Thursday, August 16, 2012

Rugby: A great excuse to wear really short shorts

For the past few years since I stopped playing high school sports yet continued to relive the glory days by telling people how much better Marist athletics were than their high school’s, I had an interest in playing rugby. I would like to have played at BU my freshman year but I felt unsure of the stability of my knee after having reconstructive surgery. After spending a semester in New Zealand, I was pretty hooked on rugby but still not brave enough to play when I came back to Boston. I never gave much thought to playing rugby after I graduated, not until my Peace Corps roommate Rob suggested we join the local club in Rehoboth.

The allure of rugby for me lies in the seemingly no holds-barred, score-however-you-can attitude. Little did I know, there are more esoteric, indecipherable rules than you can shake a stick at. We’ll get to that later.

So when I started coming around to practice I had pretty much no idea what to expect. Was the experience going to be indicative of “ZOMG THIS IS HIGHEST LEVEL OF NAMIBIAN RUGBY”, or more likely the former, “this is Namibia/Africa and the level of efficiency/organization will be shoddy at best”? As with most things, it was a balance of the two poles, with the latter sticking its head out at awkward times e.g. “we got a sponsorship of almost N$ 6,000 from MTC (cellphone company)!....sooo turn in a pair of black shorts so we can sew an MTC patch on there” or “okay we’ve got a big game this weekend against United, they’re one of the best clubs from Windhoek….first team, report on Saturday to draw the chalk lines on the field” or “we had an awesome TV in the clubhouse…but it got stolen”. Amateur sports at its finest. And I loved it.

We practiced two times a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays (sometimes Wednesdays as well on game weeks). The Tuesday practice was nearly always conditioning and at the Thursday practice, management would announce the teams (we always had a first and second team, on two occasions we had a third team – where I made my grand entrance into rugby). So, if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that the team isn’t announced till Thursday, meaning that the attendance of practice from Tuesday to Thursday pretty much triples. Fortunately for us hard-working American boys, the coaches took notice of attendance and we were pretty much always included on a team.

Now the part of this rambling word vomit you’ve all been waiting for: Sam Kelly hijinks from the rugby field. It must be said that while I had some experience watching rugby, I still could name only two, maybe three positions (of the fifteen on the field). So after sticking around for two weeks of practices, the coaches realized we Englishmen (they didn’t really understand that we were American, just that we spoke English, hence “Engelsman” in Afrikaans) weren’t going away so they needed to find positions for us. Since football derives from rugby, the positions are set up fairly similarly to American football. Basically, the team is divided into “forwards” and “backs”. Forwards are essentially your linemen and you could possibly include linebackers in there as well. Backs are everything else. One thing I realized when my Marist football career came to an end (with a lot of time on the bench) was that I didn’t exactly buttonhole into any particular position. Although I spent my time as a back-up guard, I was probably too small to be an effective offensive lineman but was always too slow to be any sort of back. Perhaps I would’ve been better suited at a defensive position but by the time I had acquired some mild form of speed junior year, I was already entrenched as the dregs of offensive lineman. Anyway, the position they found for me at Rehoboth Rugby Club was “flanker”: one of the eight forward players but also leaning toward a forward/back hybrid. It is at once a position where a player can excel and be a team leader (see: Richie McCaw for the NZ All Blacks) or can pretty much do your job as adequately as possible and not fuck things up too much (see: me).

As this is starting to get oppressively long, I’ll wrap it up with probably the most remarkable episode from the beginning of what I’m sure will be an illustrious international rugby career. After surviving playing on the third team against the local rival Reho Falcons’ third team, I was selected to the second team (!) against University of Namibia. Before that moment, I looked at making the second team as an unattainable feat. So when they called my name I was frightened, nervous and excited. Mostly frightened. This particular game was being played at UNAM so that meant traveling. Recall the hazy line between Premier League Rugby and complete bush league? Transportation to the game was promised to be a luxurious mini-bus. Reality: transportation to the game was a closed bakkie with 8 other rugby dudes. We arrive just as our women’s rugby affiliate team, none other than the Reho PANDAS, is finishing up. We change from our pretty badass mandatory game-day uniform of blue jeans and white button downs into the hand-me-down jerseys. I don the flanker signature number 7. We walk out from the dungeon-like locker rooms that are beneath the stadium seating as the Reho Pandas offer a continuous ear-ringing, adrenaline-pumping chant/cheer. Per rugby tradition, we line up next to the opposing team before taking the field. Combining both teams, I’m in the bottom three smallest players. We hustle out and teammates guide me where to stand on the kick-off. We’re receiving. It’s a beautiful sunny day, few clouds in the sky and an impressive view of Windhoek as the UNAM campus and athletic field sit on a hill above the city. There’s the signature sound of toe meeting leather and the kick is sent in our direction and into the blue sky. I’m calling “MINE” and catching the ball, taking several steps before being tackled and going down, grasping the ball for dear life. Still on the ground, in this dude’s embrace, a few quick seconds pass and there is a whistle. “Holding!” the ref says and gestures. Damn right! That guy was all over me, holding and shit. He again gestures, this time for our team to back up and someone places the ball on a tee. THEY HAVE A PENALTY KICK. LITERALLY SECONDS HAVE ELAPSED AND I HAVE PERSONALLY ALREADY GIVEN POINTS TO THE OTHER TEAM. Their scrum-half aligns himself for the kick. Kick is up…WIDE RIGHT, NO GOOD! Our captain jogs past me a “it’s okay Sam, just don’t hold the ball so long next time.”

