“We’ll just keep goin until Uncle Sam pulls you out”

Coronavirus. The buzzword of the year. The global pandemic that has shaken the world to its core. The virus that has cancelled face to face meetings and sparked the great toilet paper recession. And the thing that has thrown me and my fellowship for a complete loop. 

I’m going to give you my coronavirus saga. Before I do, I’ll tell you that this story has a happy ending- I am currently sitting in my home in West Chester, PA, with a mug of hot chocolate in my hands (I certainly did not miss the winter cold while I was abroad, but I did miss the hot chocolate). 

My coronavirus saga began one month ago, on Monday, March 2nd. I arrived in Uganda to visit Amy Haven, the Minerva Fellow at Engeye Health Clinic. 3 hours into my vacation, the Minerva Fellows received a message that Union was considering pulling us from our respective placements. They said it isn’t likely we’ll see out the rest of our time abroad, and we should mentally prepare to leave because the outcome doesn’t look good. The estimation was two weeks. 

One minute Amy was showing me around her beautiful village, and the next minute my whole reality had been pulled from underneath me. Leave in 2 weeks?? But I had just left the country to renew my South African visa! I wasn’t supposed to even return back to SA until 2 weeks from now! That aside, I couldn’t imagine leaving so soon…what about all the projects I was working on at Witkoppen? All the places I still wanted to visit? All the plans I’d scheduled for my remaining 7 weeks in the country? Needless to say, I did not take the news well. I was absolutely devastated. And in that devastation, I realized how much my time in South Africa has meant to me. How much I’ve assimilated here, how much my friends became family, how much my coworkers at Witkoppen and the work I do for the Gift of Hope has transformed my life. It was wonderful that I didn’t want to go. Except I had to. 

Union’s message came in response to the CDC releasing a report stating that institutes of higher education should consider canceling and postponing upcoming study abroad trips, and to bring home current students that are traveling. I looked at the word consider. Would Union consider? Or would they air on the side of caution and pull us early? It was an agitated few days as we sat and awaited our fate. I was not ready to leave– so I wrote an email making a case for myself. This decision needs to be made on a country by country basis, not made on a global scale (Sub-Saharan Africa didn’t have any cases at the time).  

I guess the message I sent had an impact- the news came the next day that we could stay! For now. I didn’t know whether to rejoice or punch someone. They had told us we had to leave quite abruptly and now we can stay?? I was thrilled don’t get me wrong, but it had been a roller coaster of emotions the past few days. The caveat was if anything escalates, they will need to reevaluate. So much was up in the air and there were simply no answers. I knew things were going to escalate, but how quickly? 

I found myself caught in the very same situation I was in before I came to South Africa. When my visa was denied last June, I had to cancel my outgoing flight and wait for the appeal and approval to be processed. I had been packed for weeks, and knew that every day could be the day I get my visa and can leave. I was living my life on the verge of departure for several weeks. Fast forward to now, and the same thing is happening, but in reverse. Mentally preparing that they could pull me from SA any day. I can’t tell you how stressful this situation was. Not knowing if this will be the last time I see someone, and having to cancel all of my future plans. Living each day like it was one of my last. 

I carried out my two week vacation- 4 days in Uganda with Amy, 5 days in Kenya with Matt and Mollie (Matt’s another Minerva Fellow in my program and Mollie is a close friend doing a Fulbright Fellowship in Cape Town) and 3 days in Cape Town. I made the most out of this vacation, knowing it would be one of my last weeks on this continent. I got to pet giraffes in Nairobi and went on a helicopter ride over Table Mountain in Cape Town (very much a last minute YOLO decision). During my amazing adventure, South Africa got its first case. And its second. (I was actually in the same airport that the first person who tested positive in SA had traveled through earlier that day) (also South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was at the Johannesburg airport while I was there…he was testing the temperature taking equipment, meanwhile I had tested it for HIM 2 hours prior…).

