In light of three incredibly different interactions I have with my three amazing female cousins in the past 3 months, I decided to post this poem I wrote a while ago about them. This is definitely a more personal post, but like I said earlier this blog is really an outlet for me to be able to write.
Maddy: I hope with all my heart that Barcelona has been enlightening and fulfilling and challenging and colorful. I am so glad that we got to spend a day together this summer; I always feel so refreshed and relaxed after talking to you about everything under the sun. Don't forget we are going to the Grand Canyon this summer !!
Sophia: HOW CraZy was it that we saw each other in the Whites???!! That was such a great surprise, and it was amazing to be able to catch up and hear about how college is going! I'm so glad that our schools are so close and that you have been experiencing so much of what Northeastern and Boston have to offer. Also, your friends seemed awesome!
Devin: I will see you Friday - I can't even imagine what you are going through. I am not sure if words are going to make anything better, but I will give you the biggest hug I can and we can talk about dumb stuff like parties and boys. You are so loved and so strong.
All three of them,
are the coolest people I know
And I know not just because their instagrams are well crafted
But because I have seen them all stop and cry and then continue on hiking up a mountain.
I have seen them set goals and not achieve them
And freak out
but with deep breathing and yoga
making the second best option turn into the right one.
I have seen their blood and their boobs and I have seen their faces turn red from anger or embarrassment
But most often the sun.
But I know, they value sunscreen.
I have seen them eat
And then stop eating
And then get really into being healthy and for-go the salad dressing, but still make a really valiant effort to finish all of the raw spinach on the plate because grandma still doesn’t quite understand that vegetarian means no meat at all.
I see myself in them and I hope they see their reflection in me
I see new branches from our parents, the smartest people I know, but kinda stuck in their ways
But my cousins,
My cousins and I will break out and break down and break dance in our own separate spaces
Changing minds and changing lives through the grit on our individual faces
These girls were fierce
But these women are strong.
xoxox to everyone, but especially mis primas <3333
HELLO INSTAGRAM STALKERS!!! get ready for the rebirth of this magical gap year blog! i'm older, wiser, and 37% more sarcastic AND i will be offering all of the life advice you didn't ask for, but really do need. some topics that I plan to write about include: college admissions, being a CNA, vegetarianism, religion, my summer job, doing research/embracing being smart, and arguing!! check back soonish (as in 3 weeks because i am busy as a mf bee) if any of those things interest you, or if you are just conducting your tri-weekly Instagram stalk. peace and love, go do something productive now!!
And the story continues!!
The transition between host families consisted of a 7 hour bus ride and a pit stop to a quirky cow farm/restaurant. So imagine that all happening in a fancy time-lapse video and it goes back to real time with our bedraggled TBB group piling out of the bus into a small schoolroom in El Cabuyal, Ecuador. We meet our families, well identify ourselves to the groups of people holding posters with our names on them, and then stand there awkwardly because we can’t really communicate and the initial small talk is already awkward even when you speak the same language. So after about 30 minutes of awkward standing while the PL’s were talking with the local coordinator and Corolla, the country director for EIL, and a quick snack of plantain and cheese, we headed off on foot with our families to our homes.
I feel like I need to describe El Cabuyal in great detail so you can all picture it as I refer to it. First, imagine a small city, lined with ma and pa shops selling random assortments of clothing and farming equipment as well as a bunch of restaurants all serving the same Ecuadorian dishes and then a few other random shops like internet cafes and bakeries. This is Puerto Quito, which is not where we stayed. Puerto Quito is the largest town near Cabuyal for 45 minutes. Now from Puerto Quito, if you take the one road out heading west, after 12 minutes you stumble on El Cabuyal. The road is lined with trees - jungle-esque trees. However the closer you are to El Cabuyal the more African Palm trees there are. This is bad, but I will explain later. The first views in El Cabuyal are a big red sign that says something in Spanish that I forgot and the school. The school is two rooms. There are not even enclosed walls under the tin roof. There is however a nice concrete soccer field and bathroom structure with running water. Now farther down the road we have the houses. Remember there is one road through the whole town (well actually there is a dirt road running parallel behind the paved road, but I didn’t even know that until 3 weeks in). There are abut 13.75 houses on the road. (I’m not sure if I can count all the structures as houses per-say). On average 5 people live in each house - this average rose by 2.7 people per household when we were there. (The .7 of a person represents all the luggage we had with us, which took up the equivalent space of .7 of a person, oh wait that was just me and my 5 bags..oops). And I can’t forget about the river, which was the heart and soul of this small community. It flowed very quickly, but was not very deep and much cleaner than the good ol’ Mississippi. We, and the rest the community, spent most afternoons sitting in the water to cool off.
So we’re here, and it’s the most rural and probably poorest place all of us have ever lived. I lived with Saoirse and our host mother, Maria Lucia and Wellington, who was the community coordinator. Our roof didn’t connect, we slept with mosquito nets, and the kitchen was outside and there was no sink. But it was awesome and humbling and challenging to learn to live so simply. I adopted some gross habits that I probably shouldn’t mention, but I came to enjoy the grungy lifestyle. The first full day we were there a few of us took an excursion with Wellington and his cousin Byron to Wellington’s Sunday league soccer game. It took us 3 hours to get there and we were so late Wellington had to just walk on the field. Long story short, the soccer game was hilariously pathetic and we were very confused why we travelled so far to watch 40 minutes of this game. We did take some funny pictures with some unconscious drunk men that were slouched over on the ground behind us and saw a pretty cool waterfall and rode in the back of a truck in the pouring rain, so the day wasn’t a complete disaster!
Day two was the first day of work. Oh yeah, I was sick though (better to have the initial orientation to GI issues at the beginning of each host family so you get familiar with the toilet situation - the mosquito net added a new level of difficulty to getting out of bed quickly, but by this point I was on to level two of dealing with stomach issues so it didn’t even hold me back). The group just walked for 3 hours looking at all the sites we would be planting trees at, so I didn’t miss much. Day two, we start the dirty work! We worked with the local government of Puerto Quito and they have a nice process down to plant trees, so we just added some extra hands. The process goes as follows: Stake out a place for a tree with a bamboo stick, machete a circle around the bamboo stick, use the digger thingy to make a hole, plant the tree. So on the first day, besides the fact that I was going to pass out from both heat exhaustion and dehydration, I was not a big fan of this machete. It was easier to yank the weeds and grass out of the ground and I couldn't figure out if it was easier to stand and awkwardly bend down or sit entirely on the ground. Anyhow, I was exhausted and dripping in sweat and ready to be done for the day. Luckily, I got used to manual labor and the job got easier as the days went on. I learned to love those machetes - it’s a great way to get anger out and feel badass simultaneously. We worked all over the community and planted a total of 3000 trees in the month we were there. Admittedly we probably couldn't planted twice that amount, but the government workers were either taking advantage of the fact they could get away with ending early with us or genuinely thought we couldn't handle more work. Overall, the field work was a great experience and we ended up creating a community gathering place down by the river on the last week of work, so I feel that we genuinely had a positive impact on the people.
