When staying with a host family, it is appropriate to give gifts either at the beginning of a visit or at the end. Dan and I didn’t know what to buy for our family before having met them, so we waited until the end of our homestay to present the gifts we had been collecting throughout training. On our last day, Dan and I packed three plasticos (literally, plastic bags) with gifts, one each for Mae Atalia, Ajuvencia, and Chovito.
In Mae Atalia’s plastic bag, we put
- A jar of Nutella (she once provar-ed ours and announced “Animada!”)
- A sharp kitchen knife (The family was always misplacing their only knife)
- A blue 50th anniversary Peace Corps shirt (Dan and I have matching ones)
- 10 Earl Grey tea bags that my family had sent from home (Mom and I had a tea-bag-sharing operation. And by this I mean, I would make my morning tea and then hand her my used tea bag. She was also “Animada!” about Earl Grey Tea.)
In Ajuvencia’s plastic bag, we placed
- A beautiful pink shirt (flexible for a changing belly)
- Baby rattles (a gift from Dan’s Aunt Wendy in the United States)
- A music CD
In Chovito’s plastic bag, we placed
- A bootleg copy of the Lion King 2 with subtitles in Portuguese (we had let him borrow the computer to watch the Lion King and he loved it)
- Two miniature plastic pets from a vending machine in America
- A roll of spearmint LifeSavers
- A pack of playing cards (falta um Queen, which he had lost earlier)
We also gave them a handmade card, a picture of Dan and me on our wedding day, and a CD with pictures from our homestay. The CD would play the pictures as a slideshow on the television. We gave the presents over dinner and the reception was HUGE! Dan put our pictures on the TV, Ajuvencia pulled out the baby toys, and Mom put on her new shirt. Chovito was just shy and smiley. He was too timid to play with his new toys in front of us, but we found the cards spread out on the table the following morning.
Ajuvencia made us a brown-sugar cake and Argentina and Mario came over to say goodbye. We sat together as a family and watched one of the many Brazilian telenovellas that air on Mozambican basic cable. As always, Mom sat wedged between us, and, though her language comprehension is low, narrated what she perceived to be happening on the show. Often, she would get in arguments with Ajuvencia and Chovito that would last far longer than the scene or incident itself.
“I see three helicopters.”
“There are two.”
“I saw three.”
“There are only two.”
“No, there were three.”
“You saw a shadow.”
Meanwhile, the show would continue. Suddenly, Mom would notice what was going on and would comment in her matter-of-fact way,
“That woman just killed her husband.”
You would think that this would be annoying, but it’s actually adorable. Because the Brazilian actors speak so quickly, she has no idea what’s going on. Sometimes her comments are so off-base that it’s hysterical.
“That woman killed her husband because he had sex with a monkey.”
Sometimes, her comments are simply practical observations of the things that she sees. For example, we watched a pre-operational transsexual give a tearful monologue (in full drag) from her hospital bed before her ill-fated surgery. Mom’s comment was:
“That woman is sad.”
We are going to miss her unnecessary, and usually inaccurate, running commentaries. Honestly, it is comforting to know that there is somebody else who doesn’t understand these Brazilian telenovellas, either. Plus, we often like her version better.
We awoke on our last day at 5AM. It was already bright outside. Our neighbors switched on their sound system as soon as I turned my key in the door. Mom had boiled water the night before and left it in a thermos in the kitchen. We did all those things we always did in the morning: filled an orange bacia with half-cold, half-hot water, shampoo-ed our hair, dunked it in the bath water, dumped the chamberpot in the toilet, chased it with soapy water from our shower, poured tea, cut a loaf of pao, inserted scrambled eggs, and brushed our teeth with a mug of hot water along the side of the house. This time, though, we were just a little bit sad.
Before long, we were standing at the gate of our compound, a tall, lightweight slab of sheet metal that swung shut and locked with a padlock. Mom stood with us, in her new Peace Corps shirt. Ajuvencia and Chovito were still asleep.
Mom in her new Peace Corps T-shirt
And thus we left Namaacha the way we entered- alongside our host mother, laden with bags, and uncertain about the months ahead. We were emerging, however, with a certain new set of skills. We understood the Mozambican education system. We knew the history of Mozambique. We understood the culture and people of our new country. We knew where we were going. Most importantly, we now spoke Portuguese. Dan and I had both earned a grade of Intermediate-High on our final Language Proficiency Interview.
Just before we left, our host mother called our Pai, whom we had never met and who was still working in South Africa.
“Aqui,” she said, handing me the phone, “say goodbye.”
“Oh, um,” I said, taking the cell phone. “Ola, Pai. Estamos a sair. Adoramos a Namaacha e adoramos a Mae. Obrigada e adeus.” Hello father. We are leaving. We love Namaacha and we love Mom. Thank you and goodbye (Go with God).