Every day brought more bad news…the state dept’s level 3 travel advisory was the big one. That’s when programs abroad seriously reevaluated their situation. That’s when our program director Michelle called and said you won’t be in South Africa much longer. But I still didn’t want to believe it. I figured I had until the end of the month. How naive of me.

When I returned to Johannesburg on Friday the 13th, there were 13 confirmed cases in the country. That’s hardly anything right? I didn’t think I had anything to worry about. I was hearing of school cancellations and the steady increase of coronavirus cases in the US and I felt much safer in South Africa. One scary aspect of this pandemic was that things were changing at an unprecedented rate. Cities were going into lockdown. The other fellows had made plans to travel back home. But South Africa remained relatively unfazed, so I did as well. 

Until President Ramaphosa addressed the nation on Sunday March 15th. “We have decided to take urgent and drastic measures to manage the disease and protect the people of our country….” In a country with 60 cases, all foreign nationals from high risk countries will be denied visas, and previously granted visas have been revoked. Travel will be restricted to and from high risk countries (aka the United States). The list went on but I had stopped listening. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. A few minutes later I got a call from Michelle, and I wish it was a call I didn’t have to answer. It was my reality calling, that I needed to get out of the country as soon as possible. I was going home. 

And to think I had started planning what my remaining 2 weeks would look like! I now had.4 days. (And thank God I was granted 4 days and not 24 hours). I tried to spend time with every colleague I had become close with at work, hold as many babies as I could (working in the post natal clinic had its perks), and was able to see a few friends that I had made from attending Greek dance practice. I didn’t get to say bye to nearly enough friends. No final celebrations, no last time going to church at Pantanassa or visiting the Fourways farmer’s market. It hurt me that my last goodbyes with friends had happened weeks ago and I hadn’t known it would be the last.

During my last week, harsher restrictions were put into place in SA, positive cases increased 8 fold, Union cancelled an on campus spring term, and the US state dept issued a level 4 travel advisory. Thankfully I had a flight for the next day because with that travel warning, all US citizens who were abroad were urged to return home immediately or be prepared to stay for an indefinite period of time. 

It was hard to process I was leaving, even as I packed up all of my things. It didn’t truly hit me until my very last day, when I said my hardest goodbye to my dear friend Lolo Njisane. I went into work that morning to say bye to everyone. The executive director, the clinicians and postnatal clinic staff gathered together and shared some parting words that made the tears pour down my face. I was again reminded of how much this place has impacted me and how much of an impact I have made on the people. That’s why this was so hard. But it’s also why the goodbye was so beautiful, since there was so much meaning behind it. I left the clinic feeling immensely grateful that I had spent 6+ wonderful months there.

Because nothing in life comes easy, my story doesn’t end with this happy ending. Mere hours before I was to drive to the airport, I find out that South African Airways has suspended all international flights indefinitely. My flight, on South African Airways, set to leave in 5 hours, would not be leaving Johannesburg. I never got a cancellation email so I packed up everything and drove to the airport, but it wasn’t meant to be. My flight was cancelled. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a major airport during a global crisis, but let me just say it’s one of the most stressful environments I’ve ever been in. I visited every airline counter to see if there was a flight to get me home that night, but flights were booked for the next 3 days. Some airlines were cancelling international flights completely. I went home to my host family that night and enjoyed such much needed comfort food. 

Later that night, my heart was beating uncontrollably as my parents, Michelle, and I searched for flights to the US, watching flights get cancelled and getting kicked out of a reservation half way through filling out my information because the seats filled up. By the grace of God, I got onto a flight Saturday evening, 24 hrs later. It would stop in Doha, Qatar, and then fly to JFK. Was I in the clear? Not quite. I was sitting in my seat the next day waiting for the plane to leave the gate when I get calls that Doha is restricting flights to the US and that JFK was cancelling flights. Would I get stranded in Doha? Maybe. But I couldn’t get off the plane and reenter South Africa at this point since visas had been cancelled, so I put my faith in Christ and the plane took off. My connecting flight to JFK did happen, and I made it home Sunday evening, March 22. 

