This past December, our friends Amber Tamblyn and David Cross, visited my wife and I at our Peace Corps post in Botswana. We anxiously waited for them at the tiny Maun International Airport. After 24 hours of travel they looked relieved to finally be on African soil. They were only here for 2 minutes when David asked my wife where she worked. She answered, "Women Against Rape." He replied, "Is that ever confused with the other organization, Women Not Against Rape?" Amber added, "Hey yooo!" Our friends had officially arrived.
Maun is known as the jumping off point for some of the best safaris in the world. There are a lot of luxurious options available, but Amber and David opted to stay in one of the two rooms in our house, which is also the kitchen/living room/food storage area. They traveled light. Really light. They both came with a small backpack and committed to hand washing their clothes. We did our best to show them Peace Corps living and sights in Botswana.
I've been blogging this year for the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps. Here's an interview with Amber and David on their perspective.
What did you think Peace Corps volunteers did before your visit?
Amber: I didn't know the specifics but I knew that a lot of it had to do with intense living, in every possible way. From complete immersion of language and culture, to rolling your neighbor's goat meat to make sausages for breakfast, to almost getting eaten by hippos. I imagined this is what Peace Corps people had to do.
David: I didn't really think about specifics too much. I'd say my general idea of what they did was sacrifice comfort; both physical and mental, for the betterment of individuals as well as the community they reside in, in any number of ways.
Has your perception of what Peace Corps volunteers do changed?
Amber: I am even more in awe than I was before. It is an incredible thing to see first-hand the strength it takes, emotional, environmental, and political, to completely leave one's life and create a new one from the ground up, in hopes that that new life will affect others positively and proactively. Every Peace Corps person we met along our journey had equally inspiring stories and jobs.
David: Not really. I saw that general idea in practice while I was there.
Is there a benefit to seeing a country from a volunteer's perspective?
Amber: Benefit doesn't even begin to describe it. It's a complete luxury, a gift that is impossible to ever pay back. Traveling with friends who know the local language is immensely helpful. We got to meet people and have traditional home cooked food. One time for desert we were given friendship bracelets made from palm leaves. Take THAT, Martha Stewart! These are experiences that are damn near impossible to come by. Seeing the country from a volunteer's perspective really helped us to move out of our tourist's comfort zone and into feeling like Africa was a second home. With a lot of silverware chucking vervet monkeys. (Inside joke!!)
David: Of course! You're living there! You're not there with access to room service or a waiter that speaks your language fluently. You are starting from scratch in a foreign, strange land filled with foreigners who not only may not speak your language; they may not even trust you. And you're not there for two weeks, you're there for two years. It's like night and day. But not like the movie, Knight and Day, that movie sucked.
Was there anything you saw that really impacted your life?
Amber: Several things. Seeing a tribe perform ancient dances and songs, a moment that felt so personal and preternatural to me that I was brought to tears thinking about how little I know about my own Scottish heritage. How incredible it is to be so connected to the Earth and one's very own blood. Getting to go into the Okavango Delta with a safari guide/tracker named Alwyn Myburgh. Seeing wild elephants. How magnificent and fierce and energetic they are. Getting to participate in the unspoken understanding with a 400 pound lion that if you respect his space, he will respect yours, even when you are 10 feet away. The simple delight of sleeping on our friends' living room cot after an amazing pizza made from scratch, and we sat around drinking boxed wine in the summer heat, sweating and playing with their neighbors' puppies.
David: Well, no one died or was shot in front of me and while seeing herds or packs of elephants and hippos and zebras and lions were stunning in person, they didn't impact my life really. So, not in the, "aha" revelatory moment that one might see in a cheesy movie where a character understands for the first time what his country's foreign policy meant for the lives of the peoples he's visiting. But that's perhaps because I have had access to these images and stories my entire life. There was no stunning truth that was heretofore unknown. I have seen dire, abject poverty in Africa from a distance, and driving through some of the villages in Botswana were filled with their "Jesus, that's terrible" moments. I was still somewhat removed from the day-to-day of it. Unlike Peace Corps volunteers who are amongst it every single day.
What was the highlight of your trip?
Amber: I just named a bunch of them, you jerk! Oh. Sorry. I think the biggest highlight was hiking into Victoria Falls on the Zambian side and swimming in the pools of water at the top of the falls. With my favorite woman! In my now favorite pool of water! The lowlight of this occasion was watching David stumble across rocks from a distance, you escorting him, and realizing that David had lost his glasses while swimming somewhere. David without his glasses is like a Real Housewife of New Jersey without her house. That night there was a full moon over Vic Falls, which we all described to David because he couldn't really see it. We described it as really sucking. SPOILER ALERT! It did not suck, David. Not at all.
David: It's difficult to choose. The sky for one. I've never seen sky like that before. The safari we went on. Four friends and a very cool, knowledgeable, passionate, and patient guide/tracker, Alwyn, who unfortunately lists Phil Collins as one of his all time favorite artists. Being uncomfortably close to hippos and hyenas while camping. "Donating" my glasses to Victoria Falls at Devil's pool. The fish market at Maputo, Mozambique featuring some hot girl on girl fighting, scuba diving in the Indian ocean, homemade pizza, and perhaps the most sobering of all, the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.
What was the most surprising part of the trip?
Amber: How easy everything was. But please refer back to question number 3 and how spoiled we were to have friends that actually live in Botswana and speak the language. Without that, everything probably would have been surprising, including our inability to catch the right bus, ever.
David: Being constantly recognized from Alvin and the Chipmunks. That was a shocking bummer. Truly. Every day. Even the water buffalo wanted a picture.
What did you admire most about the people of Botswana?
Amber: How kind and generous they are.
David: I have a deep appreciation for their laugh. Great laugh. Deep, explosive and guttural.
What is your power animal?
Amber: Ross Szabo every time.
David: Nuclear powered otter.
HIV/AIDS tell me more.
Amber: You tell me more, smartass! Oh. Sorry again. Botswana has the second highest HIV/AIDS rate in the world. Peace Corps volunteers work hard to educate communities about HIV/AIDS and all that comes with it. The denial, the myths, and the difficult task of behavior change/prevention. Volunteers work diligently to educate on every level, whether it's suicidal teens or teaching women about rape.
David: I am thinking of sending my dog, Ollie, to Africa so she can better appreciate her life in America. Peace Corps volunteers are absolutely amazing and selfless and better people than myself and most everybody I have ever met. Their sacrifice is inspiring, but not too inspiring obviously, I like my Xbox. Volunteers should be rewarded for living in a constantly broiling-hot hovel with, ironically no hot water, all the while making better or even saving the lives of those around you. Perhaps by having one of America's top multi-millionaire CEOs take you out to the dinner of your choice! Arianna, I'm looking at you!