Monday, September 10, 2012

Soweto & Jo'Burg

9 September 2012

We were devastated to say goodbye to our Bulungulan paradise, but the rest of Southern Africa was calling our names. From Mthatha, we flew on a jet (so small that Chris could extend his arms and palm both sides of the plane) to Johannesburg, the industrial capital of South Africa.  We were lucky enough to have our friend Dara join us for this part of the trip! Lebo himself, 30-year old entrepreneur and founder of Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers, picked us up from the airport.

Ginny paying for her meal....
I was not exaggerating about the size of this woman. 
Our first meal in Soweto was absolutely absurd. We found a tiny hole in the wall around the corner from Lebo's. White walls and a white counter greeted table, chairs, or people to be seen. The only indicator that food could be purchased was a hand-written sign taped to the wall that listed foreign meats and corresponding prices. We asked a few scantily-clad teenagers how we could order, and they said "you wait." Eventually, a woman smaller than the counter top appeared. I could only see her eyes and forehead when I asked if I could order. She seemed very confused. I pointed to something on the menu, and she disappeared behind the wall for 15 minutes. She came back with my food, and Chris asked if the other four of them could order as well. "Four?!" She exclaimed. She looked like she was about to pass out, eyes widening with worry. Dara said it was like we had walked into her home and asked her to cook us lunch. I'm not convinced that that is not exactly what we did...

Soweto, short for Southwestern Township, is the biggest and most historical township in South Africa. Our friends from Stellenbosch were extremely wary of us being here at all (much less spending 3 nights), but it was well worth the “risk.” We were right in the middle of Orlando West, where Nelson Mandela and his family lived. It was unreal to be in Soweto while reading Long Walk To Freedom, his autobiography. I would read how he walked down Commissioner Street in Johannesburg literally hours after I walked down it myself. I read about when he moved into 8115 Vilakazi Street the day before I went to see it. I love learning about his life; he really is one of the most fascinating individuals. He's changed and been molded by every person he's met, every experience he's encountered. He's very human. His internal struggles remind me it's okay to question anything and everything, especially why I believe what I do. 
Outside of Nelson Mandela's old house!
We went to museums and learned about National Youth Day, Hector Pieterson, and the history of how Soweto came to be what it is. I was in awe that I had never learned any of this back home. How is it possible for us to not study something so real, relevant, and recent?! Mind blown.

At night, Lebo’s is the place to be. Locals come to hang out around the fire and dance to the bumpin’ music, while tourists enjoy delicious home-cooked meals and soak up the hilarity of this laid-back culture. We met some incredible people this way…my particular favorites were Kuna (who beat me in chess in under 5 moves), Thami (who had the most beautiful outlook on life and could never stop dancing) and X (which is short for Xcellent). Need I say more? I fell in love with these people.

On Monday, we actually made it to Johannesburg. The plan was to go to the Apartheid Museum, a World of Beer factory, and enjoy a delicious lunch in the city. But whoooooooo knew that everything in northern South Africa is closed on Mondays?! Everyone except us, apparently. We still enjoyed our day, ordering three milk tarts and going to the top of the highest skyscraper on the African continent, but I will see that museum one day. Just not on Monday.

Our final stop took us all the way to Zambia. More on that later! (If I drag out writing these posts, the trip isn’t really over, right?)

Sunday, August 12, 2012


12 August 2012

This is going to be a long post already, so I won’t waste much time with a reason for why it’s taken me two months back on American soil to write this. Sorry if it left any of you feeling incomplete…here’s part 1 of my final African adventure!

After an entire semester of pre-planned AIFS excursions, we had the chance to organize one of our own when school was over. Three of my closest friends and I came up with a trip that took us out of our Stellenbosch bubble and into Real World: South Africa. On May 27th, Annie, Ginny, Chris and I set out for our two-week extravaganza.
In the beginning we were clean, so clean...much unlike the rest of the trip!
Normally I wouldn’t bore you with details of our actual methods of transportation, but getting to our first destination was a doozy. We left Cape Town at 5 PM on an overcrowded, overheated bus that would drive us through the night to a town called Mthatha, where Nelson Mandela once lived. The 15-hour trip had one pit stop and loud African gospel music through the night, y’know, just to take your mind off how badly you had to go to the bathroom.

