As my husband and I headed to San Diego’s Lindberg Field’s Terminal 1 with my two massive suitcases, rolling computer bag, and overstuffed backpack, I missed the step onto the first escalator. As he easily ascended to the Sky Bridge with the largest bags, I tried to right my computer bag, nearly falling in the process.
“You alright, M’am?” a worried Marine asked as I successfully stepped onto the escalator. I smiled sheepishly and followed my husband of 25 years to the kiosk where I was to print my boarding pass and check in my luggage.
“How are you going to manage everything — all this traveling — without me?,” he asked as he hovered over my shoulder, directing me as to what button to push and leaning over to unlock the TSA locks dangling from my carry-on.
“I don’t know,” I whispered.
But in my heart, I felt strong. After all, I was no stranger to hardship. I had lived in Europe when women didn’t shave their armpits, and clothes dryers were considered gadgets. And now, finally, I was on my way to serve two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the tiny African country of Swaziland — at the ripe age of 54.
No one knew where Swaziland was when the invitation packet arrived on our doorstep. Almost immediately, I Googled it. It is the Kingdom of Swaziland, more accurately, as it has a king — the only reigning absolute monarch in Africa. I read how Mswati III had 13 wives, and each one had a palace and a BMW or two. Formerly ruled by the British, the Internet said, people drink tea. There was even some diamond mining. Johannesburg, in South Africa, is directly west and takes about an hour by bush plane. To the east lies Mozambique with its pristine archipelagoes and unspoiled beaches.
I watched endless hours of You Tube videos in which volunteers talked about their favorite foods and SiSwati phrases. I read every Peace Corps memoir and blog I could unearth. And with every word, I felt more certain of my decision to step out of my comfort zone and my privileged life as a San Diego “tennis mom.” I was ready for an adventure.
Once installed in the local college dorms for training, our new Country Director referred to Swaziland as “Africa for Beginners.” It seemed certain I had been sent to the right place. We were told most of us would enjoy an electrical plug and maybe a Jojo water tank at our permanent sites. I even had seen a handful of KFCs and the countryside — with its rolling hills and fertile valleys — looked remarkably like the south of France, from a distance.
Even as I sat in a dilapidated classroom at the local teachers college, listening to PowerPoint training sessions, I felt sure all that talk of diarrhea, filtered river water, HIV, and poisonous snakes were somehow meant for the other 39 earnest volunteers with their wide eyes and nervous smiles. But not me. Their experience might be like that, but mine, I felt certain, would not be so decidedly Third World.
One week later Peace Corps staff dropped each of us off at our host family’s homestead, the place we would call home for our two months of training.
Perched on an upside down bucket in the kitchen of the Masuku’s tiny cement bunker of a house — the Masuku’s seven children squatted on the floor around my feet — all I could think was that in those hours of training, someone could have at least tried to prepare me for this.
Mr. Masuku, a huge man wearing a bright magenta Ohio State sweatshirt and an insincere grin, was seated on the only chair. He watched under hooded eyes as the eldest daughter, 14-year old Notobeko, carefully offered me the biggest, rusty, metal plate piled high with rice and red beans. I set it on my lap, as she continued to solemnly hand out each of the other metal mismatched plates, each one corresponding in size to the size of its recipient.
First was the Make (pronounced ma-gay) Masuku, who could have easily started as a NFL linebacker. Then doe-eyed Apinda, who crouched behind the wood-burning stove. Thin, athletic Ayanda was next, followed by shy Bernet. Then came the young man of the house named Ben. Next was 3-year-old Nlolipo in his dirty tee shirt that boasted, “I’m kind of a big deal around here,” and finally eight-month-old, completely naked, Benele.