I hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving last week! This weekend I got together with several dozen other volunteers to celebrate Thanksgiving in Polokwane, the capitol of Limpopo. We stayed at a nature reserve just outside the city. I shared a campsite with a bunch of friends, and some other PCVs rented out little chalets. I’ve been there one time before. There are these great braai stands so that you can have a cookout – one volunteer even brought supplies for s’mores on Friday night. So good!
The reserve itself is really beautiful and interesting. The parts I’ve walked through are mostly plains and acacia woodland. There are wild animals but no big cats, so you’re free to explore it on foot… even though there are rhinos. That seems potentially dangerous to me, but what do I know. Growing up, I was scared of wild turkeys.
The weather was great on Saturday afternoon, so I went hiking for a few hours. I mostly saw animals of the wildebeest and gemsbok variety, which would stare at me and snort loudly in warning when I approached on the trail. But at one point I was walking and heard a loud roar from behind some trees. Scary mystery animal! I was nervous. Then three ostriches burst from their cover and ran away. Apparently they can roar. Who knew. Ostriches creep me out. The fun part of exploring on foot is being able to sneak off the beaten path a bit. In that way I found the ostrich ‘nest’ (a hole in the ground — the feathers gave it away) in a field where lots of springboks were grazing, along with an old termite mound that had become a warthog burrow.
I returned from my hike and we all hunkered down with some peach-lychee sangria to cook Thanksgiving dinner. It was awesome. There were four turkeys and everyone provided a side — with over 30 volunteers around, that resulted in a banquet of Beauty and the Beast “Be Our Guest” proportions. I made the gravy. At one point someone handed me the watery pot of cooked giblets to chop up and add in; frankly, they looked disgusting. Then I realized that (except for the little heart) I had been served all those pieces as a main course at some point or another. Mmm!
Dinner was a delicious taste of home, and I loved being with this big extended support network of volunteers. We went around my table and shared the things we’re thankful for. I am thankful for many things, but I want to share one thing in particular. It begins with something that happened right after I arrived in Polokwane on Friday afternoon:
I was waiting for some friends outside a grocery store when a man tried to snatch my bag. He didn’t get it because I noticed him as he snuck up and made a grab. I pulled my bag away, and he ran off. But between him and some aggressive men I’d dealt with earlier at the taxi rank, I was a little bit shaken and really wishing my friends would hurry back.
A moment later a mom-ish lady in her church dress bustled up, a young high school boy in tow. Her son had seen what happened and told her, and they came to stand with me and ward off creepers until my friends returned. I was really touched by their concern. Here I was, a total stranger in the crowd. Maybe other people looked at me and thought about how out-of-place I looked, or how I wasn’t being careful enough and my big hiking bag was inviting theft. Maybe they just saw me as some stupid tourist. But these two saw that I was feeling vulnerable, and even though they could have just gone about their business (I never would have known) they decided to go out of their way and help me.
I am thankful for people like them. I’ve had to depend a lot on the kindness of strangers here. While some people are frankly jerkasses – as they are everywhere – I’ve always been able to find someone to help me when I needed it, and even when I didn’t know I needed it. People have fixed my bike for free, helped me get around public transport, given me lifts, held my awkward hiking bag in their laps, greeted me with a smile, shared meals with me, invited me into their homes and to their weddings, tolerated my foreign-seeming suggestions, and generally been patient with me. That’s not a small thing: this isn’t my culture or my language, and as a result I know I often come across as clueless, awkward, or even unfriendly. Several of these people have admitted that they were initially pretty scared to talk to a white person, but they reached out to me anyway. I don’t know if they realize just how much a kind gesture can mean to someone who is living far away from their home and loved ones.
I think Thanksgiving should not just be about reflecting on the blessings we have, but also a time to consider how we can help people who don’t have those same blessings. Everyone thinks charitably during the holiday season, but don’t forget that something as simple as a kind gesture can improve other peoples’ lives every day of the year.
Most of you folks reading this probably live in your home country, where you know the language, culture, and have friends and family around. So, to you: if you know any foreigners – especially people who can’t speak English well, people who are living far away from their families, people who don’t really know how to deal with American culture, and people who come across as weird/unfriendly/intimidating – I hope you think of me, and show them some extra kindness. Who knows. You might just give someone a reason to be thankful.