Confessions of A Self-Professed Snake-Lover

Last April I joined 5 other Peace Corps volunteers for a 6-day hike in the Namib-Naukluft National Park in Namibia, frequently cited online as one of the “toughest hike in Africa.” My hiking experience prior to Naukluft was a 1-overnight hike in the Shenandoah National Park, VA. Luckily, two of the volunteers were very experienced hikers, so I felt safe enough to tag along despite my lack of experience.

Due to my short stature and even shorter legs, I quickly became to slowest hiker in the group, forever the penultimate in the line whom a fellow hiker who brought up the end had to keep a diligent eye out. Half way through the trip I realized I’ve bruised my left hip joint from all the steep drops over boulders, and the group had to constantly wait for me to catch up. On top of being exhausted, I was guilt-wracked the whole way for slowing the group down. In a nutshell, I didn’t feel like I was in any position to give any opinion on anything for the duration of the trip. I should just keep my mouth shut and be grateful that my fellow hikers haven’t dumped me in the wild yet.

The third day of the hike found the six of us traipsing through a boulder-filled valley where the river had run dry during the raining season. As usual, I was lagging behind by a couple hundred yards. When I finally caught up with my group, I found our unofficial team leader holding a two-meter long stick, poking gingerly under a rock while the rest of the group perched on various boulders to watch.

“It’s a black mamba!”

A black mamba’s venom can kill a person within twenty minutes, and we were three-day hike from cellphone reception. All in all, poking it with a stick is probably the dumbest thing a persona can do. The part of me that worked in the herpetology lab before wanted to tell the guy lay off, but being the slowest hiker in the group, I somehow felt that I was in no position to tell the team leader to do anything. And to be honest, I can’t say I was at least a little intrigued by seeing a live black mamba. Instead of staying 50 ft. away and telling the guy off, I climbed behind a tree that grew out of the precipice and took out my camera.

Finally the mamba was poked enough that it lashed out, spitting venom and sending us idiots running. No one was hurt, and we finished the hike with nothing more than bruises and blisters.

However, the incident sat uneasily on my mind for months to come. There were so many ways the event could have gone wrong, and if it had, someone in the group would have been dead. And what’s the point of having worked in a herpetology lab if I could not even find the balls to tell my fellow hikers to leave a record man-killing snake alone? I felt ashamed of myself for months. No matter how much of a wuss I am at hiking, it should not have stopped me from making use of my experience at the herpetology lab to know the right thing to do when you encounter a venomous snake in the wild. With knowledge comes responsibility, and it’s the responsibility of anybody who have worked in a herpetology lab to tell people off when they’re messing around with a black mamba.

The conclusion is, on future trips with fellow volunteers, I will tell anyone off who tries to mess with a dangerous reptile and amphibian. If you decided to leave the safari truck to take pictures with wild lions, or swim in a hippo infested river, I will consider that natural selection of the human race and leave you to your own device; I didn’t work in the mammal department. However, if you try to mess with any reptiles and amphibians (include: snakes, lizards, salamanders, frogs, crocodiles, komodo dragons, and Galapagos tortoises,) I will tell you off even if it means souring the atmosphere of the trip. I do solemnly swear I will.

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The Textbook-Incident and Why I Hate Myself That Night

The Textbook-Incident and Why I Hate Myself That Night
(quoted from a letter to fellow Peace Corps volunteer)

The day started like any other, English class, Arts class, blazing hot sun and discus training, then a bit of catch up work in the classroom during evening studies to deal with administrative drudgery. I never expected I would spend the latter part of the evening hating myself.

Being a tomboy teacher myself, I horseplay with my grade 7 students all the time. I am distinctly aware that occasionally my horseplay takes on disciplinary tints; a punch in the arm here, a knee in the bum there. The effects are always humorous for my students, who either never seen such horseplay from a teacher, or never seen such pathetic excuse of corporal punishment. I never feel bad over these horseplay, since I never rely on them for real discipline. I laugh along with my students over these acts.