Once in Mthatha, we had to find our first minibus taxi. This form of local transport is one of my favorite cultural experiences. The beat-up vans have 10 seats, but you better believe that you aren’t going anywhere until at least 15 people have packed themselves in there like sardines.

The second one we took was not so much a van, but a “bakkie,” or a pick-up truck. They stuff even more people into the bakkies, but thank God for Ginny’s motion sickness, which had us in the front seat. Poor Annie and Chris rode in the back with 18+ others for 2 more hours, with crying babies and no feeling in their legs.

We kept driving and driving into the middle of nowhere, until finally we stopped at the edge of the world. We had long surpassed any form of civilization, and by civilization I mean a building with indoor plumbing. When the dirt road ended, the driver said, “See that mountain? Hike down it until you get to the river. Ask for the eskepeni (ferry), they’ll take you across and then show you how to get to the village you’re looking for.”  Keep in mind, I ditched the crutches right before the trip and am still wearing my foot brace.
What we got out of the van to...
The “ferry” we found was a wooden canoe, and with it came two gentlemen who didn’t speak a word of English. One of them walked us up the other side of the mountain and was our line-leader for the next 45 minutes until we reached Bulungula lodge.

Bulungula is an eco-friendly village on the wild coast, right on top of the Indian ocean. It took us just as long to get there as it did to get from Orlando to Cape Town. They have posted in their lodge: “We know it’s a mission to get here, but paradise always is.”
Two of our other friends, Maureen and Elyse, met us in Bulungula later that night. We spent four blissful days here, with no internet or cell phones, just an empty beach and a bonfire every night. We went canoeing and participated in a Women’s Power Day. We made mud bricks, gathered firewood, made lunch, and learned how to carry water on our heads.
Elyse learning from the young'ns!
Bulungula was my absolute favorite part of the trip and semester. Words can’t describe the serenity of such a place…I tried to appreciate every quiet minute and every stunning sunrise.

Leaving Bulungula was just as much of a mission as getting there. We met a woman who was driving out the same morning we were, and she offered us a ride. She told us she parked far away, but we could walk along the beach until we had to ferry back over. When we reached the point where the ocean meets the river, we found the canoe she stashed in the trees. The tide started to come in, and Sue started freaking out. She said there was no time for multiple trips; we were going to have to put all our stuff in the canoe and swim it across. Two puppies we befriended from the Lodge simply did not want to say goodbye, and they hopped in the river and swam after us. One puppy couldn’t swim too well, and when he caught up to us, he clawed up my back and onto my head. Then Sue started hyperventilating. When we reached the rocks on the other side, I could hardly catch my breath from the absurdity of the past 5 minutes. 

We rode in the back of Sue’s bakkie for two hours, and that trip alone could be an entirely different post…needless to say, it wasn’t a heart-wrenching goodbye when we parted ways.

From there we went to Soweto and Johannesburg, and our final leg of the trip was the Zambian side of Victoria Falls. I will definitely make those another post soon!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Bunny Bunny, Toki Toki!

Among 25,000 Stellenbosch students, I’m confident that Ginny and I found the most amazingly absurd group of people to hang out with. Ad-Lib, I love you.

We get together every week to become the gods of Korea, go back in time, morph into animals, and solve mysterious murders. We’ve spent the semester making something out of nothing, trying to make others laugh in the process. Whether we’re at practice, the beach, or a bar, it is impossible to be around them with your guard up. Ad-Lib has become such an important part of my experience abroad…I know they will be the hardest part of saying goodbye to Stellenbosch.

So I want to say thanks. Thank you, beautiful Ad-Libbers, for welcoming us into your weird little world for the semester. You have done more than just let us join your club; you have become some of my closest friends. I truly appreciate how you weren’t afraid to really get to know me and Ginny, even though we are only here for a short time.  It would have been easy to see us at practice, invite us to the workshop, and then forget about us come next semester. But you guys made my experience here the best it could possibly have been, and I have no doubt our friendship will go the distance (literally, when we all visit each other). You are so talented and beautiful and I have loved every second of this adventure. I will miss you all terribly...

