The Start of Pre-Service Training (PST)

After staging, the Peace Corps bussed us to the airport. We arrived 2 hours before check-in even opened–the Peace Corps smartly took no chances and built ample time into the schedule. Then more waiting, then the flight. The flight from the US to Johannesburg was around 14 hours. When we landed, we changed into business casual (a 14 hour flight is no excuse to be wearing street clothes!) and met some of the local Peace Corps staff at the airport. They herded us onto a bus, and we drove a few hours to the site of our Pre-Service Training (PST), a small teaching college.

Like many government properties in South Africa, the teaching college was a fenced, guarded compound. And for the first 10 days we were in South Africa, our whole lives were inside this compound. It was like a little American colony, our only contact with South Africa being food, the staff, and a few full-time South African college students.

This was my first taste of African food (minus the ballin’ biltong purchased from the gas station en route):

Food here is eaten plate style, where everything is piled on and basically mixes itself together. The white stuff on the left is samp, which is corn kernels ground very rough then boiled. Proceeding clockwise is beets (called beetroot here), meat (stew), some pumpkin (could also be squash), green bean casserole Africa-style, and salad. Topping off the magnificent is a can of face-melt:

I was (and am still) super pumped at the ubiquity of Tab–the PR disaster cancer-causing chemicals are no longer invited to the party. Nobody else shared my joy for the taste of 1983.

That pudding and jello thing behind the Tab is just that. If you’re South African, its custard and jelly. They mix amazingly well.

The first taste of food also came with our first taste of being a Peace Corps Volunteer. Many of the workers and students at the college were completely befuddled at the presence of Americans, and we got to hone our skills having the kinds of conversations you have a lot as a Peace Corps Volunteer–”you’re from America? it must be like X? do you know X? take me back with you. how do I get to America? Obama!”. I really like these kinds of conversations.

Training was very isolating from the beginning. We were locked in this compound, unable to leave (there were some jogs with escorts, I think) for these first 10 days. But even after we were moved into our training homestays, the feeling of isolation didn’t change. Our mail during training came through Peace Corps South Africa HQ, which meant we only got it every few days when someone came from HQ to the training location. Postage was not always available for sending mail. And it was recommended that we not have cell phones.

I still don’t understand the no-phone advice. It was never a rule, just a guideline. Maybe it was to keep us from getting used to talking to loved ones at home (although almost everyone at their site has good cell access)? Maybe they thought we would need to get used to isolation?

Even in South Africa, communication is everywhere and anyone who can afford a cellphone is perpetually connected, in some ways more so than in the US, thanks to cheap phones and very cheap ways of texting. I know that “back in the day” being in the Peace Corps meant total isolation, but that just simply isn’t true in a lot of the world, including most of South Africa. Maybe the no-phone advisory is cobwebs from the bygone days of being airlifted into the jungle with a wad of cash and a “see-you-in-two-years”?

Thankfully, our isolation was never total. Every few days the Peace Corps staff would drive us in small groups to some of the few working pay phones in the area. We were supplied a phone card good for about an hour of calls to the USA. Behold, the Peace Corps South Africa switchboard:

Many of the pay phones in SA are dead, often the victims of vandalism. And just like in the US, cell phone adoption means fewer payphones. And when you want to make a cheap call (cell calls are expensive) you can find one of the thousands of privately run cell-based pay phones. I’ve heard from multiple South Africans the individuals who own the cell-based pay phones (you can buy one for less than $100 USD and start charging people for calls) vandalize the land-line based pay phones to take out the competition. I have no proof of this, so who knows how true it is. All I know is finding a working landline payphone can be a challenge.

Our cluster of phones was right by the police station, and very much functioning.

The other field-trip destination was the local shopping complex, where we went for regular breaths of the sweet air of consumer consumption. The shopping complex near our training compound had 2 supermarkets, 2 furniture stores, a hardware store, a variety of “china shops” selling all sorts of things, a bakery, a few restaurants, a PEP (clothes mostly), liquor stores, and a handful of other places to blow money. Crammed amongst the shiny retail stores were informal stalls selling everything from haircuts, to live chickens, to Internet.

Here is proof that we were very much in the developed world:

A parking lot!

The training compound bordered a small nature reserve, so we had some interesting neighbors:

The first 10 days of training were exhausting. The schedule did not really give us time to deal with jet lag. Breakfast was at 7, and then we were in training sessions until about 4PM, which was followed by informal soccer or Frisbee (desperately needed physical activity). Dinner was at 6, and after dinner was an “optional” movie usually about South African history that almost everyone went to because we were all still very gung-ho at that point. The movies were over at about 9 or so, and since we were still battling jet-lag it was off to bed. There was disappointingly little revelry.

Existence was maintained by decent food plus two tea breaks a day. Thank goodness for the tea breaks. Tea breaks are awesome and a lack of them stateside is proof of the failure of modern America to be as awesome as possible.

The introductory sessions were interesting, but it was also very easy to engage with the early training sessions because the novelty of the situation made everything exciting (unfortunately, burnout set in after a few weeks). We learned how to greet in most of the 11 national languages, studied South African culture and history, talked about apartheid and its legacy, got introduced to the school system, and got heavily briefed on living with host families. We also did a lot of singing. Singing is a big part of the culture here and it was fun to have a chance to get used it. Everyone sings, no matter how good or bad they sound.

Everyone also gets shots, no matter how much they dislike needles:

What seemed like every few days, medical would show up with that cooler and inject us with a special mix of genetic material and structural proteins likely previously incubated in a blend of animal byproducts. Many amusing side-effects were to be had, but nothing too serious and nothing even approaching infection with one of the many diseases we were now immune to. Thanks, Edward Jenner!

Our accommodation was cozy. 4 to a room:

It was tight, but it was tolerable for 10 days. There were students studying on campus who lived 4 to a room for their entire higher education. It was probably good that the Peace Corps kept us so busy, you’re less likely to go stir-crazy when you’re totally exhausted.

After our 10 days in the compound, we moved in with our host families. We were now officially living in South African villages.

3 Comments

Matt Kertman says:

Nice. Fond, fond memories…

14 Feb 11 @ 9pm

Jesse says:

KB is the master of giving shots, so if you got one from her, consider yourself lucky. I found going shopping was always an interesting experience. I learned that Bread, Chicken, and Beer actually make for a good meal.

15 Feb 11 @ 10pm

Nosipho Gumede says:

I’m South African and just wanted to say that it was interesting reading about how someone else views our country. Thank you for being open minded, enjoying our food and for once, it was nice to read about Americans that didnt just see violence and poversity in this beautiful country of ours. Hope you come again for a visit some time and visit even more beautiful parts of the country, with a proper mall that has more that 100 stores!! Lol!

Take care

05 Sep 12 @ 5pm