Monday, March 26, 2012

Into the Desert

Since my last post concerned what I consider the mundane aspects of my day-to-day life, I’ll shed some light on some more exceptional experiences I’ve had lately.

Awhile back, my principal had mentioned to me about going to something called “nadeet”. Later, I told my Peace Corps boss Waldo about this and he said that I would love going to this so-called “nadeet”. Another teacher told me it involved going into the desert and sleeping outside and generally roughing it. Not until perhaps a week before I departed did I learn more about the unclearly defined trip I was to take. “NaDEET” stands for Namib Desert Environmental Education Trust and is an educational organization located on a private nature reserve called NamibRand on the fringes of the Namib Desert. Even those details I only learned upon our arrival.

To get to NaDEET from Rehoboth we went south on the B1, which is the main highway that runs north to south and forms the spine of Namibia. Split between our recently acquired school bus and a hired combi (think big-ass van), we piled in 40 Grade 7 learners and the two chaperone teachers of whom I was one. The drive was about three and a half hours and could’ve been shorter had we not stopped at every major stopping point along the way - of which there aren’t more than three or four but still. We turned off the B1 onto a westerly highway that was entirely unremarkable in scenery until eventually we hit a gravel road where we kicked up copious amounts of dust. This unpaved road eventually descended into a valley/canyon of sorts, surrounding us with Table Mountain-esque plateau formations. It was quite beautiful as the cliffs and valleys are plastered with green vegetation from the rainy season. This landscape petered out into grassland savanna with the plateau-type formations at our back. Before I have us arrive at NaDEET, I should mention I was riding in the combi with 15 or so boys who I had to consistently yell at to stop throwing things at each other and/or generally annoying the hired driver. I will say they are great at sharing: all I had to do is ask for a certain type of snack (chips, sweets, etc.) and it would materialize. As we rolled finally into NaDEET property, we saw several groups of both springbok and oryx –both of which are antelope species, springbok being small and deer-like while oryx are larger and have like black spears for horns. The road with the wildlife on each sides dead-ended into rising red sand dunes reminiscent of both Tatooine and Arrakis (on my nerd grind).

We came to these dunes and were welcomed by NaDEET’s staff, which actually consists of a PCV named Karley and two Namibians named Vilho (aka Uncle V to the kids) and Maria. We parked our vehicles, Karley instructed us to load up their bakkie with our bags, and we hiked over the dunes into the “valley” where we would be staying for the next five days. Staff gave us water bottles (unnecessary for a PCV with a Nalgene aka “Sam Jr.” like myself – we’re actually known around the country for being the white people that always walk around with water bottles), we settled into our accommodations (all A-frame type wooden structures on stilts, some with tin roofs and some with non-waterproof netting), and began to do this whole living in the desert thing. Karley gave us an introduction to all our amenities: basically the long drop toilet and bucket showering (surprisingly awesome – they have this deal set up for getting water pretty damn hot through solar energy).