Let’s see.. Some random/strange/interesting things about this part of Ecuador we stayed in. Cacoa fruit is bomb and very abundant. We visited an organic chocolate farm and learned about the whole process. I made friends with the owner who is a retired infectious disease doctor! I mentioned African Palm was bad earlier, well 50 years ago when people inhabited this area they clear cut it all to start growing these trees as cash crops. The trees are everywhere, which is an issue because they soak up all the soil in the ground and lead the river beds to erode and promote a monoculture of species. However, it provides a stable income and job opportunities to people in the surrounding area. The palm fruit is harvested and sold for its oil, which is actually very bad for people because of the high trans fats. Tricky situation there. Speaking of inhabiting the area, the river I talked about earlier used to divide the houses from the school and people would have to canoe across the river to get to school or Puerto Quito. Remember this is not an easy river to cross, you will float significantly downstream if you try to walk or swim. However, a small bridge was built 10 years ago and then the big paved road and bridge across the river was only built about 3 years ago. This is a perfect example of the challenges of development we discussed all through the program. At first thought, of course a paved street and bridge for cars and trucks to pass over the water is great development, but because of that road and bridge, Cabuyal has become just another pass through town on the bus route. No one stops there anymore because there is no reason to. Before the bridge people used to come to Cabuyal to stay and to interact with the community. It’s easier to get to town to sell products, but that forces people to need to produce cash crops, which as I said are not great for the environment. Everyone leaves the small community now, they go to Puerto Quito and then on to Quito and rarely come back if they don’t have to. Cabuyal does have an incredible sense of community though. Our host mom would more often than not be hosting people from the community or other parts of the country for overnight stays or just a meal or just to chat. She was incredibly generous and always made sure we had enough to eat - even if I really just didn't want more chicken and rice or fried pieces of fat or tuna. A lot of the time, as I was fighting mild GI issues for about a quarter of the time, I honestly just couldn't eat, and she would just laugh at me and think that I didn’t like the food and I would try my best to tell her in Spanish that my stomach hurt and I really couldn't eat. However, we were pampered in this community. We brought money in to fund our stay and that was evident though how we were treated and fed. One night Saoirse and I were having a large piece of chicken and rice and plantains and a boy from the community walks into our house. He and our host mom talked for a little bit and then she gives him a plate full of animal crackers and he sits at the table and eats his ‘dinner’ with us. I immediately lost my appetite. I did not need to be eating that much food and I could most definitely share some with this boy. But I didn’t do anything about it, and that kind of haunts me to this day. Because the roof on our house didn’t connect and when it rained really hard, it would rain right onto my bed and also onto the toilet, a place I was often. These people lived in poverty, possibly extreme poverty by some standards. And at first we glorified this concept of simple living. It was so nice not to have a mirror to look in and critique my skin every morning and it didn't matter if I wore the same clothes everyday. But we quickly realized poverty is not to be glorified. Living simply and sustainably is a great skill to practice but there are things we all need as humans that these people did not have access to. One other point to mention is that there was some inappropriate behavior towards our girls from the local boys. They had not been exposed to many white people, especially young girls living in close proximity to them, probably ever. It is easy to play off the boy’s behaviors because we (women) are so accustomed to believing boys and men have this power over women to objectify and judge us as they please. However, we experienced serious issues with these boys and had many discussions about sexual assault and gender roles and objectification. No matter what the situation is, women should not have to change their behaviors to ward off unwanted men. Unfortunately we have to do this all the time, and all of the TBB girls learned an important lesson that you have to be outwardly mean and aggressive sometimes to get a guy to stop, but even that doesn't always work. In Ecuador especially, the strong machismo culture played into these power abuse roles that formed, but it is unacceptable anywhere. I recommend watching Miss. Representation and then The Mask We Live In, both documentaries explore the issues we dealt with first hand.
Going back to living sustainably, our seminars were continued here and we focused more on how to make already existing practices more sustainable and what that looks like in our globalized and developed world. We watched Food Inc. and I became obsessed with taking down the corn industry. Monsanto, I’m coming for you! I thought about my personal footprint and how many small things I can change in my life that will support suitably living. We have started our compost pile at home and soon I will be getting chickens, but don't tell my family (they can’t say no when the baby chicks are already in the backyard).
Two other fun things from the time in Cabuyal were that I learned to salsa dance, pretty well I might say and for IST a few girls and I went back to Quito and hiked Cotopaxi, which is one of the tallest volcanos in Ecuador. We also rode horses, but I didn't like that (shocker!).
I am going to post once more about the final weeks in Washington D.C, as a wrap-up/accumulation of all my thoughts and experiences for this gap year journey. Thank you to all who have read my blog at some point - it means a lot to have the support. I hope to start a new blog sometime soon, about what - who knows, but I have enjoyed this process of capturing my honest and raw thoughts.
Before I left for TBB, I thought Ecuador would be my least favorite core country. This judgment was based solely off the fact that I didn’t know much about it and it was closest to home so it made it automatically less enticing and exotic. These assumptions were completely irrational and turned out to be just completely wrong. 6 months later, as I’m sitting in Washington D.C. writing this, I’m reflecting about my time in Ecuador, and I now believe that it was my favorite core country and the one I’m dying to go back to the most.
Ecuador, and frankly all of Latin and South America, is so diverse geographically. Ecuador is divided into three regions, coastal, the Andes Mountains, and the Amazon - and of course the Galapagos off the coast. We were fortunate enough to get to live in two different regions, the mountains and the coastal region, but there is so much of Ecuador I still want to explore.
We stared our journey in Ecuador in Quito for a couple days. We stayed at Mission Carmelita and had orientation with Experiment in International Living (EIL), our partner organization. While in Quito we visited the Basilica and Virgin Mary statue, one of the only ones depicted with wings. Quito is an awesome city - it reminds me a lot of San Francisco. It’s incredibly long and skinny, expanding outward isn’t possible because of the close proximity to the mountains (The altitude is around 9,000ft). The Spanish influence is very evident around Quito, especially old Quito, but the narrow cobblestone streets and gothic architecture are artfully crafted and impressive.
Our first homestay was in Riobamba, Ecuador - located about 3 hours south of Quito. Saoirse was my roomie, and our family was awesome! Marie Elena and Rodrigo, the parents, were both teachers. They had two daughters, Michu (16) and Vivi (21). The family was involved and energetic and genuinely cared about me and Saoirse’s well-being during our time at their house. Best of all, they reminded me of my own family in terms of their demeanors and interactions, which was comforting. On our first day with them, we had a nice chicken feast at a fast food chain called Gus. We were each handed a pair of plastic gloves so we could eat our chicken with our hands without them getting dirty - ingenious idea if you ask me, cutlery is so last year. Then Saoirse and I were whisked away on a triple date (if you consider Saoirse and I as a couple). We thought we were going to the mall to pay Vivi’s phone bill, but ended up picking up both of the girls boyfriends then going to the mall to play air hockey and eat incredibly disgusting egg whip and then driving around Ecuador for 2 hours, surrounded by beautiful PDA from our new sisters. One boyfriend, had a broken leg from jumping off a roof at a fiesta (talk of doing cocaine and/or heroine was brought up but unsure if that was the cause of the jump??). The other boyfriend really took a liking to the hook-up culture in the United States and stated that it’s really the best way to meet people (disclaimer, this boyfriend broke his wrist about a week later from falling off his longboard - apparently not the first time he has done this. We were lucky enough to visit him in the hospital one night!) Aside from the vibrant social life we experienced on our first day, which was unsurprisingly very similar to how teenagers interact with each other and their significant others in the United States, the family’s home was very nice. They were clearly upper-middle class and had a car and a garage and two dogs and both girls had their own rooms and Saoirse and I had our own rooms, and stainless steel appliances, and multiple T.V.’s. I could go on with all of the modern amenities we take for granted so often, but it was oddly strange to be in a home so similar to my own again and realize how uncommon these seemingly normal household items are in the rest of the world. They even had a treadmill, which I happily ran on until I kind of broke it… (the treading folded on top of itself so I’m not really sure if it was my fault and the treadmill had clearly not been in use before me, so no real damage was done.)
Aside from our riveting home life, during our time in Riobamba, our fieldwork consisted of volunteering at a botanical garden called Ricpamba, that focused on conserving endangered species in Ecuador. Although we did basic yard work like weeding and raking for the two weeks we were there, the work was calm and rewarding and I really brushed up on my skills for my future organic garden. However, I don’t feel any more motivated to help my father mow and/or shovel. The garden was brutally understaffed so they appreciated our help immensely, but I left wondering how the 6 person staff would ever get anything done after we left. Ecuador is extremely corrupt and conservation gardening is not at the top of the urgent agenda.
