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I'm just a stressed-out-perfectionist-not-so-average-cupcake-making-graduate-student-from-Kansas trying to find my place in this world.
Current Adventure: Interning for the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in Washington, D.C.

Saturday, October 30, 2010


I could smell India before I could see it. I could taste India before I could see it. I could hear India before I could see it. And when I finally saw India, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to get off.

It must have been about 5:30AM, right before Mackenzie and I were getting up to watch the sunrise as we pulled into port that I woke up with the strangest taste in my mouth. It tasted like incense, spices I couldn’t recognize, and fire. It smelled dirty. It tasted dirty. My eyes burned from the dusty cloud that surrounded the MV Explorer as we pulled in. I was incredibly uncomfortable, nervous, anxious, every emotion imaginable washed over me. While originally I had said that I was most excited for India because India seemed so intriguing to me, over the past few weeks I had been getting nervous about it. So nervous that I was close to tears the entire week from Mauritius to India. Frankly, I was tired of seeing all the poverty, tired of being the tourist, and just plain tired. I haven’t seen anything familiar for almost 10 weeks now, and it is just exhausting to have to constantly be adapting to new places, new cultures, and new environments. When we pulled in Chennai Port Harbor on October 22nd, I would have gladly kept going to Singapore if I had had the option. India smelled, tasted, sounded, and looked scary and foreign. Really scary.

Looking back on the past week in India, I’m still not really sure whether my fears were justified. I saw things that I did not want to see—things that no one should have to see, let alone the people who are actually experiencing these gross atrocities. But in the midst of all of the poverty, the hurting, the hopelessness that seemed to have imbedded itself deep within the eyes of the street children of India, there was beauty—at least physical beauty. The first day I thought that in India, poverty exists without any form of dignity. I was comparing it to Ghana where even though the people had basically nothing, they still walked tall and proud and did not beg for handouts. That was much more rural. In India, the streets are lined with dying beggars, mutilated children, and starving animals. But when you talk with the people and just see how they carry themselves, you realize that it is not their fault and life, for them, still goes on, no matter how difficult it gets. The women wear the most amazing rainbow array of saris. The people still smile and wave, which alleviated a bit of my fear.

My first day in India, I spent working in a Dalit Village. The Dalit caste of people in India is more commonly referred to as “The Untouchables.” These people are the lowest of the low. They have nothing and are given nothing. Although the caste system was abolished in 1947, it still permeates every bit of everyday life in India. It is still nearly impossible to marry outside of your caste or rise above your designated station in life.

Twenty Semester at Sea students boarded the bus after a harrowing experience with Indian security. The Indian security guards check your passport and Indian visa at least 4 times between the ship and the port gate. They also carry huge guns, and every time you pass them, you are required to show documentation of every electronic product you have on the ship. It was ridiculous. But we made it to the bus. I was sitting in the first seat, and as we drove along the road towards the Dalit village, which took about an hour and a half, tears were just pouring down my face. I think it was just a lot of nerves from the week prior when I was stressing out over India combined with the sheer destitution of a lot of the Indian people. The people just lying on the dirty sidewalks waiting to die is what really struck me. When we got to the village, everyone was waiting for us. Since I was first off the bus, I bent down to pick up a child. It was a huge deal, apparently. We were all herded a long the road in a parade of women wearing brightly colored saris, children clamoring to be near us, and men banging on every instrument they could fine. I kept being pulled to the front of the line. When we got to the site where we were going to be painting and planting flowers, there was a huge makeshift tent set up with cloth thrown over trees. The leader of the village pulled me to the front so that I was facing everyone. There was a huge ceremony where they blessed us and gave us garlands of sweetly smelling flowers. The village chief presented me with a ceremonial scarf/robe that I wore for the rest of the ceremony (and got to keep), and then he talked about the caste system and how it really dominates Indian life. He asked me to explain why I didn’t mind touching the children, and I got to talk about how God loves everyone and that no one is better than anyone else. Then, the village chief leaned over to me and said, “You’ve touched one child, now you’ve got to touch them all.” So, we were paraded through town, and everyone brought their children and their elderly out to see us. We spent all afternoon speed painting, getting to know the beautiful people of this village, and holding children.

The most moving experience though for me was when an elderly woman pulled me down a dark alley into a cramped, dark, one-room home and all she kept saying was, “baby, baby, baby.” When we I got into the room and my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see a small baby, lying on a dirty towel in the center of the room. She had eyebrows drawn across her tiny face, wearing a lime green dress and nothing else. There was a 10-year old girl in the room who translated for us from Tamil to English. They said that the baby was newly born, although I’m not sure how old she was—possibly a week or two. The baby’s mother couldn’t have been older than I am, but both she and the grandmother insisted that they name the baby Emma after me. They lit some candles and started chanting in Tamil. Then, I was whisked out of the room and onto the bright streets again. The instant transition from dark to light gave me a headache and the dots blurring my vision left me wondering what exactly just happened. As we were leaving on the bus, the grandmother held the baby up and called out my name, waving.

My picture did appear in a few local Tamil-Nadu (the province where Chennai is located) newspapers and magazines. In one I was putting the first stroke of paint on the building during the sort of groundbreaking ceremony and in the other I was having the scarf/robe put around me by the man in charge of the organization that brought us to the Dalit village to paint.

The next morning, I left very early on a flight from Chennai to Delhi. We had a sort of boxed meal on the plane, and as soon as we arrived, the first thing I noticed was the lack of smothering and oppressive heat. Fortunately, the week prior there had been a huge snowstorm in the Himalayas, which pushed a cold front down to Delhi. It was only about 70 degrees the entire time we were up north. We did a city tour where we went to Hunayan’s Tomb (the inspiration for the Taj Mahal) and Raj Ghat, which is Ghandi’s memorial. I loved Ghandi’s memorial; it was just a simple black slab of marble with an eternal flame. As a sign of respect, we all took off our shoes before walking around it. A park surrounded Raj Ghat where children played and families picnicked. It seemed like the perfect tribute to a man like Mahatma Ghandi.

We stayed in the most exquisite hotel I’ve ever been in: Le Meridian. I understand that they are all over the world, but apparently this one has one awards for how beautifully decorated it is. I was on the fifteenth floor with a roommate from Rockford, Illinois, Amanda. Dinner at Le Meridian was disappointing though; they served us American cuisine and the main dish was beef. I didn’t realize until afterwards how incredibly disrespectful we must have seemed to the primarily vegetarian north that basically worship cows.

All of us had to meet at the bus to make our way to the New Delhi train station for a 5AM speed train to Agra. Walking through the throngs of people sleeping outside of the train station was difficult. These people weren’t begging, they were just sleeping. I felt like I was intruding on their home, and really I was. Entire families laid with a single blanket over them. Children stared at us with bleary eyes. It was heartbreaking. Ever at five in the morning, the train station was crowded with commuters and tourists alike trying to make their way to Agra.

The train was an interesting experience. We were in first class seats, but even so, cockroaches scuttled out of my seat as I sat down. The air conditioning didn’t really work, but that was okay, because it really wasn’t hot at all. I slept for a lot of the ride, but what we did pass through was just underdeveloped towns and farmlands.

Agra was an interesting experience. As soon as we arrived, we were whisked out of the train station, which was even more crowded and dirty than the one in New Delhi to the buses. If I hadn’t already had my heart broken for India, this would have done it. As soon we exited the train station, beggars mutilated in the most horrific of ways swarmed us. I would write more about what I saw, but it just makes me cry to think about it, and really, I don’t think that I can convey nor could someone who hasn’t seen it, understand it. It really is just that incomprehensible.

We spent the day touring a few places like Agra Fort and Fatepur Sikri, both forts of different rulers of India. Then, after lunch, it was time to visit the fabled Taj Mahal. Of course, there were hawkers everywhere outside of the gates, making it almost impossible to move towards the security checkpoint we need to go through. At one point we were riding in a tiny bus, and when we were stopped for just a second, the door opened, a small child jumped in, and then we were off. He made his way through us trying to sell us a couple postcards. On one hand, it was endearing the way he approached us, but on the other, it was horribly disturbing to think how many times the child had jumped in and out of moving vehicles to sell these old postcards to tourists just so that his family can have a little bit extra money.

The Taj Mahal is just as beautiful as everyone says it is. I actually did gasp when I saw it at first. I just stood there feeling completely overwhelmed by the magnificence of the monument and of the love the Shah Jahan had for his wife when he built this tomb for her. I really did cry, but not because of the Taj Mahal, more because I was standing there looking at it alone. Sometimes it is so exhilarating to be experiencing all of this, but other times, it is sad to think that I’m experiencing it y myself and not with the people that I really love. I was able to go up there and touch the Taj Mahal and I got a lot of really great photographs. But for the most part, I just saw and looked at it and watched the marble change colors as the sun went down.

The train back to Delhi was uneventful, and I fell asleep as soon as I got back to the hotel. The next morning, I flew with the group to Varanasi, the holiest city for Hindus in the entire world and especially in all of India. It’s also supposed to be the oldest city in the entire world. Varanasi was the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had. The airport was tiny for the amount of pilgrims who supposedly come through the city every year. I think that the little hanger where the skydiving plane took off from in South Africa was nicer. Driving through the streets of Varanasi was incredibly stimulating, and the drive to our hotel, which was significantly less luxurious than the last, did not last long enough. Our van had a musical horn, which sounded kind of like an ice cream truck, announcing the arrival of American tourists instead of popsicles.

That night we got into the neatest form of transportation there is: the bicycle rickshaw. We had two people per small seat that was attached to a bicycle. The man driving my rickshaw darted into oncoming traffic, crossed right in front of big buses, and never once used his breaks. It was like a carnival ride that lasted for more than 30 minutes. The rickshaw drivers left us at the banks of the River Ganges, the holiest river to Hindus. There we sat with the tens of thousands of others who come every night to watch the ceremony of the river. The men performing the ceremony stood on pillars, chanted, and waved incense sticks. I watched from a rickety old boat, anchored just a few feet from the short. I bought a small floating candle from a beggar girl that she lit for me and then I set into the water. You are supposed to make a wish as you let the candle go.

The next morning, however, was the real reason why the people go to Varanasi. At dawn, we were all in little boats rowing down the river. Right as the sun rose, thousands of Hindus flooded into the river to bathe in the holy waters. It was fascinating to watch the process of prayer and bathing that they performed every morning. The intense and overwhelming part of the morning was the cremating of the dead. In India, people want their bodies to be cremated in Varanasi and then have their ashes put into the river. The smell of burning bodies, the site of bodies shrouded in a bright orange cloth, and the sight of mourning families out in boats placing their deceased’s ashes in the water. To see and smell and experience this in front of me and then turn behind and see the people bathing in the same water behind me was shocking. I can’t really explain all of the emotions that went through me as I took all of this in, but it brought tears to my eyes and I’m still wondering if I’ll get the smell of Varanasi out of the back of my nose.

After a couple hours on the water, we transferred to our vans to go to Sarnath, the place where Buddha gave his first sermon. We didn’t spend much time there, but it was interesting and relaxing to spend some time away from the reality that is India. It was interesting to me that in all of these places like Raj Ghat and Sarnath, there was such beauty and serenity, yet right outside, there was such chaos and hurting and poverty. It boggles my mind to think about the disparity between the two.

The flight back to Chennai via Delhi was uneventful, and we didn’t make it back to the ship until past two in the morning. Mackenzie and I were up by 6:30 on the last day, ready to make the most of our last day in India. Unfortunately, most shops didn’t open until at least 11, so we really should have stayed in bed for a little while longer. The autorickshaw driver took us to fancy stores when we told him we just wanted to go to the market, because he would get money every time he brought tourists to them. Eventually, we made it clear to him that he had to stop doing that to us, and he took us to a very reasonably priced sari shop where I got a beautiful red chiffon sari to wear to the Ambassador’s Ball in December. Chennai was ridiculously hot and stifling, and so, by 8AM we were drained, but we kept going. The driver took us to a temple (again by “accident”) and we humored him by going in. It was actually extremely interesting because there was a wedding ceremony going on in the courtyard, which we got to observe from afar and then the temple also ran a soup kitchen. It was annoying that as we left, they, of course, harassed us for money. We gave the soup kitchen as much as we could, but not nearly enough to satisfy the hawkers harassing us.