You can exhale that breath you’ve been holding. I took the biggest exhale of my life when the airplane wheels hit the New York ground, and I know mama Michelle took an even bigger one, now that all of the Minerva Fellows were home. I’m in Day 12 of quarantine, and I’m feeling just fine (really missing human touch though). My emotions are all over the place. Those first few days, I couldn’t stop crying. My reality had been yanked from me, just like it had for so many others. My fellowship had been delayed in July with a visa mishap and now it had been cut short by a global pandemic. I’m still processing all of these feelings but I know this is the best place for me to be right now.

The day after I got home, South Africa announced they were going into lockdown. All airports closed. I am getting emails from the US embassy in Joburg about repatriation flights to get US citizens home, but there has yet to be one. I am so thankful and incredibly blessed that I returned home safely before the lockdown, as hectic as it all was, and that I have a safe environment to come home to and quarantine in. And I know so much doesn’t make sense for so many people right now. Of course I ask myself why now, why couldn’t have happened when I wasn’t having a life changing experience in a foreign country. But that’s life for you. And when life doesn’t go as planned, you trust the reroute. 

I do plan on writing more in this blog even though I’m back in the US. There is so much I didn’t get the chance to share, and especially since I won’t be going back to Union in May to share my experiences with the students, I’m going to use this platform for you to continue following me through my journeys in Joburg. 

“I just Zumba’d to a ‘Let it Go’ remix and I’m honestly not mad about it”

Hi everyone! I must apologize for the delay in my post- life can be pretty overwhelming in a new country (in a good way)! I found that there was SO SO much to share with you that I didn’t even know where to begin. So… I didn’t begin. I’ve journaled every day, but I let my insights pile up without blogging about them . Everyone who knows me well knows I’m a master procrastinator and a perfectionist, so the combo doesn’t serve well for routine blog writing. But today was too momentous of an occasion to not write, so here we are.

I’VE BEEN HERE 3 MONTHS!!! I arrived in this beautiful country on Sept 4 and WOW have I had a worthwhile experience. I need to start off by saying I am so incredibly thankful for this opportunity to work at a health clinic in South Africa. Every single day has been growing experience, a trial, a blessing, a reminder that this life is worth living to the fullest. I really feel like I fit in now! I reached that point about 3 weeks ago. I’m used to the lay of the land and I have friends! (You don’t realize how much you miss social interaction until you lose it and then gain it back). I remember calling my mom in early November saying, “I have enough friends to make plans with each of them on the weekends and it will last me til the end of the year! That’s like 7 whole friends!!” And even since then that number has grown. I really really love it here and am thriving!

This wouldn’t be a good blog if I only talked about how great everything is. It wasn’t all happiness and rainbows I must say…the first 2 months were pretty hard. At first EVERYTHING was foreign and I didn’t realize how exhausting that can be. Imagine having to explain your life story to every person you meet. While that can be fun and exciting, it was always new and I was finding myself coming home from work and being so exhausted from new experiences that day that I would just sit and do nothing (which I realized is needed sometimes too). At my one month point I thought “I should be doing more!” but then realized I needed more time to adjust and that’s ok! And if I need to have a Netflix night that’s ok! We don’t talk about self care enough. We’re not all Superwoman (heck, even Superwoman needs a day off every once in a while).

Ok time for a non-emotional life update. Remember the microwave? aka my little red car? Well, it’s dead. Not battery dead, engine dead. In my last post I said the darn thing always passes inspection and is still goin strong. That is, until the end of September. I was driving on the highway and smelled smoke and then realized the smell was coming from MY car so I tried to get to the gas station to figure out what’s wrong but I didn’t even make it 1 more kilometer when the car just stopped accelerating. I pulled over on the side of the highway and all this smoke was coming from under the hood and I didn’t know what to do, or whether the car was going to explode. I called my host family and thankfully they were home and offered to come get me! We left the car on the side of the road, it was towed later that day, and we got the quote a week later that it’ll cost 34,000 ZAR (South African rand) to fix. Well, the car was only worth 30,000 ZAR at that point so you can see it wasn’t worth keeping. I then had to go car hunting, which I had absolutely no experience doing, let alone doing it in another country. Shout out to my host dad Trevor who was an amazing help with car searches.