Things took an unexpected turn during even studies that day. I was distributing textbooks, something that could have been done innocuous without a hitch. I wasn’t particularly stressed that day and wasn’t PMSing. The class got unnaturally loud, and the teacher on duty complained. Somewhere along the chaos I brought a textbook down on a student’s head. I didn’t think twice at the moment. It way after evening studies on my way back home did I realize that I have crossed the line of horseplay.

It was not the first time I brought a textbook down on a student’s head before, but all previous times I had laughed along with the students; the act was more sisterly than anything. It was fun. But the textbook-incident during the evening study was not. It was not horseplay. I enjoy horseplay, and I didn’t enjoy anything that night.

So, I spend the evening moping and hating myself. I recalled that I had an unusual tolerance for witnessing corporal punishment comparing to other American volunteers, and compounded with the textbook-incident made me felt like a terrible person.

I’m generally a pacifist (hence Peace Corps,) have no history of violence, is a habitual yea-sayer and rescues drowning insects out of my bathtub, so why did I cross that line between horseplay and corporal punishment so easily when other volunteers couldn’t even bare to watch it?

The only explanation was that I grew up under corporal punishment myself. I got my share of spanking growing up in Taiwan in my own house, and was beaten in schools all the way until grade 9 when I went to the States. Not all the teachers practice corporal punishment, and I remember a few who absolutely refuses to beat at all. Nonetheless, the prevailing practice easily won out over those few enlightened teachers, and when I dissected the textbook-incident in my head, I concluded that I did it because it was part of the disciplinary repertoire so deeply rooted in my upbringing that I didn’t even realize when the monster rears up its ugly head. I thought I had taken extra mental precaution against crossing the line, but the textbook-incident proved that I wasn’t trying hard enough.

I thought about my parents, liberal and enlightened even by American standards, and yet corporal punishment wasn’t completely absent from my household. Thinking back now, they probably wanted to beat me a lot more than they allow themselves to. Even with their enlightened mindset, corporal punishment seeped through, not because they are naturally violent, but because they themselves were brought up under corporal punishment and it was hard for them to make a clean break with that century, or even millennia old tradition.

Corporal punishment is not different from domestic violence. It gets passed on from generations to generations. It’s the herpes of family values.

Having done that mental exercise, I realized how bad I want that entrenched tradition to stop with me. It’s enough to be on the receiving end of the problem in past, I don’t want to become part of that problem myself.

I still kinda hate myself, but hopefully I learned a painful lesson (pun not intended) that would make sure that the textbook-incident would never happen again.

For us volunteers it might feel that our effort to stop corporal punishment is a drop in the ocean, but now that I realize I’m experiencing the lasting impact of corporal punishment myself, I believe every little bit of effort is needed to battle this problem, chipping it away as much as we are able to. American schools and homes weren’t always violence-free, and it took decades of effort, countless people who were told they were wasting their time, to reach where we are today. What we do counts.

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COS-ing Group 30ers.

Since mid-September, Group 30 Peace Corps volunteers have reached their COS (Completion of Service.) Group 30, nick-named the Dirty 30, which arrived a year before us Group 32, have been an legendary group amongst Peace Corps Namibia, full of super-volunteers, fabulous antics, and overwhelming personality. We the Group 32ers are under pressure to live up to the challenge in the eyes of the recent incoming Group 34 volunteers to appear just as cool and wonderful.

I recently said goodbye to two Group 30 volunteers who had shared my shopping town Gobabis. It was an odd feeling to see them go and welcome the incoming Group 34 volunteers. It seemed only yesterday that I was the newbie, asking the Group 30ers all kinds of nervous questions concerning my service. Now the Group 30s are packing and it’s my turn to answer the nervous questions. I guess time is flying-by much faster than it feels.

I had the fortune to talk to one of the Group 30 super-volunteers during my medical service. Brad was an education volunteer in Luderitz, a port-town in the deep south of Namibia. Besides being a teacher, Brad took on numerous projects ranging from local bicycle repair shop to renovating computer labs. When I met him in the Peace Corps lounge, he asked if I could proof read his close of service statement and I gladly agreed. I was astounded by the amount of work he did in two years, even teaching bicycle repair in Afrikaans. At the time I was having mid-service crisis and asked him for advice.

“I wish I could do half as many projects as you did, or else how else am I to let people back in the States (I was thinking graduate school when I said that) believe that I achieved anything while in Peace Corps?”