We did make it back to the port, and I was so happy to see the ship. I ran on board, showered, and called my parents with the minutes Mackenzie had left over on her phone (I have the best roommate). It was emotional to call my family (for the first time in a couple months) right after India. After all I saw and heard and smelled and experienced, I just wanted to go home. But now we’re off to Singapore, where cleanliness and strict laws awaits me. I’m still processing everything that happened in India; hopefully by the time I get home, I will be able to articulate more how I felt and what I saw. But really, as my Global Studies professor said, “There are two kinds of people: those who have been to India and those who haven’t.” I’m not so sure how I feel about being in the new group, because now I can’t go back to who I was before I got to India. It isn’t possible. The chaotic mess than is India will change you more than anything else will--hopefully it changed me for the better.

P.S. I cut off my hair. I figured that I’m going to be so different when I get home, so I might as well cut my hair, and what better time than after India? I really love it though—it’s very stylish and sophisticated.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Spring Break?

Mauritius: Semester at Sea’s “Spring Break”—the European “Hawaii”—the “most beautiful place in the world.” For me, Mauritius was very underwhelming and not like this at all. Of course, the beaches were absolutely gorgeous, but the rest of the island was definitely not what I expected. I knew that Mauritius was a third world country, but I guess I still expected it to be blue water, white sand, and coconut trees all around. It wasn’t. There were tin shacks everywhere. Many people on the island live without access to electricity or running water. The streets and market places are littered with garbage, sewage, and rotting and overripe fruits and vegetables. The streets are unbelievably crowded. All sorts of strange smells were present. Yet, if you walked only half a mile towards the beaches, there were (only) 5-star resorts, an upscale shopping mall, and restaurants where an entrée costs most than the monthly salary of a Mauritian teacher. I guess I was just expecting paradise, and when I got there I just found real people who live and work and survive in a real environment where hardships still exist and life goes on despite the tourists sitting on the beach, drinking their pina coladas as the sun goes down.

We arrived in Port Louis, Mauritius bright and early on Thursday morning. The customs officials boarded the ship as soon as we docked and they informed us that they were requiring each of the 900+ passengers on our ship to file through with our passports to get our entry visas. Fortunately, after the first 100 people, they decided that that “random sampling” of students, life long learners, faculty, and staff was enough and we were all free to disembark the ship. Mackenzie, Carren, and I got of the ship quickly and boarded a water taxi (an old motor boat that ferries people from the port to the center of the city). It was not a very far ride, but if we would have walked, it would have taken almost an hour. We were first on a quest to find an ATM so that we could get Mauritian Rupees (the exchange rate was 30 rupees to $1USD). The walk was not difficult, but there is a lot of traffic, and since they drive on the opposite side of the road than we do, we had to be paying pretty close attention to where we were walking. We met a taxi driver named Isshaud who agreed to drive us around the north end of the island to all of the places that he deemed worthy of seeing during our short stay and then we would end at the beach. He was a fabulous guide. He took us to the infamous Jummah Mosque, several different cathedrals and Hindu temples, the Mauritian citadel, and the post office. Since we only had 2 days on the island, we were pressed for time to get our postcards and stamps.

Isshaud took us to Grand Baie beach. It was very small, but it was perfect for what we had in mind: laying in the sun and reading. We did go swimming for a bit (so far I’ve swum in the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Indian Ocean), but we spent most of our time soaking up the sun. We ate lunch at a Chinese/Mauritian restaurant. It was so delicious—I had some sort of shrimp over rice covered in a red sauce with coconut and pineapple.

The three of us made it back to Port Louis a little after 7:00PM. We headed to Namaste, a really nice Indian/Mauritian restaurant. It was amazing. Mine was very spicy though and ended up giving me a very bad stomach ache. I thought that I would make it out of Africa without ever getting sick from the food, but since Mauritius is still technically Africa, I failed. Lame. Maybe I can escape all of Asia (south, southeast, and east) without getting sick?

Mackenzie has an Iphone that can make calls via Skype to US-based cell phones and landlines. We found a wifi hotspot, so we were able to spend a few minutes calling home before we headed back to the ship for a few hours sleep.