We also started our last seminar unit about sustainable agriculture and resource usage. The unit covered a wide range of topics that can be categorized under the brand idea of ‘protecting the environment,’ but we discussed and debated how to create a profitable and ethical energy plan and should water be a private or public commodity and can farming be a profitable career. The seminars started with delving into thinking about how many stakeholders and byproducts and resources and time and money and energy go into all of our daily actions. At first I felt like I understood that the process was long and complex and obviously everything we consume came from somewhere and will end up somewhere else, but after a few seminars I began to realize that just because I recognized the system doesn’t mean I’m automatically in the right. I am still a consumer, and a heavy one, and there are serious repercussions for all of my actions that awareness cannot justify. I quickly became ‘anti-stuff’ and began crafting plans for getting rid of all my clothes and unnecessary belongings and how to raise chickens in my backyard. I now have more eco-plans than my mother will probably support and even more questions about the fate of our world in even the next 5 years, but don’t worry I am working on solutions. The books in our environment unit were very inspirational to me, so check out Omnivore’s Dilemma, Cradle to Cradle, Collapse and Delivering Development if you haven’t already!
Back to our cultural immersion at our home stay! We happened to be in Riobamba during the whole duration of the celebration of the Baby Jesus, a traditional Ecuadorian post-Christmas 12 day holiday. Every night the same group of our host family’s friends would get together at someones house and sit in a circle and have a short mass, then eat a light dinner and drink an insanely sugary drink and then dance the same dance for 45 minutes. The first 4 or 5 nights Saoirse and I were quite confused as to why these people hung out and did the same thing every night (at this time we did not know it was to celebrate Baby Jesus). I became a master of the Bamba, the one dance they did, after doing it once on the first night so I was really confused why they kept making me do it and why everyone else still found it enjoyable (Saoirse has no rhythmic abilities and our family picked up on that quickly, so they demoted her to a clapping position, which she continues to struggle with today.) However, we caught on to the traditions and started to make friends with the regular nightly crew. There was the obese baby, Gordita (cute little fatty in Spanish), and the teeny tiny fluffy puppy and the clan of unamused 12 year old boys and the mom’s that love to talk - all typical dinner party attendees. After 8 or 9 appearances, Saoirse and I felt like family and could confidently approach people for the hello and goodbye cheek kiss. Our family hosted the party on the last night we were staying with them and it was just very evident that they were the family in the group of friends that liked to go all out. There was a mariachi band and two cakes to celebrate both daughters birthday’s even though it was only Vivi’s and both crippled boyfriends made an appearance and we had costumes for dancing the Bamba. There were tears and tamales and whiskey and wine and it was just a whole big shindig.
Continuing with other aspects of Ecuadorian culture, we had a mere 5 Spanish lessons to jumpstart our abilities, because no one speaks English very well, if at all. I learned a lot about the grammar, and could pick up pretty easily because of the French I took in school, but speaking was a lot harder. I got pretty good at understanding what our family was saying for the most part, but thinking of a coherent answer that I could actually say usually turned into me repeating si multiple times. Saoirse was a little bit better than me so we could manage to communicate at a basic level with our families, but it was interesting to think about how much was probably lost in translation. The food in Ecuador is very distinct as well. Lunch is the main meal of the day and it almost always is soup, followed by a heaping plate of rice, chicken and beans of some sort. Our family just gave us money for lunch everyday so after 3 days of eating the same thing we opted for the fruit bar down the road and ate fruit salad everyday for lunch for 2 weeks. Breakfast was often a batido (warm milk and fruit smoothie) and a piece of bread. Dinner, if we got it, was small and usually an empanada or bread and cheese. Ecuador has amazing sugary fruit juices, but the corn is absolutely atrocious compared to Iowa sweet corn. Starch and sugar are the main constituents of the diet - I’m not really sure if I ate any vegetables the whole month and a half I was there.. I did however make a podcast about diabetes in Ecuador (it’s the #6 cause of death and has risen 110% in the last 30 years) for my media project, I will try to get the link to that eventually and put it on here.
To wrap-up, a couple of the fun activities we did while in Riobamba were going to 4 soccers games in the oldest stadium in Ecuador for the U20 tournament and taking a day trip to Banos, a very touristy town. The soccer games were tons of fun - we got really into cheering like the locals and it brought me back to my soccer days and joking about all the really motivating things coaches say on the sidelines. “FIND FEET! GET OPEN! MOVE TO THE BALL!” The stadium food was also very good and the tickets were $1.50 for 2 games so it was really a win-win. Banos is a breathtaking small town located in the valley of very tall mountains. We swung off the ‘edge of the earth’ at Casa de Arbol, and took a waterfall tour that included zip-lining, flying squirrel style across a canyon. It was the first time we saw other white people in Ecuador, which was expected because they only go to the known touristy towns. Shame. Regardless, it was a fun day, but it left me eager to explore all of what Ecuador has to offer.
This is only part one of my Ecuador expedition so stay tuned! I’ve accepted that this journey is coming to a close, but the travel bug is bursting inside of me along with whatever remnants of parasites are still swimming up in there…
Happy Daylight Savings America,
It’s not so great to be back ;-)
Just when I thought I was getting the hang of this whole blogging thing, I start slacking. But I’m going to credit that to lack of Wi-Fi, which isn’t even a real argument.
I realized I have failed to post about Cambodia, which was a major highlight of the trip, so I’m going to reach all the way into the depths of my memory and recall my amazing week in Cambodia before I start to discuss Ecuador.
We left Delhi on an overnight flight on January 2nd and flew to Bangkok and then on to Phenom Phen. It’s a shame we had to fly through Bangkok because I had to add another place to my ever-growing list of places to travel. By now the list is basically every country and Mars, so what’s one more, right? Walking off the plane through the jet bridge in Cambodia was a nice dramatic temperature change from Delhi’s icky weather. Fun fact – it never rained once the whole time we were in India – I’m not sure what that means because everyday they would tell us the rains were coming, but I think it has something to do with climate change…
So first we met our tour guide for the week, Bun (pronounced boon) and immediately we all fall in love with his contagious, and incessant, smile and excitement about his country. Bun has an interesting history. He was born just as the Khmer Rouge were gaining control of Cambodia so he has many relatives, including his father, who were killed by the terrible acts of the Khmer Rouge. Bun was a police officer for many years before he retired his AK-47 and became a Buddhist Monk for 8 years I believe. He is currently no longer a monk, as he felt his true passion was for hospitality and showing people his country. He and his wife, and their adorable 8-month-old daughter now own a bed and breakfast outside of Siem Reap and Bun leads tours around Cambodia. They also run an afterschool mentoring program for local school age children and give them a safe environment to learn and interact as well as practice traditional dancing and interacting with guests to the bed and breakfast. Overall, Bun is an amazing and inspirational man and we could tell from the moment we met him that we were going to have a wonderful week in Cambodia.
The next day we toured one of the more famous Killing Fields and S-21, which was a prison camp during the Khmer Rouge occupation. We had audio tours for both, which was extremely helpful for personal reflection and because the group has about a C- average for guided tour etiquette. It was hard to stand on soil that so many had been brutally murdered on, but I also felt so far removed from the atrocious genocide. I kept questioning why I never learned about this in school. Why do we have these monuments and try so hard to remember the horrific details of times of mass murder, but we stand silent as they happen. What about Syria right now? My children will (hopefully) learn about the malicious turmoil happening right now in the Middle East as one of the worst genocides and I’m cowardly living my life as a bystander. I learned a lot from the historic site, but the two most impactful scenes were ‘The Killing Tree’ and the monument erected in the middle of the fields housing thousands of skulls and bones of the victims. The Killing Tree was next to a mass gravesite which when excavated, was found to hold all women and children. The young children’s heads were slammed up against the tree before they were thrown into the pit. The sentence sounds so casual, but I can’t even fathom the act, nor do I want to picture it in my mind - so comprehending it at face value is all I can do. There were thousands of bracelets hanging on the tree now and I took one of my many off and hung it there in honor of all the children’s lives that were so carelessly lost. As I walked though the monument with skulls I was captivated by how similar all people looks when we are striped of our flesh. The skulls were cracked with different weapons in different locations, but male or female, young or old, our skulls define us as humans, different than any other species. If one of the guards were to be killed the same way as the innocent Cambodians, their bodies would lay to decompose, revealing an identical skull to those who were killed. It made me question the power of our minds and how people can so easily kill their own kind.