To switch into fast-forward, the gist of NaDEET is sustainability – living with the limited resources (water and electricity specifically) that Namibia has. Our kids learned about using solar energy firsthand by using solar cookers to prepare our food. We also measured water and electricity usage everyday so that the kids could see their “carbon footprint”. It was nice to see this term used in a way that wasn’t an offer to pay like $30 bucks when you fly Delta. Everyday the learners spent some time in the classroom learning about sustainability, the desert environment and wildlife, and other things I don’t remember. Over the course of the week, the learners did various activities outside of the classroom including the aforementioned measuring of energy and water. But we also went on a dune walk to see the wildlife and vegetation firsthand, set traps to catch insects and small animals overnight, and went dune boarding on the last day. For most of this, the other teacher and I hung on the sidelines as our only responsibility was to keep the kids in line and make sure they go to bed and wake up at the proper times. The whole putting the kids to bed deal made me glad I am not at a hostel school (a school where the learners live at school during the term - so like a boarding school with a lot less money). I had to stand out in the middle of the valley yelling at the kids to go to bed and make sure girls weren’t going to boys houses and vice versa. One night, I couldn’t help but laugh when two boys were outside of their house hiding from me and making “meow” noises (now whenever these boys see me at school, they obviously meow). Overall, I believe NaDEET was a great experience for the kids but I’m not sure if we will go back next year as a grant from the European Union to NaDEET paid for most of our education costs this time. I didn’t know many of the Grade 7’s before but I think now I’m a big hit with them if maybe a little too buddy-buddy. Luckily, I don’t teach any of them. One of their favorite things besides meowing was asking me if I eat Namibian foods like “pap and vleis” (meat and porridge) and proceeding to giggle when I answered in the affirmative.

That’s all I’ve got for my NaDEET trip. Next blogpost (coming soon, hopefully) will most likely detail my experience so far playing rugby in Rehoboth.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Teaching, etc.

Three weeks into the reality of Peace Corps service and I’ve again been cajoled into writing another blogpost. I apologize for the alleged deficiency of information but it is hard for me to believe that anyone is all that interested in my daily life at this point. But if that’s what the people want, who am I to deny the masses?

5:00 – 6:30 AM: I wake up to an alarm from my perfectly adequate cell phone – which was recently referred to mockingly as a “Tamagachi” (spelling?) by a learner. I roll out of bed and connect to the internet via Telecom’s “Happy Hour” promotion wherein for N$ 10 a week, you get free internet connection from 12 AM to 6 AM. I make real coffee with a French press given to me by my PCV buddy Neil (note: never in my life have I been so addicted to coffee – I had a brutal headache the other day from one day without), eat some cereal, and browse the internets for a few precious moments. Coming out of the room, I see Wicket yawning and wagging his tail expectedly for breakfast and a walk in the predawn outside. I take care of all the dog business and get dressed. Once ready for school, I head down the street and wait for another male teacher from my school to give me a lift in his bakkie.

6:40 – 7:00ish AM: We usually arrive as the morning staff meeting is beginning as my carpool driver is known notoriously for being a few minutes late. If there’s a devotion that day (prayers), we walk in during an Afrikaans hymn or an English one if I’m lucky. My principal addresses the teachers on any relevant issues of the day. Lately, its been regarding our school purchasing a minibus for various events requiring transportation. It’s a complete gamble as to whether the meeting will be completely in Afrikaans or more of a mixture of English and Afrikaans. Usually, my principal will be addressing us in Afrikaans and then catch my eye and say “oh sorry Sam” and say something in Afrikaans at which everyone will chuckle. Sometimes the meeting will end with enough time to get to the first class, sometimes not. Either way, I roll with it and go to my first class (if I have one, some days I have a planning period to start the day).

7:00ish – 12:50 PM: I engage in my Peace Corps service by teaching Namibia’s little darlings. There’s eight 40-minute periods in a day (7 on Fridays) and I never have a full day of classes (part of the PC’s policy for Education Volunteers – we’re supposed to teach about 60% of a full load so that we have time to work on other projects). I don’t have my own classroom so I roam around and teach my classes in open rooms. This is one of the biggest challenges I have; everyday they are literally in a different classroom for my lessons thus making it near impossible to have a set seating arrangement.  At first I had them sit boy-girl-boy-girl but I found this wastes time as they still bicker over who sits where. All of them are like little informants: “Sir, this one is eating in the class”, “Mr. Kelly, he is beating me”, “Sir these boys are talking”, etc. When I get a particularly trite complaint, I tell them I don’t care and I’m not their mom. Probably not the best classroom management method but I don’t have time to teach if I’m resolving the tiniest conflicts in class. Based on the recommendation of another PCV, I’ve divided my two English classes into teams – the Yellow Jackets (the reference is clear), Red Dogs (in honor of the Terriers and the division of the Atlanta Police force of the same name – not that school in Athens you were thinking of), Blue Eagles (I thought War Eagles would provoke undesirable behavior in the classroom), and Purple Elephants (Elephants live in Africa, right? I had nothing for this one). Whichever team has the most points earned from doing homework and good behavior will get a reward at the end of the week. Several teams are in negative points already.

