my village. But the driver knew how to cheer me up. He said someone had already paid for my way.

Between my mom and John, I was traveling back to my village with an extra duffel bag full of food. I found comfort in knowing I could taste America through Kraft Mac & Cheese, Andy Capp’s Hot Fries and candy. John’s goodies even included marshmallows and Starbursts that would allow the children in my village to try some American sweets.

Marshmellows in the Village.jpg

 

Love is like Diving with Great Whites

 

John doesn’t like fish. He doesn’t like to eat them and he certainly doesn’t want touch or be in the water with them.

They swim around eating the poo of other fish. Who wants to eat that?”

I, on the other hand, love to scuba dive and observe these strange creatures in their natural habitat. It seemed like a wasted trip to South Africa’s western coast without visiting Shark Alley—the hunting grounds for numerous Great Whites. I figured since both of us loved nature television shows, John could overcome his distaste for fish for an up close encounter with these exceptional predators.

The day we were to go out, the ocean waves were abnormally choppy. Most of the other diving companies were going on the opposite side of the island, while our company was the only one to decide against doing this. Although the water would be calmer on the other side, sightings of Great Whites were less likely and they wanted to make sure we left happy.

shark diving

Posing in a replica of the cage

The waves were really rough. So rough that most customers became seasick and didn’t want their turn in the cage. Even when they were told it actually helped seasickness to get in the water, they refused. I chose to take their turn, staying longer in the cage and John lingered little longer too. With the overcast sky and wind, the July day felt colder than most in the southern hemisphere’s winter. Shivering in the Atlantic’s winter waters was worth it if it meant seeing these majestic carnivores at work.

These massive, unpredictable Great Whites approached from far below in the ocean’s shadows and within seconds they would be a few feet in front of us, sometimes inches. Their infamous white bellies being the only way to spot them in the murky water. They would breach, somehow propelling their large bodies above the surface of the water to snatch the bait. Their skill was so impressive you literally found your mouth dropping, causing you to accidentally swallow the salty water.

goggles

Never looked better

I longed for an oxygen tank so that I could stay submerged and constantly look for the sharks. We were forced to take deep breaths before pulling ourselves under, gripping the iron hand rail. Often we would hear, “Shark on the left” yelled just as we surfaced for air. By the time we submerged again, we only saw one last flick of the shark’s exit. They were so quick! The water teemed with sharks so we still got our fair share of viewings.

When the captain said we needed to head back to land, we climbed back on board and tried to take off our full-length wet suits. Nothing was more comical than trying to remove these stubborn suits as the boat hit wave after wave. We would reach for our sandals and they would slide to the other side of the boat. When we moved timidly to fetch them, they would quickly return back to our seat. Trying to put my cover-up back on, I was rocked and thrown against walls blindly every time the boat would hit a wave. But it was all worth it.

We went on to kayak with penguins, hike out to Cape Point, visit Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and ate as often as possible of the local cuisine. At the end of the week, I returned to my village and John went home. We just had to wait one more year for my service to end until we could see each other again, but in the meanwhile, we were high off of our South African adventures together.

john and i in the garden

Relaxing in Cape Town’s Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens