Lizzie showed 53 year old Caroline from London and me to an untidy room furnished with three bunkbeds. "This is your bed," she said to me, pointing to a top bunk bed. "And that one's yours," she said to Caroline as she pointed to the top bunk against the opposite wall.
Too shocked to speak, I just observed.
"And who else sleeps in this room?" asked Caroline, unsmiling, taut-faced.
"Zach, a 20 year old from the US, and Lesley Ann, a 19 year old. She's local and is with her family for the weekend."
My heart pounded with fury. I looked up at Lizzie, and said, "I committed to this program only after getting the assurance that I would have only one roommate, close to my age. I am not going to sleep in this room."
She shrugged. "I'm new here. I just started 2 months ago. The manager, Tilda, is away in Sweden and will only be returning on Tuesday. There is nowhere else for you to sleep since we are dealing with bed bugs in Mont Blanc, our other accommodation."
Caroline and I stared at her with dropped jaws. Bedbugs? Lizzie's face was expressionless.
When we stepped out of the room I glanced at the other two bedrooms upstairs. "That's Tilda's room," Lizzie said, pointing to one. "And this is mine."
She turned to go. "I'll give you a few minutes to settle in and then we'll go to Mont Blanc to go over some rules."
When I checked out the two bathrooms I was horrified at the stained toilet seats and filthy shower stall littered with shampoo and soap bottles. Toothpaste bits decorated the wash basins. Used towels were hanging everywhere. In the downstairs living room the hideous sofas looked like they were fished out of a township dump. Christ! I paid over $2,200 for this??
Most of the volunteers and staff resided in a neighboring gated community called Mont Blanc. GVI occupies three adjacent apartments and this was where all joint activities took place. Lizzie showed us the common areas including the kitchen furnished with a long table around which everyone sat every evening for the evening meal. If the state of Journey's End shocked me, well, Mont Blanc was in a different league.
Lottie, a 22 year old from Nebraska, who had arrived from the airport with me, had been dropped off at Mont Blanc earlier. After Lizzie was done explaining the house rules and daily schedule to us 3 newcomers, Lottie went up to her and demanded to be moved to Journey's End. She was not going to sleep with bed bugs. So Lottie joined Caroline and me at Journey's End.
In the evening the three of us new comers strolled out to the harbor, a pleasant 15 minute walk. It was a perfect summer day, warm, with just a slight breeze, and the sun in no hurry to disappear. We were all equally shattered by the shabbiness of the residences and desperate for some cheering up. The scenic harbor, framed by dramatic mountains boosted our moods. At an Italian waterfront restaurant, Antonio's, we ordered wood fired pizza and chilled local Chenin Blanc. Seated on their lively deck, with a breathtaking view of the water, especially as the sun began to sink into the water around 8 o'clock, our problems receded into the background.
One of the great benefits of participating in an international volunteer program is the opportunity to create new friendships with people from far and wide. Each of us chatted about our lives, and it was fun and interesting. As darkness fell, the delightful sounds of live 70's music led us to a cocktail bar. Sipping after dinner cocktails we chatted with friendly locals, while listening to two very talented musicians singing familiar oldies. For a small town, Gordon's Bay had an impressive night scene.
When we returned to Journey's End around 10:00 I had to confront my sleeping dilemma. What were my options? I decided to pull my mattress and bedding into Tilda's room. Since she would be returning on Tuesday I would have a private space for these first few nights. I now felt feverish with a mild headache. A good night's sleep just might prevent the onset of flu.
In the morning my first thoughts were about getting out of this program. I couldn't possibly stomach living in this environment for two weeks. But I didn't want to lose the money I'd paid. Over coffee I read through the fine print of the travel insurance. My only way out was to claim illness. I didn't want to go that route, even though I was already experiencing flu symptoms.
I had to somehow make this work.
After a breakfast of poached eggs on toast, Caroline, Lottie and I decided to shoot over to Pick 'n Pay, which was just down the road, a five minute walk, to purchase cleaning products, as well as some decent food items, like mangoes, bananas, and cereal. We spent all morning cleaning up the house and succeeded in creating a tolerable living space. However, there was still the issue of my sleeping situation.
I sent an email to the top person in the Cape Town head office, Richard Wilkes. I mentioned that I was promised a bedroom that I would share with only only one other person, close to my age. I also mentioned the unacceptable lack of cleanliness and hygiene at the residences.
On Sunday afternoon we met up with Lizzie for workshop training at Mont Blanc. It soon became clear that all the volunteers, with the exception of Caroline and myself, were between the ages of 18 and 24. They mostly came from Europe and the USA and seemed happy with the program. The lack of cleanliness and tidiness at these residences didn't faze them! The hired daily help had been off for Christmas holidays, and pretty much for an entire month nobody cared about sweeping, mopping, or cleaning bathrooms. Even the bedbugs didn't bother these youngsters. They were in "Africa", here to work in a poor township. This was the third world. They had arrived with low expectations. In fact, they were amazed that they were in a modern building with proper electricity and plumbing and could take hot showers everyday! As for the cost of the program, they were clueless. Their parents were in charge of their expenses.
My flu got progressively worse on Sunday. I longed for a clean, comfortable bed with fresh sheets. My mattress was so battered it sank all the way to the floor when I slept on it. I took a painkiller which helped reduce my fever. I was able to sleep through most of the night. The next morning, Monday morning, my fever returned and my voice more or less disappeared. I didn't want to miss my first day at the project so I took an Advil and got ready for a full day.