“You don’t have to” was what he said.

I really wish I could believe that I wouldn’t have to. At that moment he was on his way to an interview for an admin position with Doctors Without Borders. A few months later I heard he got the job. In retrospect, talking to an extremely successful volunteers might have increased, not lessened my pressure.

The other important advice the departing-PCV imparted dealt with self-love. No one really loves you more than yourself, and if you cannot love yourself, there is no reason why other people should. No one is responsible for your happiness, and if you cannot make yourself happy without outside support, you are far away from making anyone around you happy. What entails from this ideology is self-entertainment in the bush (hmm that think that came out a bit wrong.) When you are by yourself in the bush, there will be days when you cannot talk to another local people anymore and just want American (or Taiwanese, for that matter) companionship. But you’re not going to get it. So if there is any hope that as a volunteer you are going to making the locals that you work with happy, you need to find a way to make yourself happy through those down days. Read, blog, sleep, watch a movie, go for a run, recite poetry, whatever.

The last important lesson this PCV told me he learned through these four years is the ability to say No when you feel like it. As volunteers who believe they are out changing the world, it is difficult for us to say no to any requests form the people you work with. It is even more so for someone raised in a Confucian culture like me, where people are timid of even speaking up in public. Yet realistically, if you assent to every request thrown your way, not only will you be exhausted within the month, but you leave the impression on the locals that they can just dump whatever they don’t want to the do onto the volunteers. Hardly good for sustainable development. I am glad to say that I have slowly acquired the skill of No-saying, and by the end of my service I might even be able to speak my mind at will.

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Mid Service and All Volunteer Conference

Mid-Service is a conference that takes place around the full year mark for all the volunteers in each group. Group 32’s AVC this year took place during early July, right before the All Volunteers Conference. We are once again sent back to the lodge on the top of a cliff right outside Windhoek for two days, bombarded with sessions after sessions, with themes that runs along the line of “What have you learned?” “What are you expectations?” “In what area do you need more support?” These sessions quickly became soporific after a while, and many of us concentrated our efforts on hoarding free mint candies and doodling on the margins of handouts.

However, a few heated exchanges between volunteers and Peace Corps staff woke highlighted the two-day conference. In particular after an escalating debate over the issue of site-evaluation, one Peace Corps staff member made a comment along the line that some sites don’t really want volunteers, which was why getting support to the site was difficult. That comment instantly caused a murmur around the room, since most of us believed that Peace Corps should only send volunteers to site that have real needs for our support. If the site does not want a volunteer, why should Peace Corps send us in. Regardless of what that staff member meant by that comment, and whether or not we believe the comment, it created a lot of discontent amongst the volunteers. Even if the statement was completely untrue, it is still a very callous thing to say to those of us who gave up two years of their lives in this country, shedding much sweat and tears in belief that our efforts are not wasted.

The next day, the Country Director came in to patch up, restating that our presence at every site is greatly appreciated by the host country, and he regrets if any staff member’s comments had led us to think otherwise. Nonetheless, it was a very unpleasant experience for us volunteers

After the Mid-service conference ended, all group 32 volunteers were trucked to an upscale hotel in the suburbs of Windhoek to attend the All the Volunteers Conference. The AVC has never happened before in Peace Corps Namibia, nor most of Peace Corps Africa. One reason was budget limitations, while the other was the unpleasant experience of PC South Africa a few years back. Rumor has it that too many people got drunk and reckless during the event, making AVC a liability. Fortunately, 2011 is the 50th anniversary of Peace Corps, so a special budget for celebrating the anniversary was given to each country, and our Country Director decided to use this money to host an AVC. All the volunteers in Peace Corps Namibia were invited. Even though we lodge in the economy rooms, Safari Hotel was still one of the most westernized accommodations in Windhoek. The gym was beautiful with snow-white towels, a jaccuzi, and a steam room. There was free internet, room service upon request, and hot showers with free shampoo and soap. But what drew our attention the most was the buffet. A BUFFET! ALL YOU CAN EAT! We descended upon the buffet like lions set upon a flock sheep. There was even ice cream!