Later that day we visited S-21. The audio tour guided us through classrooms turned prison cells, galleries of pictures of the unlucky people held captive there, and around the courtyard, holding the graves of some of the last remaining prisoners. What shocked me the most was how easily the Khmer Rouge could occupy and brutally abuse so many prisoners in the confines of a very centralized location (the prison was an old high school in the middle of town) – and no one outside knew for a very long time. I was lucky enough to get to see one of the few surviving prisoners. He was signing copies of his book. He was an artist and survived through the camp because he painted pictures of Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge leaders. Yet again I was left questioning the force of power and how easily one man’s radical ideals could completely control a population. How and why do we continue to let that happen?
Other highlights in Phenom Phen included touring the Buddhist temple Bun practiced at, getting mediocre $7 massages and the Central Market which sold everything from raw fish to mops to impressively marketed fake Beats. We saw the Presidential Palace and the city skyline from night while riding on a river cruise down the Mekong River. My favorite part of Phenom Phen was the traditional dance performance we miraculously saw to after a last minute plan and very lucky timing. A group of artists, both dancers and musicians performed about 10 traditional dances ranging from a sacrificial ritual for animals to a cute grasshopper number involving coconuts. The dancers were well trained and impressive; watching the show made me quite nostalgic about being on stage performing.
We travelled to Siem Reap on a bus – only about 6 hours, which is nothing compared to most of our travel days. Yet again, I found it relaxing and educational to look out the window at the passing landscape of Cambodia. The rice fields and houses on stilts and of course cows made the tropical landscape look both inviting and otherworldly.
In Siem Reap, our main destination was Angkor Wat – an ancient city/empire constructed around 1100BC (?). It was originally built to worship Hindu Gods, but now because Cambodia is close to 100% Buddhist, both Hindu’s and Buddhist’s utilize the holy ground. You need to first obtain an ID pass to get into the historic park area (basically the city limits when it was in its prime), which houses many different temples and ancient city ruins to explore. The passes go for $40 per 3 days; super cool ancient temples are no easy project to maintain. When we toured the historic area we saw Angkor Tom and Angkor Wat, as well as the temple Tomb Raider was shot at. All of the temples are ingenious architectural works, boasting winding passages and faces carved into the sides of the rocks. The Hindu’s believed that the Gods sat high above all regular people so there are enormous steep staircases leading to the God’s thrones all throughout the temples. These steps would not be open to the public in the United States – it was basically a 90-degree angle up, and of course you have to come back down. That is a common theme I’m realizing, that most tours and really cool places I’ve seen are completely open to the public even if they aren’t the most safe or possibly could collapse at any point, but that’s just another perk of international travel! (And another reason the U.S is super lame).
In Siem Reap we also saw an awesome circus show put on by a school for performing arts that caters to underprivileged youth and young adults in the Siem Reap area. The performers were amazing and put on a hilarious and incredibly impressive show. It was in a small circle theater so we were very close to the performers and were able to talk and take pictures with them post show. Other highlights include walking around the night market and looking at all the funny shirts and other trinkets for sale. The city was covered in lights and sounds. The fried ice cream was also a fan favorite. We also went on a floating village tour, which might have been slightly unethical as we were tourists riding on a boat through the lake in which people live, quite poorly, but it was neat to see the small town functioning completely in the middle of a lake. (Also the lake was very beautiful). The town had a church and a food vender boat and a small convenience shop. I’m not sure if there was a clinic or school, but those seem like unnecessary when you have church. (That was a bad joke, sorry). Moving on – we stayed in a nice hotel in Siem Reap with a big tiled shower and air conditioning and a pool!
Peace and love
I will officially be home in 3 months. Well now less than 3 months because it is taking me an inordinate amount of time to finish this blog post… Every time I try to sit down an write I get overwhelmed by all the things I need to say and remember and explain and comprehend, so it has taken me a while and I apologize for how long this post is going to be - India is one crazy, exciting country.
I’m in this very weird phase where I feel like 3 months is an eternity and I’m ready to keep moving, but I’m also planning all these other trips I want to go on because I can’t imagine a lifestyle not living out of my backpack. We will be in Cambodia very soon and I’m so excited to experience a new culture and food, but solemnly motivated to learn about their horrible history. I watched The Killing Fields, which just touched on the sickening details of the Khmer Rouge’s control over Cambodia.
Right now I am in Delhi. I’ve been here since December 16th, after taking an overnight bus from Dharamsala. I am living with another host stay family consisting of a mom, dad and 5-year-old son as well as Kika and Sophie, as roommates. The family is very accommodating and sweet and often refers to us as ‘Gods’ because Indian people treat guests as Deities. The father owns a clothing store and the mother is a housewife. They are considered upper-middle class; as they live in a very nice apartment complex, have a personal car and a maid that comes daily. I found it very interesting to learn the wife, Kitty, was only 18 when they got married. They do not speak very much English, which has been a struggle to communicate sometimes, but we have made it work. Kitty understands ‘toilet paper’, which is probably our biggest need.
Speaking of toilet paper, I got sick for the second time in India – poor me. Who knows what disgusting germ squirmed it’s way into my stomach, but that sucker did some damage. After 3 separate visits to the Max Healthcare Clinic, a 2-hour IV, passing out, and two muffins, I finally obtained some antibiotics and got better. I would like to note that I went to the bathroom 20 times in 24 hours and am applying for the Guinness Book of World Records with that shitty stat.
Rewinding for a minute –
Dharamsala was amazing. 10/10 would recommend visiting if you have the opportunity. It was fascinating to be immersed at the intersection of two major religions (Hindu and Buddhist) and two ethnicities. The people of Indian decent are often vengeful of the Tibetans because they have received so much foreign aid and resource assistance because of their exile from Tibet - they live in India as refugees quite comfortably. The Tibetans schools are considerably more funded and maintained than the ones Indian children attend.
On a different note, I woke up and ran in the Himalayan mountains every morning – I mean not trying to brag because it was excruciatingly difficult to run straight up hill and then straight back down, but the constant wheezing for air was worth it. Other highlights include the 2-day trek we did for the Independent Student Travel weekend. A group of 7 students and a guide we hired, hiked to Triund and then up to Snowline. The hike was challenging, but Triund was breathtaking and we camped overnight there in a tent. It was cold and uncomfortable, but that was easy to look past when we were woken up with chai and the unhindered image of the pink and orange watercolor sunrise over the mountains. Around Dharamsala we did many excursions through Cross Cultural Solutions (CCS, the NGO we volunteered with) - my favorites were the Norbulinga Institute of Tibetan Art and a talk with the founder of Jagori Grameen, a women’s advocacy group. We also talked with the director of the Tibetan Library, toured the Dali Llama’s temple and St. John in the Wilderness Cathedral. Mcleodganj is a very touristy town that is a 15-minute drive up the 1.5 lane winding mountain road. We often ventured up to meander through the open-air shops or to get a treat at a small bakery. Speaking of buying things – we didn’t have money until the last two weeks because of Prime Minister Modi’s Demonization (mandated all 500 and 1000 bills be taken out of circulation because of supposed black money issues – then issued a 2000 rupee bill which made everything harder because no one as that much change). TBB spent countless hours in the Western Union and the State Bank of India, tirelessly trying to transfer or exchange money. Thankfully in Delhi it has been less of an issue because more than 1 ATM works. In Dharamsala, my host family was beyond amazing and we have plans to reconnect in 9 years when I come back to India and become a doctor (I secured myself a job as the resident physician at Jagori Grameen).
[The organization’s core principles are centered on the 5 elements to extract energy for social change. It has strong ties to the environment and being consciously and socially aware of every action we make. The organization fights for women’s equality in education, jobs, health and rule of law - regarding mostly domestic violence cases.]