Friday, May 4, 2012

21 and Surrounded By Monkeys

An overnight bus ride with 20 of your favorite people is a seriously underestimated good time, especially when those hours are spent taking you to the Kalahari desert. The weekend was filled with an active game drive, an awkward boat ride, white-water rafting, campfire conversation, and birthday celebration.

We were in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, which is over 3 million acres of land throughout South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia. It is a completely untouched animals are brought in and no animals are taken out. It is African wildlife in its purest form, and we were so lucky to see as much action as we did!!!      

 This leopard was one of my absolute favorites from the whole day. It is extremely rare to see one...our guide told us this guy was only the second he's ever seen on a game drive!
 We saw the last few moments of this Springbok's life before a pack of cheetahs just went to town. Absolutely incredible to watch. 
The game drive was by far, hands down, every other cliche way to say "DEFINITELY" one of my favorite experiences in this country.

The next day, we packed up camp and drove a few more hours southeast to the Augrabies Falls, a spectacular sight. It was there that I got so sick of my crutches that I chucked one down the waterfall. Well it wasn't quite so dramatic, but I did accidentally drop one from the lookout point. It is now floating down the Orange River, forever lost in the African wilderness. As we watched it go down, the first thing out of my mouth (after hysterical laughter) was "That was a rental..." Going to have to reimburse the doctor for that one =\

On Monday April 30th, I woke up 21 and surrounded by monkeys. There were dozens of them in and around our campsite...typical Africa. We then spent the morning white-water rafting! I can't remember ever laughing as hard as when Sam and I capsized. We left that night for another overnight drive back to Stellenbosch and the sunset was absolutely unreal. I honestly don't think I have ever seen such a brilliant combination of color, enhanced only by the shadow of a never-ending line of mountains. I felt like it was Mother Nature's personal painting, a birthday present just for me. I spent the majority of the drive home with a big goofy grin on my face, completely in awe of the past few days.

Tuesday with Desmond

26 April 2012

When a friend told me his public theology class was going to Cape Town to see Desmond Tutu, I knew I had to find a way to finagle my way in. I immediately emailed the professor to ask tag-along permission, but she never wrote back! I decided to show up at the meeting spot and plead my case in person (highlight of my semester/incredible opportunity/one of the greatest peacemakers of all time, etc…), and if that didn’t work, I was going to play the cripple card (“but I crutched all the way down here...”). 

[Side Note: I haven’t blogged about that little incident, have I? I fell a few weeks ago and damaged some ligaments in my right foot. No glamorous story, just a clumsy Corie moment. Whoops!]

I soon found out that the professor was meeting the group in Cape Town…and the bus driver didn’t know who was all in the class, now did he!? So I hopped on (literally) unnoticed. We pulled up to a small church on the outskirts of Cape Town. The former Archbishop was the guest speaker at the first memorial lecture honoring late theologian Steven de Gruchy and his Olive Theory. Steven actually grew up with the Arch as his mentor, so his family thought it would be appropriate to ask him to commemorate the new annual tradition.

He was absolutely astounding. We walked into the church as some of the first to arrive, and he was already sitting alone up front, quietly looking over some papers. He was just feet away from us, yet so peaceful in his solitude. I could not keep my eyes off of him. His aura is magnetizing.

The moment he stepped up to speak, his good-natured humor humbled the glow. He is very human…soft-spoken, funny, a rambler. Steven’s father later joked that the only problem with inviting the Archbishop to speak is that he never stays on the topic you want him to. It didn’t even matter; I wanted to soak in his every word. With someone like that, you have to trust that his message comes from God’s mouth; he tells you whatever He wants you to hear.

After he spoke, my next mission was to make contact. He was flooded with fans and pictures like the latest Hollywood star, but he was nothing but gracious with everyone. I waited for my turn patiently, that is, until he started to leave the church. Ack! I had to get in there! I hobbled up behind him, and suddenly, he gasped. He had forgotten his bible at the altar. After he retrieved it, he looked me square in the eye and said “I forgot this!” I responded, “That’s kind of important.” And he patted me on the shoulder, laughed, and said “Old age…it will happen to you, too!” And he started to walk away. I was so overjoyed with this exchange of dialogue that I almost forgot to get a picture. Almost. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The more I see, the less I know.