The AVC itself took place in the auditorium and lasts for two days. The event started with an ice breaker, then various introductions, speeches and thanks. Various workshops involving experience-sharing, stress management, administration and security debriefs. The event I enjoyed the most was sharing experiences with PCVs from other groups, especially Resource PCVs who had been in the country for more than three years. They are not only a source of hilarious stories but also an inspiration for those of us who still had another year to go through. A senior volunteer gave one of the most hysterical PCV stories ever:

This female PCV’s father decided to send her daughter a little bit of cash in USD. Knowing the frequency of mail pillaging, he decided that he should hide the cash in the most discrete fashion. The said volunteers received the package and managed to extract USD180 from various crevices of a box of tampons. She was a little suspicious, since 180 seemed an odd number to send. Nonetheless, 180 was all she could find. A few months later, a Namibian colleague came to visit her at her house. During the visit, she asked for a tampon o from the PCV and went into the bathroom. While the PCV was cooking in the kitchen, she heard a blood-curdling scream from the bathroom. Her colleague rushed out, holding what appeared to be a black pebble in her hand. “What is this? It’s so HARD!” The PCV gingerly took the pebble then commenced to unfold it 7 times to reveal a 20 dollar bill. She gave the bill back to her colleague. “Keep it. If you ever have the chance to visit America, give this to the waiter of the restaurant with the most terrible service.”

Us junior PVCs listened with mouths wide open, perfectly aware of where the story was going, but still gasped with horror at the way the story unfolded.

The last of AVC saw some illustrious guests of honor, including Namibia’s vice minister of education, the US ambassador, and former Peace Corps Namibian volunteers who had continued to work in the humanitarian field. The speeches by the latter is particularly inspiring, showing what we could do in a few more years if we persevere.

Prior to the conference, we were asked to wear our respective ethnic clothes to demonstrate our effort to integrate into Namibia’s diverse cultures. Obviously, I could not miss this chance. I borrowed the leather Tswana bikinis from my school’s Culture Group and went the all nine yards. Observe the pictures. For you information, Namibian reporters were present, and when I went back to site several teachers told me they saw me in Tswana bikini on television.

That evening we were invited to the ambassador’s house for a pizza dinner. The house was located in one of the most affluent blocks of Windhoek amongst several other ambassadors. There were multiple checkpoints on the road, and bags were searched before entering. It was truly an opulent house even by American standards, complete with a pool and a billiard room furnished with a bar. There was free wine and beer and napkins emblazoned by golden US seals. A few moments later, the pizzas were brought in. The grandeur of the pizza can only be told by pictures. One of them was the size of tire. People eager inquired where the pizzas were from. Not a single slice was left within 30 minutes, and somehow the ambassador was able to produce fairly genuine chocolate chip cookies for dissert. It was a spectacular evening.

We were transported back to the hotel at around 9:30. The buffet was still open. I thought I was going to be the only one who was disgusting enough to go in for more disserts after a pizza dinner, but apparently great minds think the same and the buffet was quickly filled up by volunteers looking for a second dinner.

The next day sadly bade goodbye to our fellow volunteers, the luxurious hotel and genuine spring mattresses to return to our respective sites. I teamed up with another volunteer to go watch Harry Potter 7-2 in the local cinema before heading out. The cinema’s quality was atrocious, with frequent blackouts or random mutes, and you can clearly see the break where they had to change the rolls. Nonetheless, I think the movie itself was great and I look forward to watching it again on more accommodating settings. The epilogue was not persuasive at all despite the makeup, since all three of them still looking like they’re 23. Only Ginny Weasley’s actress pulled off the mother look, which may or may not be a compliment.