Quick summary of Amritsar: We travelled from Dharamsala in a less than desirable (meaning stopping every couple minutes and basically wooden seats) bus at 4 in the morning. The journey was 5 hours but we made it to Amritsar alive. We met Dan, an American man living in India who happens to be a Sikh. He showed us around and talked to us extensively about Sikhism and other religions and gave us a cultural and historical briefing of India. The Golden Temple (Sikh religion site of worship) was breathtaking. The premises accommodate between 20,000 and 30,000 people a day. A pool of water in which people can bathe surrounds the actual temple, made of pure gold. There is a walkway surrounding the whole pool with secret alcoves to go sit in and pray. When I was about to get into the temple, there was a 30-minute wait to get in, the evening prayer started. Everyone started chanting the same words as a man was saying over an intercom system. Eventually we all had to sit down and listen to some prayers. Inside the temple I caught quick glances of a man fanning a feather duster looking object over the holy book. The prayers were very directed– I was surprised by the almost hostile seeming phrases that were being chanted by a crowd of 20,000. The next day we went back to the temple and volunteered. The temple serves 3 meals a day for free to the 20,000-30,000 visitors. We ate breakfast in the cafeteria area, which was a full meal of rice, dal, chapatti, and potatoes. Then we went to the traditional chapatti making area and helped roll chapattis. Saoirse and I were not very good at making perfect circles at first, but we quickly learned with the help of other regular volunteers. Some people spend their whole life at the Golden Temple. They live on the premises, do volunteer work all day, and eat the prepared food. Sikhism’s main principal is service, but learning people devote their life to service is humbling. Everyone also has to cover his or her head when inside the temple.
In Dharamsala, everyone worked in pairs at 7 different preschools. The preschools were commissioned under the Integrated Child Development Scheme – a government run organization that works to combat child adversity by providing a holistic approach to early childhood education, in attempts to set children and families on a clear path to success. Sophie and I are doing our media project on early childhood education in India, so I’m not going to go into too much depth with the school here. Basically, it was a one-room cement building with some small benches and 6 or 7 broken toys. On average, eight 2 and 3 years olds would come everyday and we would do simple activities like rolling a ball or reciting 1-5 and coloring. The teacher could not speak English very well, so we often questioned what we should be doing. There was lots of crying and hitting and peeing outside on the grass, but at the end of the month, everyone was sad that the time was over. Sophie and I did paint an outstanding mural on one wall – there is a picture on my Instagram if you haven’t seen it. We won the mural competition that I made up and the teachers at the school were more than appreciative (they serenaded me with a Hindi song that involved touching most of my face and called me their daughter).
It’s now one of the last days in India and also New Years Eve. We are going to do some sightseeing today to the Red Fort (Mughal Empire Fortress Built by Shahjahanabad in 1648 and then invaded by the British around 1850). We are going to an international club tonight. Delhi has been very different than Dharamsala. I love the city atmosphere, but I wish we had more time and ability to venture out and explore the city. The pollution is appalling, if I rub my nose, black chunks come out. It constantly looks like it’s raining, and you cant see very far ahead of you. It’s confusing to drive through the city and see ‘beggar camps’ and then high scale malls boasting Louis Vuitton and Channel. We have gone to the mall a couple times because it’s so easy to gawk at stores like Zara, Starbucks, Sephora and Forever 21 when we haven’t seen them in so long. We also watched Rouge One a couple weeks ago, which was a source of great excitement for the group. Before the movie we had to stand for the Indian National Anthem, and there was also an intermission at one of the most dramatic scenes of the movie – both instances caused some giggles and confusion.
In Delhi, I worked in a kindergarten class run by an organization named Vidya. We worked in an area called Okhla, which is one of the largest industrial slums in Delhi. There are not many pre-primary education opportunities around India, especially for impoverished children. The organization wasn’t even a school, but an afterschool help center. We worked in the morning so there were only boys in the school (the kindergarten had boys and girls) because girls go to actual school in the morning and the help center in the afternoon, and boys vice versa. The kindergarten class was a 10x10ft cement room with a carpet and 25 children, sitting in 5 rows of 5. The class was freezing cold and children wore hats and coats. Sophie and I led some basic activities on shapes, numbers, fruit names and colors and also sang many songs and poems. The students also participated in stretching outside and eating lunch in a school setting.
This blog post has lost most, if not all, of its direction so I’m just going to keep chugging along with my thoughts.
On the 23rd of December we travelled by train to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. The train ride was 3 hours long and 3 hours late – typical India! We rod in Tuc-Tuc’s to a hostel and had a late dinner upon arrival. The next day we toured the Taj. It was sad see how bad the pollution has gotten when we couldn’t see the Taj at all from the first place you should view it from, but it got clearer as the day went on. I learned that Mosques don’t display any pictures of people or Gods because they believe humans are incapable of conceiving those images and only Gods can imagine and display life. They are decorated with scripture from the Koran and flowers. We also toured the Agra Fort, which is where ((someone?!) in the royal Mughal family was exiled to imprisonment by his son. You can see the Taj from the Agra Fort, which is an ingenious accumulation of architecture. Then we took a train back to Delhi and went out to dinner at a very nice restaurant. I ordered risotto, which made me one happy camper on Christmas Eve. Christmas day, I got up early to Face Time my family and then went to the fancy mall to get last minute Christmas gifts for the group. We had a nice afternoon relaxing at CCS and exchanging secret Santa gifts. It was very strange to be away from my family, and even sadder not to be Snowboarding in Steamboat after Christmas, but the group environment felt like home and we the day was one to remember. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to celebrate Christmas in India, so I could not complain! Also, Indians celebrate every holiday, so there was no lack of Christmas decorations around the city.
Moving on - we are nearing the end people do not worry!
Other highlights of Delhi include the Lotus Temple (A Baha’i place of worship), the Lodi Gardens (Central Park-esque mixed with scattered tombs of important people), and Gandhi’s memorial (the house he spent his last 144 days and the garden in which he was shot).
I want to give a shout out to the wonderful CCS staff, Lalu, Nayha, Sunnil, Jaggi, Pawan, Bela, Bwatan, and Jennifer. They are some of the most kind and accommodating and best cooks I know. I highly recommend volunteering with Cross Cultural Solutions, they are organized and truly understand the importance of international volunteerism for improving global perspectives and development. CCS has many locations, including Costa Rica, Morocco, and Brazil, and many different fields of volunteer work. I plan to return to India in college and volunteer in the health field, preforming basic checkups on patients.
One of my favorite parts of India was seeing so many walks of life interacting simultaneously. The traffic, as excruciating and unorganized as it is, seems to flow so smoothly that it is almost magical. Cars and scooters and bikes hauling large poles or crates, cows, children, pedestrians, and dogs all use the streets together and all usually get to their destination safely. The only accident I saw in over a month was a car mirror running into a tuc-tuc. I became extremely conditioned to the fact that you almost get into about 4 accidents a minute, so it doesn’t help to stress about it. I laugh to myself thinking about how enraged some people I know would get after getting cut off so many times, and the constant honking just to let someone know you are there or that they need to move over. I think I might prefer the method of ignoring all traffic rules and forget how to drive on the right side of the road when I get home. It makes sense to me that if you are going to run a red light that you would just honk incessantly. Then it’s not your fault if you run into a car, because you adequately warned them you were coming.
Since we spend so much time in the car because Delhi is such a massive city, it gives me a lot of time to look out the window and think. I’ve seen so many impoverished people walking the streets begging for food, but also many people mindlessly ignore the evident problem, as they are just ‘beggar people.’ The caste system is still alive in India and while it was harder to observe as an outsider, people are still subject to a life sweeping the streets and being labeled as a member of the ‘backward’ (yes they call people that for real) class. It’s hard to watch people live in poverty, knowing they have adopted a fatalistic mindset that they are living to serve those above them, and not knowing the most effective way to help them. I have many ideas formulating in my mind about how to reduce poverty, mostly through improving public health statistics in developing nations. Our seminars in India revolved around education, but were mostly aimed at discussing inequality and oppression of different types of people within the education system. I believe empowering education is the necessary foundation for all social change, but my latest idea is to develop a granola bar that can be grown from the ground ;-)
Coming to India, I considered it a developing nation. Leaving, I don’t think that label still applies. There are many parts of India that need immediate attention and many people that need assistance to gain footing, but there are so many aspects that are improving rapidly or are very effective currently. I feel like I have a very basic understanding of India because I have only seen 4 of the 29 states - every Indian I have talked to has stressed the extreme diversity of the country and I want to see more. I fully plan to return soon. India, it’s been real. Thank you for showing me a world much different than my own, but one that is so much cooler than Iowa ;-))
atYesterday was the laziest day I have ever had in my life, but I am going to justify my inability to get out of bed in this blog post. Today was something like a wild goose chase, but I will get to the explanation later. This snippet of my gap year adventure story is most definitely about my personal core.