Mom was pleased. She handed the phone to Dan, who said the same thing. Strangely, I felt like that was the last piece of the puzzle. I was now ready to leave.
I was feeling feverish as we walked to the chapa, but I chose to ignore it. Mom had this belief that I was stronger and healthier than Dan (who had had numerous stomach issues) and I was intent on maintaining that image until I left Namaacha. Luckily, we left exactly when we did.
I broke into a cold sweat on the chapa ride and my skin began to tingle. My head was hot and heavy and a creaking pain crept into my bones. I spent the ride to Maputo pouting quickly on Dan’s shoulder, rattling back and forth on the plastic seat of the chapa.
Technically, this was an important day for all of us. Today, we would swear in as official Peace Corps Volunteers and begin our service in earnest. But, as one other volunteer said as we left the ceremony,
“I never really doubted that I was a real Peace Corps Volunteer.”
The swear-in ceremony took place at the Ambassador’s house in the capital. Chairs were placed around a pool in the backyard, facing a central gazebo. All of the volunteers, 50 in total, were wearing outfits made of matching material. One person spoke after another, and, to me, it was becoming interminable. A rash of goose bumps broke out along my arms while drops of sweat rolled down my back. I wiggled in my chair, inexplicably sore in every muscle. I knew that I was running a fever. I stayed long enough to stand with the others, left hand raised, and pledge the oath of service to the United States. Then, I quickly escaped to the bathroom where I burst into tears.
It’s not a coincidence that I get sick every time I move. I hate change. It makes me sad, and it makes me nervous. Every time I make a life change, stress shuts down my immune system and leaves me vulnerable. Being sick in Africa is worse than being sick in the States, too, because you can’t tell if you are feeling the common flu or something more dangerous, like malaria. Why did it have to be today, I wondered. I had been looking forward to this ceremony. Now I was in the service bathroom at the Ambassador’s house, squeezing out tears and leaning on the towel rack, considering lying down on the tile floor.
Luckily, two people had seen me leave: the Peace Corps doctor, Izzy Sacramento, and the Ambassador’s husband, Ted. Izzy sat me down and looked at me firmly. She felt my forehead.
“Take off that sweater,” she said. “It’s making you hot. Now, tell me your symptoms.”
She did a rapid consultation and gave me Grippon, a combination of anti-histamine, Tylenol, Vitamin C, and caffeine.
“Drink this full bottle of water,” she said. “And give it thirty minutes.”
The Ambassador’s husband came to greet us and offered to let me nap on the couch in the main room of the house. I think I laughed out loud at the suggestion.
“No, thank you. I’m not that bad,” I said.
He invited me in to take a seat, and I obliged. The house was gorgeous; grand and tiled in that stiff way of government mansions. There was a koi pond in the corner and a running set of French doors that overlooked the festivities below. Slowly, I sat myself on a prim, sky-blue couch. People filtered in and out of the house, so I was never lonely, but I did miss the group photo of the new Mozambique 17 volunteers.
Finally, after two glasses of water, two doses of Grippon, and a full-length nap at the post-ceremony hotel, I was no longer hunched over like an old woman and could have a conversation for longer than five minutes.
Later, while staying at the hotel, Dan and I sat down to talk with the volunteers we will be replacing. Janet and Lucas have lived in Zobwe for two years. We are lucky that they have been exemplary and dedicated volunteers. They had an English theater group, a REDES (girls’ service) group, and a JUNTOS (after-school) group. They spoke the local language and were fairly fluent in Portuguese upon arrival at site. The four of us talked for about three hours, ironing out details and logistics. Finally, we parted ways with a hug. It was hard not to feel intimidated, but I think Dan and I will do a good job at our new site. We are feeling optimistic and excited. The school director is thrilled to be getting another married couple.
Janet, Lucas, Lisa, and Dan
After the swear-in ceremony, we took a flight on a small domestic aircraft, complete with propellers, to Chimoio, the capital of Manica. Once in Chimoio, we began a two-day conference with our future supervisors, covering topics such as Peace Corps policies, volunteer projects, and supervisor duties. Perhaps the conference itself was not thrilling, but it was wonderful to meet our new supervisor (in our case, the financial director of the school) and to spend a few last days with the vestiges of our once-mighty cohort of volunteers.
Tomorrow we drive from Chimoio to Tete City (6 hours) and then from Tete City to Zobwe (2 hours). We will be traveling on a rented chapa with our two suitcases, three cardboard boxes, two black lockboxes, two book bags, standing fan, stainless steel electric teakettle, extension cord, and two chocolate bars (the latter few objects were purchased here in the regional capital). Tonight, we make our final round of despedirs before beginning a life-changing round of introductions.
P.S. Tomorrow’s temperature in Zobwe, Tete?