Friday morning I had to be up with the sun because I was on a Semester at Sea service trip to Terre De Paix Children’s Shelter in Albion. Only 6 students showed up; I guess the rest were too hungover from their one night of “spring break.” The drive to the children’s shelter was not too far, but it took us an hour and a half because we were going right in the middle of rush hour.

Terre De Paix serves children who have been removed from their homes because of abuse.  It is not an orphanage, like we were told prior to going there. The children are all in foster care, but this foster care is not run by the state. Although the education system in Mauritius is “free,” at least 20% of the kids there are not in school because their parents cannot afford to buy the books and uniform. The classes are so big that 1/3 of the students who are in school fail out by age 12. The rest fail out by the time that they are 15. Terre De Paix is also classified as a “special school” and they try to keep the “problem” children in school and learning. They do a series of workshops that help kids with their creativity and expressing themselves, as well as teaching them the regular subject in small groups of 6-8 students and in their language, Creole. That is one of the biggest problems is that school in Mauritius is taught in either French or English, which most of the children don’t speak so they become disengaged at an early age from the classroom.

We were able to go to several of these different workshops. I made a mask out of papier-mâché with the 5th graders, learned a Creole poem with the 6th graders, and learned about agriculture in Mauritius with the 3rd graders during my day there.
Here is the Creole poem that I was taught:

Si pena ou, pena nou
Si pena nou, pena ou
Ou se nou, nou se ou
Ou ou ou
Nou nou nou

It basically means that without other people, I cannot become a person.

We were also able to go to the day care/preschool that Terre De Paix runs. It was the most beautiful, state of the art preschool/day care I have ever seen. It was just built with money donated from the EU and it was amazing. Everything there is run off of solar panels and with water collected during rain. There are bright fun murals everywhere. They have little walled gazebos surrounding the main building where the kids learn to play instruments, play with paint, etc. All the little kids were gone on a field trip, but the babies were there so we got to see them for a while. This day care is free and is only for the poor women who can’t afford any help, especially single women who have been the victims of sexual assault or whose boyfriends have left them when they became pregnant (a huge problem in Mauritius). Soon, Terre De Paix will be building a new building for the older children, which they are very excited about.

I brought another one of the One World Futbols that one of the professors brought onboard with him. They are indestructible soccer balls made out of the croc shoe material. They are named after the song by Sting, One World. The children were SO excited for this soccer ball, and they even knew the song and sang it for us.

After we left the children’s shelter, Mackenzie, Carren, and I headed for some good Indian/Mauritian lunch. It was delicious! We got a HUGE tray of naan, different curries, rice, some veggies, and a bottle of water for less than $4 USD, AND I didn’t get sick from it. It was a much better deal than the night before. We found a little grocery store down one of the side streets, so we bought some snacks for our 6-day crossing of the Indian Ocean to India, and then we grabbed a water taxi, and headed back to the ship.

Apparently, most Semester at Sea students just stayed in villas and drank the whole time—so much so that Mauritius has asked Semester at Sea to never port there again. I was so embarrassed to be in any way associated with these people. Most of them are just treating this as a “booze cruise” or a party around the world, which is ridiculous. But then again, these are probably the students whose parents are paying for the trip and the ones who have daddy’s credit card to foot the bill. We did not even have our post-port reflection groups last night like we usually do after a port because so many of the students were still drunk, and the administration was going crazy trying to figure out how to deal with them all. More than 100 Semester at Sea students got “dock time” for not being back to the ship on time—this means that they’ll have to stay on the ship while everyone gets off in India. For every 15 minutes you are late, you get 3 hours of dock time. However, according to a lot of professors who have been on Semester at Sea, India is a big wake up call for the students. Hopefully that happens because these kids are getting ridiculous.

I really did like Mauritius despite the fact that it was so different than I expected. I enjoyed the day at the children’s shelter and our R&R day at the beach. I wish we could have had at least one more day there, so that we could have had time to make it a little further into the island. We only have four more days until we are in India—let the second half of the trip begin! ☺

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Life in South Africa

**I apologize for the delay in posting about South Africa. I got really sick after we left Cape Town, and I am just now recovering. I also had all of my midterm exams and papers due in the past few days. I learned so much though in Cape Town, so I hope you enjoy reading this post!