I will start from yesterday and work backwards because I’m sure all of you are dying to know why I didn’t get out of bed for a whole day. Two night’s ago I experienced the Indian inevitable – I was out of bed 8 times to take care of my body’s natural calling. As hard as I tried to not throw-up, unfortunately that had to happen as well to clear my stomach of the bad food it couldn’t digest. To make matters worse we are almost out of filtered water so I had to ration my drinking to a sip after each bathroom break. So my tummy had a small tumble, and I figured that opting against the 6-hour hike some group members had planned and spending the day sleeping was the best alternative to speed up my recuperation.
That leads me to my host family because they are very concerned about my lack of eating lately. First, let me say they are some of the nicest, most accommodating people I’ve ever met. However, I had to explain that I did not want breakfast (a fried roti with radishes and yogurt) at least 7 times. My persistent “I don’t want food” landed me a small bowl of porridge and a cup of tea. Again at lunch I got a very concerned look as I only ate 1 roti with spinach and cauliflower. I couldn’t finish my portion of rice and dal and curry at dinner so I was told that my eating was not sufficient to their standards. I think I’ll try harder next time I get food poisoning to stuff food down my throat. This morning I was served porridge, oranges with pepper on them, roti with a potato soup thing and toast because all of those things are going to help my upset stomach. It was a very kind gesture from my host family but slightly painful to digest it all. Fortunately my appetite is slowly increasing because I am vaguely hungry now at 6:45pm after only eating breakfast today!
In India it is very common to live with many family members, so our home consists of two brothers and their respective families, yielding 7 people total. Both of the dads (Pushkar and Abhi) remind me of my dad in the ways they ask analytical questions and interact playfully with the children. There are 3 children; Bria (2) Tuc-Tuc (7) and Annesh (11) the younger two are girls. The mothers (Shalu and Mohini) are both excellent cooks and very sweet. Mohini works as a teacher in a high school and Shalu stays home with her 2 year old. Pushkar is a lawyer and Abhi is involved in online marketing. They clearly are both highly educated, and have a very large upgraded house, but have made comments about how they do not consider themselves well off in some regards.
Dharamsala is not a very big area; I think the population is around 100,000, but there are quite a few surrounding villages and towns dispersed around. I’m not sure if Dharamsala is considered a city of a village because to me it seems like it could fall into either category, but the distinction between village and city dwellers is very monitored. It is situated very far north at the foothills of the Himalayas and the altitude is around 1,300m. The larger mountains that I can see in the distance are between 4,000-5500m which is mind boggling to view close up. There is a very limited road system so it has become accustom to honk incessantly, just to let people know you are coming. Scooters are very popular, however there are quite a few vans a trucks that come barreling down the steep roads. There are small ‘mom and pop’ stored scattered along the roadsides including vegetable sellers, convenience stores, snack or sweet shops and clothing stores. The markets are colorful and crowded and the men and women are insistent for a sale or for extra coins or chapatti. As many of you probably know, Dharamsala (well actually Mcloud-Gang) is where the Dali Llama has resided since being exiled from Tibet in 1954 (or 1957 I’m not sure). Because of China’s complete invasion and overtaking of Tibet, many Tibetans seek refugee in the area because of their profound religious leader’s roots here (Free Tibet!). It is very interesting to see both Indian people and Tibetans roaming the streets. There is also a Muslim population and an Indian woman approached me and asked if I was Christian, exclaiming she was as well. I don’t want to classify India as being a culture immersed by Religion, but I think the apparent diversity of ethnicity and creed is admirable.
In India, TBB’s global issue focus is on education. The group is spilt up into pairs and we work everyday in a daycare. The daycares are government funded so resources are scarce and teachers are just highly regarded women from the towns. The children that go to daycare can be between 2 and 5, which presents a huge chasm in developmental functioning and abilities. Two year olds can barely speak and comprehend their mother tongue (Hindi) and the 4 and 5 year olds need to be highly stimulated with language to develop critical thinking skills. The apparent problem is my inability to speak Hindi other than ‘my name is Katy.” We are working on the language as a group, but starting from ground zero and bypassing the basic vowel and consonant sounds has presented itself to be a tricky method for learning the language. Sophie and I work together because we are planning to do our media project together on early childhood education. We plan to test different methods of teaching to see which are most effective and I’m also interested in the actual cognitive development that comes from targeted early childhood education curriculum. Our ambitions for the project are high, but the resources and time are very limited so we will see what we can do.
This post has turned into an overview of India so far, but I will go further back and recap on the enrichment week in Africa and the long journey to India.
The group spent 5 days in the beautiful Chrislin Lodge on the edges of Addo National Park in South Africa. It’s crazy that that was already a couple weeks ago! Like I said in a previous blog post, time moves incredibly fast, except when you are stuck behind a herd of 500 Cape buffalo going for an evening stroll, but I will get to that. The activities we did included a canoe safari, boat ride to the highest sand dunes in SA, boogie boarding down the sand dunes, and a visit the Daniel Cheetah center where we saw two brother lions sunbathing on a rock, a hyena and lots of leopards and cheetahs. It was like The Lion King in real life! I learned there are no cheetahs in the wild today, so the center works to reproduce the population by allowing cheetahs from different areas to mate in order to strengthen their offspring gene pools. I also got to walk into a cheetah cage and pet a real live cheetah, which was as equally terrifying as it was thrilling. However, the highlight of the week was the full day safari in the National Park. We saw elephants, zebras, warthogs, emus, and antelope and of course buffalo. I don’t think I ever need to see a buffalo’s ass again because I could probably describe the shape and velocity of their poop as it exits the body and hits the ground and that’s more than anyone ever needs to know about buffalos. I think my favorite moment was witnessing an elephant and a buffalo drinking peacefully from the same watering hole as my I-pod spontaneously played ‘This Pretty Planet’ by Tom Chapin. It’s the moments like those that make coexistence seem so simple.
We left Addo before 6am on Thursday, November 17th. We did not arrive in Dharamsala until Saturday the 19th. I won’t describe the travel days in any sort of detail because everything went as smoothly as it could’ve and we made it safely and frankly no one cares. However I do have some tips for anyone planning a world adventure!
Speaking of elephants and traveling, that brings me to today! With my stomach on the path to recovery, I decided I should go out and explore. Long story short, a group of girls from the group along with a host mom and some of her friends went on a very long journey to a temple. But I’m going to tell the long story as well. In the morning Lexi, Kika, Cat, Saoirse, Maddie, Quinn and I went up to the market area. We paid $1.50 each to go to a slightly disappointing art museum (not as enlightening as the one in SA, but there were some very cool small paintings depicting Hindu culture). Then we went in search of a coke to settle my stomach once and for all and I bought a sweatshirt because everyone keeps saying it’s going to get very cold, but the day has yet to come. No wonder my bag is so heavy, but better safe than sorry I guess (?!). Then Lexi, Quinn, Kika and I went back down to our houses and waited to go to the temples with Quinn, Kika and Sophie’s host mom and sister. Half of us piled into a somewhat sketchy van while the others and some unidentified women and children drove in a different car. I’m not sure what we were expecting, but definitely not an hour and 15 minute van ride through bustling markets and winding mountain roads. I had very high expectations for this supposed temple after about 45 minutes. To our dismay, the temple turned out to be a disappointingly small, hot spring bathhouse that Tibetans use to wash. The man that drove us thought we all wanted to bathe in the hot water, and as appealing as sitting in dirty water with almost naked men sounded, the girls opted to go sit by the river instead. After a wonderful 20 minute rest by the water, we all piled back into the two cars and headed home, except we didn’t go straight home and the drive back seemed like an eternity. My stomach could’ve been happier. The girls went with the taxi driver to Kanga Temple, which I could not tell you where it is located in proximity to Dharamsala, but thankfully, it was actually worth the drive. At the white stone, open air temple we received a sugar packet after bowing to a man sitting inside the main room and were bombarded by Indian schoolboys asking to take selfies. Overall it was much more exciting than the bathhouse temple thing. We made it home after probably 3 hours in the car today and I can proudly say I have gotten increasingly hungrier as I write this blog post, so I must be recovering! As unimpressive as the art museum and the bathhouse were for all of the hype they received the car rides today were eye opening. While passing through small markets and villages and up and down small mountains I caught glimpses of the realities of life for many people. And we saw an elephant on the side of the road! It was painted with pretty designs and appeared to be held captive by some people, but it was a cool sight nonetheless. India is very under developed, much more so than the area we were in in South Africa and I was left thinking about the most effective methods of aid would look like. I have started to read Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire and his idea that the oppressed become oppressors because of their denial of liberation fascinates me. Our education seminars will revolve around his ideas and I will have another blog post soon delving into how his ideas and my personal experiences will shape my future plans.