In the meantime, how do you suppose I got to work?? There were no other clinic owned automatic cars (90% of cars are manual). So…I said teach me to drive a manual. And I DID IT. It was honestly really difficult and I would stall at least 5 times a day but I got the hang of it after a few weeks. Actually right as I got comfortable with it, I got a new automatic. RIP my stick shift skills, October-October 2019. Now I can impress all my friends back home because I know how to drive a manual car. On the other side of the road. In traffic, uphill both ways (seriously though, it’s a road that dips so I literally drive uphill both ways to work). The new car is a beautiful little automatic Nissan Tiida and man it’s nice not having to drive with 2 hands and 2 feet.

In other news, I have found GREEK PEOPLE. Turns out there’s a pretty big pop of Greeks and Cypriots in SA. I went to church a few weeks into being here and tried to scope out the nicest looking person to chat with after church was over. And sure enough, the woman I identified was SO nice and welcoming and we even went out to lunch together that day. I also started going to greek dance practice!!! It’s for 20-35 yr olds. I’ve Greek danced my whole life, but had a 4 year college hiatus, and am loving that I can return to it. I’m making so many friends at practice and it’s made so happy here, a little piece of home!

In closing, I’ve added a new segment I like to call: 12 fun facts from a gen 12 fellow

  1. When it rains it pours (I bless the rains down in AAAFRICAAAA)
  2. Africa time is worse than Greek time
  3. Being trilingual is just another day in the office (there are 11 official languages and 95% of the pop is bilingual at the very least).
  4. People say I sound like Siri with my American accent and I will yell directions like “in 200 meters, turn left” in the car to mess with them
  5. Ketchup is called tomato sauce
  6. A South African glass of wine is way more volume than an American glass of wine
  7. I have been 10 ft from a zebra (while running a 5k on a game reserve)
  8. Mosquitos are the WORST
  9. Joburg traffic is sooo hectic but my commute is only 8 mins (7 mins on a good day)
  10. On Heritage day everyone wore elaborate traditional outfits to work and I decided to wear a Union College shirt, Gamma Phi Beta sorority sweatshirt, and a red white and blue headpiece cause that was about as American as I could think of. People asked me why I wasn’t wearing a costume and I was like America has no culture what do you want me to do…
  11. South African accents sound really cool to Americans so I wonder am I cool to them or am I just American?? 
  12. Lastly, the fact that explains the title, I started attending Zumba classes at the local gym! I’m having a blast and love that I can continue my dancing here. Might even come back to the US Zumba certified!

I hope everyone had a lovely Thanksgiving! My host family and I had a mini celebration together with ham, gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, sweet potatoes, cran sauce, and homemade apple pie (sadly no turkey, it basically doesn’t exist here). Miss you all!! Shoutout to the old lady at my mom’s gym who asks about me. 

Next blog coming v soon I promise I won’t procrastinate this one!

Starting off on the wrong foot…or shoe

Wow wow WOW have I had myself a week. I have so much to share that I’m splitting it into two posts. This one is about my first few days, initial thoughts and feelings, etc. and the next one is everything since then, coming soon to a computer near you!