South Africa was a difficult port for me. Right outside of the ship was one of the most luxurious and upscale malls I’ve ever been to. Think: Frontenac in St. Louis. The stores ranged from Gucci to Louis Vuitton, and there were no budget options. Even the coffee shops charged upwards of $8USD for a latte. But most of S. Africa does not live like that. Most live in little “shanty town” townships on the outskirts of the city. The V & A Waterfront where the MV Explorer was docked is just a facade for the rich tourists and the small community of white South African elites.

One of the challenging parts for me is that I really did enjoy going to the mall and using their free wi-fi to skype Ben and instant message my mom. I’m sure you’ve all seen the new photo albums on Facebook, all courtesy of the free wi-fi at Myatt’s Chocolatier and Café. You should have seen me when I went into a grocery store for the first time in two months. It felt amazing. There were so many options. It was so good to just go and buy shampoo and granola bars. But the second I stepped outside the waterfront though, I did not want to go back to the luxurious mall. . . to the fancy and expensive meals. . . to our own luxurious ship where stewards make your bed and fold your clothes. I felt so guilty.

The first day in Cape Town was one of the best I’ve ever had. My friends and I got up at 4:00AM to watch the sunrise over Table Mountain as we pulled into the Cape Town harbor. It was beautiful. We all had to file through the faculty lounge one-by-one starting at 0545 to have visas issued. By 9:00AM we were cleared by immigration and ready to disembark. But then we had to listen, unfortunately, to the American diplomat in Cape Town who was such a jerk. He’d make comments like, “if you get into trouble, run and let them catch the Germans. It’s less paperwork for me.” If he would have said it once, it might have been funny, but he said it over and over and he was clearly not joking. One of my good friends on the ship is German and she was definitely not amused. He scared everyone to the point of not wanting to get off the ship.

Mackenzie and I braved it though to go get money from the ATM and meet the man who was going to take us skydiving. You probably don’t believe that I did it, so that’s why I made sure to upload some photos before we left Cape Town to my blog of my sky diving adventure. The man picked us up at 11:00 outside the Cape Town Aquarium. We were so nervous. Well, I was at least. Mackenzie seemed a little less nervous, and she managed to keep the conversation going between the driver and herself. I was just trying not to throw up. The place was about a 45 minutes drive from the port. I was a little nervous since their headquarters was just an old, dilapidated building in the middle of a field. But I signed my life away to them anyways. My tandem jumper’s name was Gerry. He hooked me into a harness and then suddenly we were walking towards this little plane. Gerry decided that he and I would go first, so Mackenzie, her tandem jumper, and her camera guy got in first, followed by me and my crew. There were no seats. We all sat on the floor between each others’ legs. On the 25-minute plane ride up to the 9000 foot altitude where we were going to jump, the pilot took us over Table Mountain and Robben Island. The view was breathtaking…too bad my breath was already busy trying not to hyperventilate, so I wasn’t able to take it all in properly. Suddenly, the pilot gave us a two-minute warning, Gerry started hooking me in, told me to sit on his lap and then he scooted us over to the door. He had me hang my feet out of the plane, tip my head back, he rocked a couple times and then he hurled us out of the plane. It was exhilarating. It didn’t even cross my mind to think that we were about to die. Our free fall was just under 40 seconds and then we had 5 minutes once the parachute came out to enjoy the view. Gerry let me control the parachute. We spun around a bunch. It was fun, but I was pretty nauseous on the way down. I actually landed on my feet, when we finally came in for our landing. But once Gerry disconnected me, he had to hold me up for a few seconds because I was shaking so badly. I think I’ll do it again though—it was amazing.

That night I went with a group of girls and guys from Bible study to Hillsong S. Africa. It was amazing. Considering how recent Apartheid is, it was so awesome to see people of all races worshipping together. There were at least 5,000 people in the auditorium, a huge worship band on stage, and we heard sermons from 3 different pastors. As soon as the songs started though, I was a huge sobbing mess. Something about not having church for almost two months and being there at 7pm which would have been right when my family was at church in Kansas just made me super emotional. They were really good sermons though—very pertinent to our trip. The people were so welcoming too.