In conclusion: India is energetic, colorful and yearning for a push forward. I love the vibrant culture and I can see myself driving my scooter up and down the steep hills everyday to a small clinic in the Himalayas. Dinner is ready so I should go up to eat. Wish me luck that my stomach cooperates!
I hope everyone had a fantastic Thanksgiving! There is so much to be thankful for!
Cheers to new adventures – wherever they may take you!
For the past week and a half, as I have been putting color coated stickers on patient’s files in the New Horizons Clinic, I have had plenty of time to think. I try not to think about why poor Maddie and I were asked to color coat the already organized 10,000 files into 100 group sections classified by completely meaningless color groups, so I think about the time I have spent here in South Africa and how I envision my role as a social entrepreneurial brain surgeon/OBGYN in the future. Thankfully the constant thoughts flowing though my mind pass the time pretty quickly.
First off, I envisioned Africa to be much different. Sub-Saharan Africa is portrayed in the media as a desolate place and I think I expected to see people wandering around languished with poverty and disease. Although I have unfortunately seen people that fit my preconceived notion, I overlooked the idea that Africa, especially South Africa is very developed. I had the same ‘other-worldly’ expectation when I travelled to China. The first thing I remember thinking when I arrived in Beijing was, ‘wow, they have highways and cars too!’ It’s fascinating how susceptible our perception of reality is. At home I was in such a routine that it was hard to imagine myself in a different reality, but now after spending almost 2 months in South Africa, it’s going to be strange going home and seeing all the cows kept in pastures instead of grazing freely next to me as I walk down the street. It’s important to remember reality looks different all over the world, but in times of discomfort of confusion, it’s reassuring to remember every person is so similar in essence, we all just live a different reality. We all want, need and crave the same basic things and just because someone speaks a different language or has a different skin tone does not change the fact that he or she will cry in times of sorrow and laugh in times of joy. My world perspective continues to expand which makes me one happy camper.
Public health was our main topic here in South Africa. The TBB curriculum focuses the idea of public health around the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which has ravished a majority of Sub-Saharan Africa. However, HIV/AIDS is not the overarching concern anymore. South Africa has the largest ARV program in the world – people have access to medication. The problems stem from the effects of HIV/AIDS. The big questions we discussed included, ‘why do people not adhere to treatment regimes,’ ‘why is it so hard to prevent the spread of preventable diseases,’ and ‘how can education play a role in eradicating both the disease and the stigma surrounding it.’ It was challenging to discuss solely the HIV/AIDS epidemic in seminar and then go out into the community and see people mainly plagued by TB, cancer, diabetes, or hypertension, because if they had HIV it was most likely controlled.
That is not to say HIV/AIDS is not a major concern. It is still a massive and pressing issue in the area and I don’t want to belittle the disease. There are many people that refused to be tested because they are embarrassed to tell their families or in denial of a positive status. I had a very close encounter with HIV the other week. I was working with Danray in the wellness team and finally on Friday after my constant nagging and persistence she let me administer the HIV testing even though for liability reasons I shouldn’t have. I reassured her I would not prick myself and that it was crucial training I needed to have in order to become a doctor – she finally agreed. The first patient I tested in the back of her van at the Knysna Elephant Park just so happened to be HIV positive. We had probably seen 25 people who tested negative that week and out of the 3 positive people we saw, I had to break the news to one of them. After I tested the blood pressure, I got all the materials out to test the blood sugar and HIV simultaneously. This is a tricky maneuver in the back of a van. I pricked her finger, wiped off the first blood that came out to avoid any contamination, then used a very small pipette to suck up the blood droplets and put two into the HIV test and another one on the glucose reader. This again is a tricky maneuver because you can’t let go of the tension in the pipette so the blood stays in the tip and you have to suck up enough blood at once so the tests can be accurately read. All that being said, I am not a pro at this particular task yet, but I’m sure I will have much more practice in the future. After I put the two droplets of blood into the HIV test, I put the two drops of diluent that activates the test. ‘Two stripy means positive, one stripy means negative,’ Danray proclaimed all week. If there are going to be two stripes on the test, you know immediately and as soon as I cleaned up the materials and looked down at the test I shot Danray a concerned look. This woman was HIV positive and she will live with this disease for the rest of her life. I was also marginally concerned about the HIV positive blood on my gloves and the fact that I had an eyelash in my eye that was causing much discomfort, but I couldn’t dare touch it. I had to administer a second HIV test to confirm the results and Danray gave the woman a referral form for the clinic. All I could do was sit there, stunned at the path of her future I felt like I just dramatically interrupted. I couldn’t even console her because I don’t speak her language. It was now up to her to go to the clinic and get blood drawn for further testing. Although I felt useless after the dramatic situation played out, I was reconciled in the fact that one more person is aware of her status and hopefully will take the appropriate measures to help control her disease. Aside from the initial shock, I didn’t grieve in the negative situation. I was motivated to keep spreading awareness and testing people for HIV. I wanted to reach as many people as possible because HIV is controllable, but only with the knowledge and support from people in afflicted communities. The encounter left me wondering what more I could do.
On another occasion of my persistence paying off – the last day of work in South Africa I was able to go shadow a doctor in the town clinic. This was a magnificent change from the sticker gig of the previous 7 days! I sat in with Dr. Leslie Vanderburg, a very slender, energetic woman. I could tell that she meant business and many aspects of her professional demeanor and medical knowledge were inspiring. She was also left-handed and could walk incredibly fast, which I connected to on a personal level. I was able to observe around 15 appointments and 2 emergency situations. The appointments were mostly spoken in English, which was incredibly helpful. Although I was aware of what normally happens in doctor’s appointments in the public clinics, it was humbling to witness the actual encounters – and the wide range of problems that the patients presented. Dr. Vanderburg quickly debriefed me about the patient before and after each meeting so I felt informed about the decisions she made. The majority of her work consisted of ‘review’ and ‘scripts’, which are monitoring chronic patients and assessing any further changes to their health and writing and revising prescriptions, respectively. There is a clear disconnect between the doctors and sisters working in the clinics because only the doctors can prescribe a majority of patient prescriptions and they also have to do all the minor surgical work and see everyone that the sisters have a question about. This means the doctors see mostly chronic patients to refill prescriptions or as Dr. Vanderburg put it, ‘to come in and complain about any issue they can think of.’ I went to the clinic on a very eventful day because I was also able to witness the doctor put a hemorrhoid back up a patient’s anus and hear the excruciating sounds of a patient receiving a catheter in attempts to drain 3 liters of urine (I couldn’t watch this procedure because the patient was embarrassed, but I did see the bowl of blood that it produced). Both of these small procedures, although harder to listen to than watch, validated my desire to become a doctor, especially in a public sector clinic that attends to poorer people living in adverse situations. The second story most likely will not have a happy ending. The doctor told me that the man with the catheter complications will most likely die if he is unable to get to George as quickly as possible. However, to get to George you have to go through Knysna, and the service at Knysna hospital was unacceptable, as they incorrectly inserted the catheter in the first place. His bladder will explode if the urine is not drained, but a simple ‘in-out’ catheter (put a catheter in, drain the urine and immediately take it out) was not effective. The two doctors in the town clinic did all they could, but the deficiencies in the public health system make it almost impossible for the man to get the adequate treatment he needs immediately. Witnessing this dilemma first hand made me question what I can do to help both the patients in need and the failing system that is contributing to their unfavorable situations. How do we change policy and practice simultaneously?