1:00 onwards: I get a ride home, take Wicket out, and make myself lunch. At this point in the year, I am helping with “athletics”, known to us as track and field. Pretty much every school in Namibia is doing this as well. I know pretty much nothing about any of this stuff but often supervise javelin. Some girl asks me “Mr. Kelly, if you don’t know the technique, why are you at the javelin with us?” Great question, little girl, great question. We have a field across the road from the school that we scraped all the weeds off of and have flattened to make a viable athletics field. It’s still strewn with broken glass and is just sand – not grass. It’s actually pretty amazing how it looks compared to before the work was done. Let it also be known that most of this work is done during the school day by the schoolboys. The other day, almost all the boys were working on the field while the girls were just sitting in classrooms. This made for a hectic and confusing day where I had to keep the girls busy without letting the boys fall too far behind.

At this point in my service, if I have an afternoon free I catch up on planning lessons and general schoolwork, read, or watch shows on my external hard drive. This whole athletics business has pretty much dominated extracurricular life at this point so there’s no point in trying to implement any secondary projects. After athletics is over, another teacher and I are planning on starting some sort of club – either an Environmental Club (shout-out to Kelly Mandy) or a Debate Club – for the learners who aren’t that into sports.

That’s all I got for now. I’m trying to keep track of any other tidbits or anecdotes worthy of repetition. Here’s the most adorable thing to happen recently: as Valentine’s Day approaches, the kids are starting to discuss who is whose Valentine. In one of these Grade 6 classes with all girls, a boy ran by the window and shouted at a girl in my class “ADRIANA I LOVE YOU” causing the girls to all giggle and Adriana to blush despite her complexion. It was all mildly funny until the kid came around the building and brought her flowers, causing Adriana to put her head down and cry in embarrassment. I didn’t think she would want be comforted by a male teacher who, I’ll admit, had literally no idea what to say so I went and asked my host mom to save the day again and talk to her. I can’t imagine what will happen when it’s actually Valentine’s Day.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Holiday in Namibia

So after several phone calls that amounted to what can only be called “mom pressure”, I'm going to recount for all you out there my holiday travels and tribulations.

Back in early December, we wrapped up “Phase 2” of training. For me, the last two weeks of that consisted mainly of “invigilating”, which is an ostensibly made-up word for proctoring exams. All in all, it was pretty boring so I'll spare y'all too many details about that. But, its worth mentioning a few things. The little nuggets are not always taking exams, rather sometimes they are supposed to be just studying. Obviously, a bunch of 10-13 year olds just love being forced to sit with pretty much nothing to do since they've never been instructed how to properly study. On one special day, a boy slammed another kid's face into a desk, causing his nose to bleed profusely all over his desk. Like a lot of freaking blood. But my favorite moment occurred when I had a particularly unruly class and I went to get another teacher to help me calm them down. My host mom, a teacher at my school, happened to intervene before the other teacher did. When I got back to the room, she was speaking to them in stern Afrikaans through the window. After she finished, they were dead silent. “What'd you tell them?” I asked. “I told them that everyday they can go home to their parents but Mr. Kelly left his family in America to come teach them but they are making you want to go home.”

After Phase 2, we headed to a conference center outside Windhoek for “Reconnect Training”, a week long catch-all, wrap-up of Pre-Service Training. We discussed our issues at site, ideas for the future, etc. Also, there were some non-sanctioned social events such as a “doppelganger party” and a toga party. I was fortunate enough to draw one of my good friends, Kirby, for the doppelganger party. Unlike some people who had tougher draws, I had all the ammunition I needed. Long story short, I so brutalized some his frequent sayings that he can no longer say “that's fair” without sighing or cursing afterwards. Also, props to Alex for successfully pulling of a Sam Kelly impression. I'm told she had ample help from a couple of my loyal friends on such arts as my now established signature “walk”, dancing, dip-snapping, table-topping people, and wearing V-neck undershirts (note: I never, NEVER, wore those until I came to Namibia). All in all, touche Alex Levy. Other highlights of Reconnect include the humongous millipedes that were everywhere, the Group 34 superlatives (I was dubbed “Most Likely to be Adopted by Waldo”, who is the APCD for the south - pretty much my Peace Corps boss), playing Dungeons and Dragons with Mike Jones, and helping to facilitate a session on racism and apartheid.