Lonyae, Mackenzie, and I went out to a very nice dinner afterwards. It was Italian food, but since we still had a week left in the port, we felt that it was okay to skip out on the South African dishes and go for some delicious pasta. We were especially celebrating the fact that we had jumped out of airplanes and survived. ☺

Day two was also an amazing day. Kate, Lonyae, and I went up to the top of Table Mountain. We took the cable car, which was $30 well spent. Some people hiked to the top, but you have to pay a guide or else you are really risking getting mugged somewhere a long the way. It is a four hour hike up and then four hours down, but we did it in 4 minutes up, an hour at the top, and four minutes down. The cable car spins as it goes up to the top so that you get a panoramic view of Cape Town. Desmond Tutu had told us to raise our hands at the top of the mountain and say a prayer since Apartheid is now over, so we did. The view at the top was breathtaking.

The three of us came down about lunchtime, so we found a fish and chips restaurant to eat. Lonyae and I had to be back to the ship at 3pm so that we could leave for our home stays. The township where I stayed was Tambo Township. It was much more upscale than some of the ones we passed on the way. In this township, everyone had a brick home and electricity. Not everyone had running water, but the family that I stayed with did. They did not have a water heater though, so they heated water for baths by boiling it on the stove. They had electricity, but they only turned it on at night. 

Mama Irene was my homestay mother for the night. She was the wisest, funniest, and most amazing woman. She told us all about South African life for the black communities. She told us about the injustices of Apartheid—she was never allowed to learn to read, she was forcefully displaced from her home and relocated to a township where they slept in an old box turned home. Something that I noticed right away going into Tambo Township was the distinct lack of men. I asked Mama Irene about it. She said that the young and middle-aged men never had proper role models, nor were they encouraged to become upstanding citizens, since to the government they were third-class citizens, so they all left. They drink. They get the girls pregnant. They leave them. They eventually contract HIV/AIDS. They die. Mama Irene says that she never wants her daughters to marry because that age group of men are horrible. So, all of her daughters live with her, unmarried, with all of their babies (two were younger than a month old).

Mama Irene used to run a daycare for children who had lost one or both of their parents to HIV/AIDS in the townships. She was the township mother and spent a long time nurturing all of the children. One of her daughters is actually a dancer who runs a non-profit organization, which keeps the kids off the streets and away from drugs by teaching them dance and giving them one square meal after school everyday.

Mama Irene cooked each of us a huge plate of bean stew with a hunk of some sort of meat in the middle. She said she killed it in the field. Yum? We drank lots of rooibos tea and for breakfast, we had big steaming bowls of porridge.

Three of the granddaughters latched onto me, and they dragged me around from house to house to show me off to their friends. Mama Irene gave them a couple rand to take us to the little tuck shop on the corner to get popsicles. In the morning, Mama Irene woke us before the sun was up to say goodbye to all the grandkids before they left for school. She kept saying that the “school bus” was coming. Turns out, the school bus is actually a pickup truck and all the kids from the township just pile in the back.

I didn’t want to leave, but eventually I had to. That afternoon Mackenzie showed me the spot where she had gotten wifi. I decided to go for a few minutes, but my mom was on the chat, so I ended up staying for several hours to chat with her. I got a few pictures uploaded, did some journaling on my township homestay and got to bed early.

Wednesday was a busy day. I volunteered at the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust. Amy Biehl was a Fulbright Scholar who had gone to South Africa to help in the struggle against Apartheid. Unfortunately, she was murdered in a riot by four men who did not realize that she was there to help them not oppress them. They just saw her as the enemy for being white. Her parents did an amazing thing though. Through the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, which Desmond Tutu started, her parents came to South Africa, forgave the young men, asked for their release from prison, and then started the foundation, which reaches thousands of youth and families daily in the townships. They have music programs, they run schools and orphanages, and they run feeding programs. Two of the men who murdered Amy now run the foundation, and they were our guides for the day.

When I realized after watching the short informational clip that they had the volunteers watch that our guides were two of the men who killed Amy Biehl, I was a little uncomfortable. It was hard to figure out how to interact with people who murdered another human being—violently. She was stoned with bricks and then stabbed. But eventually, it got easier to interact, more comfortable. One of them showed me pictures of his two-year old daughter. Whenever we went to a different feeding site or school program run by The Amy Biehl Foundation Trust, the kids would flock to these men. According to most of the directors at the different sites, these guys have dedicated their whole lives to making Amy Biehl’s dream of a future for the black communities come true. It’s still weird to think about, and I’m definitely still processing everything that happened that day, but it was an eye-opening experience.