Michael Franti said (or, sang) it best, and now I finally understand.

Much like the tedious and tricky mountain, my experiences with Lynedoch have had its highs (yogurt facials, Cha-Cha lessons) and lows (absentee teachers, power struggles). We are close to the end and I'm attempting to make sense of it all. Why are we here? Are we making any sort of difference? If there’s no tangible result at the end, how do you measure your effect? 

When I was in the Dominican Republic, we went into a primary school for just five days. With that short of a time frame, I expected from the beginning to get more out of the trip than the kids we were visiting. With a career in community development or the Peace Corps, where you are fully integrated for several years, I would expect the benefits to be more double-sided.

So where does that leave us here in Lynedoch? We are international students here for four months working with these kids once a week. We aren’t certified teachers; most of us aren’t even in school for education. So are we trying to come in and change lives? It seemed expected of us at the beginning of the course…that we were there to enable empowerment among these children; inspire them to rise up and break their cycle of poverty. Come into the classroom with enough planning and passion, and anything’s possible. But how realistic is that when 40 teenagers decide to only speak in a language you don’t understand? What about when you ask the teacher to stay and help, but he decides he’s not needed and leaves anyway? Who do you get your support from when the entire school’s faculty is overworked and can hardly find the time to answer your email?

It seems as if we are just now finding our stride with the kids, just now pronouncing their names correctly, just now figuring out what works to get through to them. I didn’t know what to expect coming into Lynedoch, but I did hold onto something idealistic that would have me feeling fulfilled and proud of how far we’ve all come by the end of the semester. Is that how I’m feeling now? Mostly. But sometimes I just wish we had more time. 

Which brings me back to the beginning: four months. What do you accomplish in four months? During this time I have been, if nothing else, a fly on the wall of these students' lives. They have literally made me laugh and made me cry. They have shown me their intelligence, their resilience, their sassy attitudes that link teenagers all over the world. I've met their parents. I've heard their stories. More knowledge changes perspective, and mine is changing every day. 

The more I see, the less I know. And that's a lesson worth learning. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Peak

I’m a camp counselor; I’ve done a fair amount of hiking in my time…so I didn’t think twice when I filled my Nalgene with water, packed an apple, and headed out with four friends for what was sure to be a lovely morning on Stellenbosch mountain.

After an hour of hiking up the steepest incline I have ever encountered, I looked out above the city of Stellenbosch and took a deep breath of my favorite mountain air. I also cursed the Garden Route, where the most I physically exerted myself was to walk from the vans to the dinner table. Okay, this hike was hard, but totally worth it. I started congratulating everyone and suggested we hang out at the top for a while before our descent. Their looks of amusement had me confused until they started pulling out their sandwiches, talking about the crackers, chocolate and thermos’ of hot water they were saving for the top. I missed the memo that this would be an all-day affair. Stellenbosch Mountain is a tricky little sucker, with more false peaks than anyone could try to predict. And we were going all the way to the top.

Being sure that the top is in sight and putting everything into that climb, only to be greeted by the sight of yet another “peak" was like being a mouse running on a wheel with a piece of mouth-watering cheese dangling in front of your nose, just out of reach. We felt that after the second, third, fourth false peak. Each “top” was even more breathtaking than the last, each one a perfectly suitable stopping point. But we kept climbing until finally we saw the next marker. We all agreed that no matter what was after the pole atop that next peak, it would be our “top.” This was going into our fourth hour of nothing but steep incline, and we were all huffing and puffing.

Fortunately, that next ascent was not only our top, but the top, and it was more spectacular than my limited vocabulary can describe. We were above planes, right at the cloud line. We could see not only all of Stellenbosch, but nearby townships, Strand Beach, and even Table Mountain in Cape Town. My camera was still dead from the Garden Route (curse you, Garden Route), but Chris and Annie got some phenomenal photos that I will post later.

It is now April 12th and two months from tomorrow I will be leaving this incredible country to go back to the States. Each month I’ve been here has brought new people, new experiences, new challenges, new peaks. But I’m still climbing, and it is still a while until I’ll reach the top. If the mountain taught me anything, it’s that the best is still to come.