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Chess competition

In the middle of term 2 there was an inter-Catholic school competition of spelling, debate and chess in our region. In the end only three schools participated, but it was still an event that required a lot of preparation. From my own grade 5 and 6 class, only two grade 6 will be participating in spelling, an event that we decided required little preparation. Instead, I devoted my time to training the older kids in chess. The grade 10 class consists of a couple of very strong players to whom I could teach very little, so instead I focused on training the younger kids to the basic rules of chess. However, even for the grade 10s, their training in chess was very unsystematic, and none of them had ever heard of castling, much less en passant, so I was able to at least mention a few elementary chess concepts such as which pieces are generally more desirable at end games, or where the ideal position of a knight generally should be.
Technically speaking, the grade 10s are not allowed ANY extracurricular activity in order to focus on studying. But after much wrangling I was able to bring a boy and a girl to the competition, Stanley and Queen. I was particularly happy to bring Stanley because he didn’t have much self-confidence due to his academic grades. At the competition, he easily flattened every other competitor to win 1st place. He was even invited to speak a few word on the stage as the champion, an honor that he seldom has in a purely academic setting. In a surprising twist, Stanley gave me an honorary mention during his spiel. It ran something like this:
“I want to thank Ms. Hwang for teaching how to put my castle around my king. It was the reason why I won.”
The accompanying teachers from our school yelled from the back of the auditorium.
“Stanley! You’re giving the secret away!”
I laughed myself silly. Yes, castling is SUCH A SECRET.
My two grade 6 student easily took first place also during the spelling competition, I don’t even think there was any competition. Those two kids were already top of the class, and I suspect they would have done well even without me.
The competition was right before the Mid-service and AVC conferences, so immediately after the competition I went off to Gobabis to overnight. That evening I and two other volunteers in Gobabis had a mini pizza party. Observe my avocado, cheese and mushroom pizza with extra cat-suaveness on the side.

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Computer lessons

During term two I commenced a weekly computer lesson to my fellow teachers. Tuesday for thee advanced group, and Wednesday for the beginner group. I greatly enjoyed these lessons, especially the begginer’s lessons. At least half the teachers at my school own a laptop, but their knowledge of computer does not allow them to do more than play music or do simple Notepad-level word processing. They were excited to discover the usage of various buttons on the the Microsoft Word toolbar that they had seen for a long time but never know how to operate. Simple functions such as font size, italics and centering are familiar concepts that they can now finally put into practice. Hot keys are always bring gasps of pleasure when the teachers master them. It is considered on par with magic.
Unfortunately, the attendance petered out after the term, and the organizing teacher and decided that we aren’t going to chase down the teachers and force them to attend if they don’t want to. Ah well, such are the nature of projects in this country, At least most people know how to chance font sizes and do italics in my school now.

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Taiwanese nun

Back in early April I made some oatmeal cookies and brought them to the mission. It was to my great surprise and pleasure to find an old Asian lady sitting in the mission’s common room. Sister Jutta told me that they had been looking for me all day because they had a special guest that would like to meet me. The old Asian lady came around and wrung my hand, introduced each other in English, then beyond all my wildest hopes that found myself face to face with a Taiwanese nun in the middle of the Namibian bush. Sister Veronica was from the region of Taichung, Taiwan, and had serviced as mother superior in New Jersey for more than a decade. This tour in Namibia shall be her final project before retiring to Taiwan.
I sat down around the table, which include the two German nuns, a German gentleman who had been a long-time donor to the mission, two Namibian nuns and the Asian lady afore mentioned. Sister Veronica said jocosely that now she would speak Chinese to me and it would be their turn to be cut out of the conversation. The group had been speaking mostly German and Afrikaans before I arrived.
We chatted about our various backgrounds and her general impressions of Namibia. She complimented me on my courage on coming to Africa until I was red in the ears. Later she pulled to her guest room and showered me with various pickled fruits she brought from Taiwan, along with a few American snacks she brought from the States. Needless to say I was delighted beyond words. We gave our number to each other and promised to contact each other once we’re back in Taiwan.
A few months after the incident, my parents told me through skype that they received a phone call from Sister Veronica, further complimenting me.
Fate, or緣份, is a fascinating mechanism. Taiwan’s not a big place, neither do we have a big population. Yet despite these two facts, two Taiwanese somehow met each in the most unlikely places of all: a middle-of-nowhere village that does not appear on google map, in an African country mostly don’t know exist. Fascinating.
A few months later Sister Veronica returned to Taiwan and called by parents, praising my courage as a volunteer and condemned my stupidity in trying to hitchhike in Africa. You know what, this nuns has a point. I’m touched by her concern. I’ve been free hiking a lot less these days.

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