A minibus transported all the volunteers to the three project venues. We left behind the sanitized white world of Gordon's Bay with its swanky gated communities lining wide well maintained roads. On the outskirts litter strewn fields along the highway signaled our approach into the developing world. Overweight Xhosa women could be seen walking in the baking heat toward the city. Young black men at intersections urged drivers to buy their cheap gadgets. We drove past this tableau and fifteen minutes later we entered Nomzamo township. Produce stalls, street vendors, shacks, trash, narrow lanes, open gutters, the smell of meat cooking on open fires. Interspersed among this chaos attractive buildings and houses stood out defiantly.
Since I was in the Women's Empowerment program I worked at the Nomzamo Community Center in the morning. In the afternoon we merged with all the other GVI staff and volunteers at the Strand library. This was the pattern for the first of my two weeks. I've described my work days in detail in my previous post.
At Journey's End on Monday afternoon, my third day, I met the house cleaner, Winnie, who had just returned from a month's vacation. She was painstakingly heaving her way down the staircase. She appeared to be in her late 50's, seriously overweight and in terrible physical shape. How could she be expected to clean up all of the GVI residences and prepare the evening meal for over 20 people too? If I had thought the filthy state of the residences was due to Winnie's absence and therefore temporary, I just realized that I was dead wrong!
I had to move out. Especially since Tilda would be returning the next day. I found an Airbnb for $54.00 a night a mile from Mont Blanc. I emailed Richard Wilkes again and explained my reasons for moving out. Firstly, GVI did not deliver on their promise regarding my sleeping arrangement. Secondly, I couldn't tolerate the squalor. I requested pick up and drop off from my accommodation.
On Tuesday morning I told Lizzie I was moving out that afternoon. She smiled in relief. We discussed logistics. I expressed an interest in joining the group for evening meals. "When Tilda returns, maybe we can figure out a way to get me back home after dinner."
Her response was, "In this program you are meant to be staying here. We can't be expected to be a meal delivery service."
I calmly responded that I wasn't asking for my meals to be be delivered. I would happily take care of my own meals if I couldn't work out a plan to join the group.
Richard Wilkes responded to my email later that day. He apologized for the situation and agreed to take care of all my transportion. He also scheduled a meeting with me and Tilda later that day.
Before the meeting on that Tuesday I had another rude encounter from a GVI staff member. At the Strand library where we all helped out with the summer program, when everyone went outside with the kids, I stayed inside. I was quite sick with flu, had essentially lost my voice, and badly needed to rest after my morning exertion at Women's Empowerment. Lesley Ann, 19 years old, with the absurd responsibility of running this summer program, marched into the library. In a surprisingly rude tone she told me I was needed outside. (Bullshit, of course, given the adult to kid ratio of 1 to 3). I said I had the flu and I wasn't going outside. What I didn't say was I had not signed up for this children's program. And that I wouldn't choose a job that I paid to do which guaranteed I would get migraines.
She repeated that she needed me outside. This unprofessional behavior was most bizarre. I repeated that I wasn't going outside.
"Then why didn't you ask to go straight back to the house?" she demanded.
I shrugged and said, "I didn't know that was an option."
She got on the phone and tried to call Lizzie, but Lizzie didn't answer. Lesley Ann heaved an annoyed sigh. I said, "Look, I'm fine resting here until the van comes for us. You are the one having a problem with it." She nodded, mumbled, ok, and left.
I sat down, stunned. After a few minutes I realized that Lesley Ann was just a kid entrusted with too much responsibility. She needed guidance. As did all the young staff members. Too many of them I observed, looked for ways to shirk their duties and palm them off onto the short term volunteers. The lack of adult supervision was a real problem.
After project I met up with Tilda and Richard in the room used as an office in Mont Blanc. Finally, for the first time since my arrival in Gordon's Bay, I'd be talking to adults in the program! They listened attentively as I told them my entire story. They were both clearly on the defensive, ready to be accommodating. They agreed that the cleanliness issue had to be addressed. They insisted that GVI had misled me and should have informed me that sleeping was dorm room style bunk beds. Tilda would drive me back to my Airbnb after dinner every evening in the GVI vehicle that she had been allocated. They tried to defend the bed bugs situation claiming it had absolutely nothing to do with cleanliness. They had done everything they could, and were continuing to address it. Before the meeting ended Tilda offered to have me share Lizzie's room. I said I'd think about it.
At my Airbnb that evening I reveled in the luxury of a spacious bedroom with large windows and stunning mountain views. A king size bed with crisp sheets, lots of cupboard space, and a shiny, squeaky clean bathroom. Finally I could rest properly and try to fight off my flu. That's all I cared about for the first few nights there.
However, later in the week the isolation got to me. I was warned not to walk in the neighborhood, and during my free time to get anywhere I'd need to order an uber ride. The Pick 'n Pay and harbor areas were no longer just a quick walk down the road.
So after a week at the Airbnb, I returned to Journey's End for my last 4 nights in Lizzie's room. Since she spent her nights with her boyfriend, I actually had the room to myself.
My two weeks with GVI were undoubtedly educational. Working daily in the heart of a township and interacting closely with locals allowed me to experience the warmth and friendliness of the Xhosa culture, and to witness their optimism and drive. Despite my skepticism of the effectiveness of GVI projects, I cannot deny how enriching it must be for western youngsters. Surely their life decisions and world outlook must be impacted by having come face to face with impoverished communities.
So, all in all, it was a mixed bag.