After Reconnect, almost our entire Group headed to the coastal town of Swakopmund. I should mention now to those of you who are not aware, the mode of transportation for PCVs in Namibia is hitchhiking, or free-hiking or simply “hiking”. The hike to Swakop was uneventful other than the fact that you drive through Tatooine several kilometers outside of the town. Plants disappear and you're surrounded by rock formations and sand. I think there was also a uranium mine? Then, you see a reddish-orange haze over to the left and eventually a huge desert of sand dunes appears to the south of town. As far as accommodations, we crammed 37 people into two bungalows meant for probably 6-8 people. Not surprisingly, our numbers thinned everyday as some people got fed up with the close quarters and left. For the week we were there, we mostly cruised around the town and admired its German architecture and general neatness and order, ate at restaurants that served pizza, Mexican, Chinese, and other “American cuisines”, hung out on the beach (when it was warm, every other day was cloudy, windy and cold), and toured the local bar scene. Some of us also went sandboarding on the aforementioned dunes. It was surprisingly similar to snowboarding, minus the ski-lifts replaced with exhausting hikes back up the dune. Other highlights from Swakop include a karaoke night with nearly all of our Group, the follow-up night at the same bar where six of us stopped the live band with a rendition of Garth Brooks “Friends in Low Places”, White Elephant Christmas present exchange, a certain contraption Neil and I made to facilitate the consumption of beverages, double table-topping Chelsea and Jess, and last but not least – losing a bet with Chelsea wherein she gave me a lovely haircut, Marist Football Camp style. For kicks, I threw in a handlebar mustache.

After an expensive, exhausting, but generally awesome stay in Swakopmund, I headed back to Okahandja for a night. From there, Kirby and I headed north to the town Ondangawa – a shopping town for a good amount of volunteers – to meet up with our friends up there. That hike was a little more interesting. We waited for almost two hours for a ride out of Okahandja until we finally got a lift in an open bakkie (pick-up truck). It was a gorgeous day and I managed my first nap in the back of an open bakkie. I fell asleep for the two hour ride to Otjiwarongo with one arm over my eyes and my shirt flapping up in the wind a little. Do I really need to say what happened? Suffice to say, I now have a charming tan on the lower part of my belly and one underarm. From Otjiwarango, we got a hike in an air conditioned Mercedes-Benz with a dude whose name was, wait for it, Jason Owen. He wasn't nearly as excited as I was that he had the first two thirds of my brother's name.

So my first experience in the north of Namibia showed how diverse this country really is. The towns are laid out completely differently from the south. Whereas my town of Rehoboth has a center with shops and one traffic light, the northern towns are laid out like the beachfront strip of Panama City Beach. The “town” is a several miles long stretch of shops and stores with people everywhere. Also, in the south they are definitely more accustomed to seeing white people. When we were in Ondangawa, after about the sixth time someone honked and waved at us, the girls told us that this was completely normal. After a night in Ondangawa, four of us hiked north to the village of Ruacana to see Ruacana Falls. We camped at a hotel lodge but it was quite far from the actual Falls. It was going to cost us each N$80 to get a ride from the lodge, but we decided to try our luck and get a taxi at the petrol station. We ended up getting a ride with a local teacher for $150 for all of us. It couldn't have worked out better since he showed us views of the waterfall we definitely would not have found on our own. On the way back, the guy told us it was his birthday and he had been bored and looking for something to do. Obviously, the girls cooed, asked why he didn't tell us, and proceeded to launch into “Happy Birthday”. I prevented disaster by stopping the singing and asking the gentleman to remind us of his name. Crisis averted. The Falls were incredibly impressive (at full strength Ruacana Falls supposedly rivals Victoria Falls) and definitely worth the journey from Ondangawa and a rainy night in the tent.

Since I returned to Rehoboth, I hosted a late Christmas celebration and New Years Eve. We cooked some pretty damn good food: chicken parm, Texas chili (which I ate Hard Times style with spaghetti, shout out to Wynne Kelly and Charlie), potato wedges, omelettes, crepes, cheesecake, and the list goes on. We also made “Springbok shots” - which are a Namibia/South African specialty shot with Amarula (liqueur similar to Kahlua) and mint schnapps – for New Years. “Deyicious,” as my nephews would say.

I'm settling in very well to my flat. The week after my friends left was a little lonely but luckily I had Wicket to keep me company. If you don't know about Wicket, he is my roommate Rob and I's puppy. He's a “pavement special” - an amazing Namibia euphemism for a street mutt – but absolutely adorable. The girls say he belongs in a commercial. He chews the shit out of most everything but all in all is a pretty good dog and is almost completely house-trained. On the subject of my flat, I've used cards and pictures people have sent me to decorate the walls: shout-outs to my nephews Owen, William, and Henry, cousin Catharine, Kalene, Annie, Sydney (for the poem about my death), Debby, and oddly enough, Mike Curtin (my mom sent me a postcard from Eastern Standard).