We went to three different Amy Biehl sites to do work. The first was a huge community garden at a primary school. Each child has his or her own plot of land, and they are helped to cultivate it and to grow certain vegetables. All the food goes home to their families. The second one we went to was an after-school program for kids to keep them off the streets and out of trouble. The third was another after-school program, which teaches dance, choir, and different musical instruments. The students performed for us; they were so talented!

Somethings that struck me as a little off key were the differences between the South African children and the Ghanaan children. I know that my experiences in both countries are not comparable at all, but the children in Ghana totally still have my heart. They were just so excited to be with us and thankful for the things that we brought with us. The kids at these programs run by the Amy Biehl Foundation must get a lot of tourist visitors because they were constantly demanding that we give them our watches, hats, cameras, etc. If we said that we couldn’t, they’d try to get us to give them money. Some of the kids would hit us if we said no. It was heartbreaking to see—they had to learn all of the violence somewhere. But it all goes back to what Mama Irene said about the lack of positive adult role models for the young kids because of the AIDS death rates, the lack of men in the community, the number of orphans due to anti-Apartheid violence. It is a vicious cycle.

Lunch was also good. We went to a local Xhosa restaurant where we basically just ate huge piles of braii (BBQ) meat with our hands. They do not use utensils there. . . or napkins. Of course, it was delicious, and thankfully, my stomach did not suffer any ill effects.

Thursday found me at the Inverdoorn Game Reserve about three hours outside of Cape Town. I highly recommend it to any one going to Cape Town who isn’t able to make it up to Kruger National Park for a safari. We left the ship before sunrise, got to the game reserve about 10AM. We had about a two and a half hour game drive. It was absolutely incredible—so, so, so amazing. I saw cheetahs, giraffes, rhinos, zebras, lions, buffalo, spring buck, hippos, and many colorful birds and snakes. We had the most delicious meal I have ever eaten for lunch (quiches, fresh veggies, flatbread “pizzas” with caramelized onions and green olives, delicious dark breads and mango juice) before we piled back into the vans to go back to the ship. We stopped for a bathroom break at a rest stop and they were playing the Lion King soundtrack. . . it was amusing.

Friday was, sadly, our last day in Cape Town. Mackenzie and I headed over to The Green Market to buy some homemade crafts from some of our township homestay mamas. The walk there and back was so pleasant. We stopped for samosas and Milo (3 samosas and a big mug of Milo for seventy-five cents!). We basically just wandered around for the whole day. We ate a delicious lunch of these South Africa burrito/wrap things. They have braii (BBQ) sauce, pineapple, chicken, and cheese inside of them. I was starting to feel really sick, so we went back to the ship in the late afternoon, and the ship left about 6:00PM from the port.

I would definitely return to Cape Town in a heartbeat. It is a beautiful city. South Africa is a beautiful country. And the people are beautiful and full of so much resilience—especially all the women like Mama Irene. South Africa was really the first place where I had seen such great wealth and great poverty side-by-side. Of course, I was upset in Ghana when they took us to the nice restaurant after driving us through all the shacks, but South Africa is vastly different. South Africa has HUGE displays of wealth everywhere, yet they also have the poorest of the poor. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that South Africa is a wonderful country, but a divided country that is slowly progressing. I agree with him, and I also agree that things are changing—even Mama Irene said that they are, and she, of all people, would know.

We arrive in Port Louis, Mauritius tomorrow morning—the weather? lows of 75 and highs of 88 for the next two days! I’m headed to the beach first thing in the morning and then the next day, Mackenzie and I are going to an orphanage to do some cleanup work and interact with the kids.  I’ll be timelier in getting the Mauritius blogpost out, I promise! ☺

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

I don't have time to compose a post for you, but I thought I'd share some sky diving photos while I have the internet access. My roommate and I went sky diving the first day in Cape Town. It was amazing. Best of all, I survived! :-)