I arrived in Johannesburg after 2 red eye flights and basically no sleep. I landed at 8 am and had to stay awake the whole day. Luckily, I managed to do it but my body was all sorts of confused. I thought I would have a day or two before I went to work but Ashley (Witkoppen’s COO) dropped me off at my house and said “see you tomorrow!” In hindsight it was good because it gave me something to do right away. I had a memorable first day at work because….I WORE 2 DIFFERENT SHOES. Yep. Jet lag is a killer. I knew I put on 2 different shoes in the morning, so I could see which one was more comfortable to wear, then I got distracted and left my house with 2 different shoes on. They were both black but it was still pretty noticeable. The guy who led my training at work looked down and goes “uh…did you do that on purpose?” I made some friends though because two other women who work there pointed at my shoes and chuckled and they thought it was hiLARious that I accidentally wore different shoes. What a way to start off a new job!

I am living with Trevor and Lila Keip who rent out a flat (one room cottage + bathroom) that all the previous Minerva Fellows have stayed in. It is a bit small, but it has a bed and a kitchen and a bathroom so I can’t complain at all! It’s quaint and has a bench outside where I’m writing this right now. The Keips are amazing and so welcoming. I have been going on walks around the neighborhood with Trevor the past few days which has been lovely. I’m living in a gated community and use my fingerprint to scan in which is pretty cool. It’s completely safe for me to walk around, during the day and at night. 

Weather time: It’s winter here right now but it’s pretty mild. The highs are in the 70s and the lows are in the 40s. In the US there’s usually a 20 degree difference between the high and lo but here it’s close to 30 degrees. I go to work feeling cold with a jacket and within 2 hours I’ve lost the jacket and need to change pants to shorts! The sun is very strong here and apparently 30 minutes in the South African sun can cure anything! It’s very dry here in Johannesburg, since they’re at a high elevation. My throat has been bothering me and I’ve been sneezing and I thought I was getting sick but it turns out it’s allergies with the change of seasons plus the dry heat :/

For those who know, the microwave is doing well. That’s the nickname for my car. It’s the same car that the past few fellows have used and the air conditioning is broken and it’s basically the size of a microwave. It’s actually smart car size but it’s not smart in the slightest. This car has been on its last leg for quite a while, yet manages to pass inspection every year. Luckily, it’s an automatic, so that wasn’t too big of a change, but I’m driving on the LEFT SIDE OF THE ROAD. That certainly took  some time to get used to. It’s like learning how to drive all over again. The steering wheel is on the right side of the car and I’ve had too many embarrassing moments walking to the wrong side of the car to enter. The roads are demarcated pretty well with arrows so I’m reminded to stay on the left, but I’m still not used to crossing traffic when I turn right. They LOVE their roundabouts and sometimes the traffic lights are out so it’s basically a free for all. By the way, traffic lights are called robots here. (Robots are also called robots.) I only live 5 minutes from work which is nice.

Witkoppen Health and Welfare Centre is amazing. I love where I work! It’s a non profit health clinic that does SO much for the community, and really focuses on comprehensive care. Public government clinics many times don’t even have doctors and the service is terribly slow, but Witkoppen has an HIV clinic, TB clinic, pharmacy, dietician, emergency room, general hospital, social services, and a psychologist (I’m probably forgetting some). There’s also a mobile clinic that goes out to the townships every day to encourage patients to get tested for HIV or anything else they might need. All things Witkoppen Clinic is going to get its own post soon, I promise!

Since arriving last Wednesday, my first few days were really overwhelming and overstimulating. It was nice to get into things right away but when the first Saturday came and I had some downtime, it hit me that I was really here. 8,000 miles from home. I was dreading the moment when this would happen, because when I studied in Brazil, it hit me hard and it took me days to get out of my “I want to go home” slump. But surprisingly enough, the sinking feeling came and went pretty quickly. It’s because that feeling is one of doubt, that I won’t be able to get through this. In Brazil, it was the first time I ever was far away from home and while I knew that I would physically get through my term abroad, I wasn’t sure if emotionally I could handle it. But. I. did. Brazil is a huge success story for me and if I did it then, I sure as heck can do it again. I no longer have that feeling of doubt that I can’t get through this, because I know I will. Simple as that. 

Now is just your chance to fly higher

Glory to God for All Things…. Keep reading, this isn’t a religious education post. I felt the need to start like this because this is how every reflective moment begins for me. How every day begins for me. It keeps me humble and grateful that every day is a blessing, a new opportunity. Glory to God for All Things. This is exactly how I’m feeling as I’m sitting in the airport waiting to board my flight to Johannesburg. Nerves are HIGH. But it’s nervousness mingled with excitement, with the knowledge that I’m looking over a precipice, and something new is about to begin. It’s compelling and terrifying and rewarding. It’s a whole lot of potential energy yearning to become kinetic.

I was drawn to the Minerva Fellowship for many reasons. We all are called to do something in this life- I don’t know what my calling is, but I do know I can’t find it standing still. I have to keep moving. Exploring. After studying abroad in Brazil, which provided me an invaluable learning experience, I knew I wanted more, that my yearning for cultural understanding and immersion would never quite be satisfied. I want to engage with the people, to live among them and learn from them, and in turn share some of my own knowledge, as a Gender studies major, as a woman, as an American, and as a human.

I loved Union, so much, and all my thoughts and feelings towards this amazing institution will be saved for a different post. For now, I’ll say this. Union gave me the foundation I needed to always look outward, to always seek to better the world I live in. A thirst for knowledge, for justice, and for love. The words of my own graduation speech come to mind– “This isn’t a leave the nest spread your wings and fly type moment. You’re. already. flying. Union gave you the opportunities to do that, and now is just your chance to fly higher.” I’m taking what I know, what I love, what I’m passionate about, and using it to do big things in the big world, one step at a time.

S.1 E.1 Pilot

Sometimes, beginnings don’t start out quite the way you planned. I didn’t plan to start my fellowship 6 weeks late but here we are. Pro tip: if you need a South African visa, allow yourself 6 months to 20 years to receive one. The system is terribly inefficient and I never got the answers I needed. My application exists in the void that is South Africa. *To hear the full extent of my visa troubles, ask me about it* I’m sparing you all the details for now. So, after many weeks of waiting and waiting and waiting for a visitor’s visa from the South African consulate, which would grant me permission to stay in SA for 9 months, we decided I couldn’t wait anymore! Plan B is a go.

Plan B is to go without a visa, as a tourist. The hold up- I can only go for 90 days. I’ll work on extending the visa once I arrive in South Africa. Not ideal, but not the end of the world. So finally, after many weeks of anticipation and being fully packed to leave at a moment’s notice, I set forth on my journey as a generation 12 Minerva Fellow from Union College. Join me as a document the highs and the lows, and everything in between. This, is Journeys in Joburg.

Why South Africa?

Hi everyone! Thanks for visiting. If you’ve navigated to this page, then you probably have the general knowledge that I received a fellowship and traveled to South Africa. Let me give you the lo down and then you’ll know all about what the heck I’m doing at the southern tip of a continent 8,000 miles from home.

Union College is what made this fellowship possible. They have a fellowship program called the Minerva Fellowship, which selects graduating seniors to spend nine months abroad, doing sustainable development, humanitarian aid, education, health care, etc. I am part of the 12th generation of Minerva Fellows, which began in 2008. This is also the year that the total number of fellows reached 100. Any one of the 6 of us could be that lucky 100th person. No one really knows, so let’s make it me. Woohoo I’m the 100th Minerva Fellow!

Thanks to the wonderful donors to this program, I am the Lauren Greene Cohen ’78 Minerva Fellow going to Johannesburg, South Africa and working at Witkoppen Health and Welfare Center. I am the only fellow (out of 6) traveling to South Africa. The rest are in Kenya, Uganda, and Cambodia. I’ll be helping the clinic with daily needs and serve as the liaison for The Gift of Hope, a non profit Lauren Cohen started which serves to financially support the women and children at Witkoppen with and affected by HIV. I had the most interest in this placement to learn more about urban health care and the general desire to do this fellowship to serve others and explore the world.

This blog is my thoughts, experiences, adventures, and everything in between. Enjoy!

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