On a positive note - It was fun to see my host mother, Sindi, at work because she is the administration clerk in the town clinic.
Speaking of Sindi, she is a wonderful woman! She works extremely hard to manage all of the town clinics files and appointments. She possesses a kind demeanor and patience and also mothers her daughter Iphesh while the father is away at work. Sindi made it a priority that Iphesh goes to an English school and will most likely send her to Greenwood, which teaches it’s students based on the Oxford curriculum, so many students get scholarships to study abroad. Sindi is right in investing in Iphesh’s education, even though it is very expensive, because the girl is intelligent. She is a cheeky manipulator, but has a powerful presence and unbelievable English skills. I have no doubt Iphesh has a bright future ahead of her because Sindi has a strong devotion to her daughter’s well being.
Sophie and I have talked to Sindi about a range of topics, but we mostly talk about our experiences with working in the public health sector and her job as a clerk in the clinic. One main issue she see plaguing the system is lack of communication between the health care staff. The clinics each have managers, who are just appointed sisters. This is the equivalent to an RN in the United States managing and overseeing an entire doctors office or small clinic. Many nurses in the United States also hold administrative or managerial positions within their everyday work, but it is unlikely that a single nurse would be in charge of a practice. A nurse has little to no experience in management or business operations, especially the sisters in ZA that solely went to school to obtain a nursing degree. Sindi is frustrated because as a clerk in the clinic, she has knowledge about and manages the administration aspect of the system. She knows she doesn’t have the skills or knowledge to start an I.V, but she doesn’t try to, she does her part in the operating system. The managers of the clinics tend to oversee every action and hold the power in every decision, which often times mitigates the effectiveness of the system as a whole because they are often times not the most effective managers because they rightly engage their energy at the more pressing issues at hand - the patients. There clearly needs to be someone in charge, but I think hiring a manager, someone with proper training and who can focus on operating a more effective and efficient system is not a bad idea. That might be wishful thinking though – the budget of the public health sector doesn’t really have ‘spending money.’
I could talk about public health long enough to probably write a couple short novels, but if any of you devout followers have made it this far in my marathon blog post then you probably are longing for a change of pace. Well you are in luck! I will share the rest of my miscellaneous observations and adorations for Africa now!
1) Everyone has TV’s – no matter how poor you are – you have enough money for a satellite and a TV. This phenomenon confuses me to no extent. It’s strange to look at the poverty ridden townships, where literally every house is made of wood, cardboard and tin and see satellites protruding from all of the leaking roofs. TV is a culture. Our TV is always on and we eat dinner on the couch in front of it. There doesn’t seem to be any noteworthy shows, but the source of entertainment is stimulating for people. Speaking of TV, Keegan got kicked of Idols, so my new favorite is Thami and the judges think he is going to win, but I won’t even know because there are still 3 weeks left!
2) Obviously being one of the only white females in a black township draws some attention. I don’t mind the attention because I’m a clear minority and people are just acknowledging the discernable differences. I’ve been asked to come home with guys, hangout with guys, drink with guys, give guys money for drugs, probably do drugs with guys, and just be friends with guys, but I find it so hard to distinguish between the genuine offers and the manipulative ones. We were warned Kwanokuthula is dangerous and we were reminded of the eminent danger when my roommate Sophie had her bag stolen from her after being held up at knifepoint. But I still want to believe everyone is sincere in his or her offers. Of course I never took anyone up on any offer, even as harmless as it probably would have been, but I can’t help contemplate if I’m missing out on half of the reality of Africa. I have talked to many blacks, coloreds and whites, all with different stories and experiences, but I wonder what would’ve come of a hangout with a guy that approached me off the streets. What would he want to say to me or what aspects of his life were different from what I have already seen? I want to hear the whole story – everyone’s individual full story. I had a really cool encounter with a local black man as I was walking back to a café after running on the beach. He approached me asking for directions and I felt cool because he first thought I was a local and second I could actually help him out. I told him I was going in the direction of the main road, so we just naturally started walking together. He caught on to my different accent and asked where I from. I explained to him that I was volunteering with Plett Aid and I hoped to become a doctor someday. He told me there was a new medical facility being built somewhere close to Plett and that I should study there. I told him that I very likely would be back as a doctor someday. He also told me that his fishing mates had left him and now he had no idea where they went with the white Bucky (pickup truck). As our conversation came to a close when I reached my destination, I left him with a hopeful ‘good luck’ in finding his friends and I genuine ‘it was nice to meet you.’ It’s these simple encounters that leave me hopeful and happy. I would love to believe that all people have good intentions and are authentically kind and friendly, because most all of them that I have talked with have been. But than I remember that all people are not nice because somehow America managed to elect Trump as our president (!?) But that is a whole different story and not any African’s fault.
3) Apartheid still exits - separation is very evident. No black or colored people live in town and even in town there is a white street and a black area up the hill. The only time blacks come on the white street is to go to the grocery store or ATM. All of the staff in restaurants is black or colored, serving all white people. The townships are all black or colored and they gawk at the sight of a white person in them. 6 foreign students came as quick a shock you can imagine. It appears to me that no one is doing anything to integrate all South Africans and end racial separation once and for all. However there is such an income/wealth gap that I’m not sure any reasonable change could be done. The white people are not going to up and move from their comfortable homes into a shack in the townships and the blacks and coloreds have no means of affording a house in town. The progress has stagnated post-apartheid. The ANC has lost an incredible amount of support in the last few years, which could be the cause of the slowing social movement. I’m not sure if the people see the evident separation as a problem, and maybe it is not fundamentally affecting the people of Plettenburg Bay, but I feel like my experience with diversity and socioeconomic division in my hometown cause the sheer division of blacks and whites here to be even more staggering.
4) The education system needs to most help. All aspiring teachers and policy makers come quick! South Africa has scored considerably lower than most African nations on national and regional standardized tests. After experiencing public education for myself at Phakamisani Primary, I see the immediate need. Statistics may say that kids are in school, and for the most part they are, but what they are actually learning in school is the main concern. Sadly, that learning is not up to par. South Africa having 11 different national languages doesn’t make things any easier. Students and teachers are forced to transition to English in grade 4 and most of them have no prior experience and the teachers are teaching their usually second or third language. There are a whole slew of problems with the system and a whole slew of solutions that will take time, money and persistence to implement, but I’m still investigating the most effective methods. I’m using all of the questions and possible resolutions floating around in my head as the perfect transition into the education unit in India!
Well you have made it to the end! Congratulations! My next post will be from India and I couldn’t be more ecstatic. I’m sad to leave South Africa, but ready for change. We do stop in Addo National Park for a short 4-day safari adventure, so I will be sure to include a brief explanation of that experience in my next post!
Hang in there back home with the prospects of Trump. The group is crafting plans for protests upon arrival in Washington D.C. – do not fear! However, I will be returning to Africa as soon as I can if anyone wants to join me ;-)
I’m sending my genuine love to you all,
While in South Africa I have decided two different realities are inevitably true: the first being that time does in fact pass by at an extremely fast pace and the second being the formal plan that I will live in Africa for a period of my life. I am completely unsure of how to change the reality of time, because I’m pretty sure it is set in stone, but who knows, technology advances quickly in this day and age! I can, however, control the reality of my desire to live and work in Africa in my future. In the short and quickly passing time I have spent in South Africa, I have fallen in love with the land and the people. I want to further delve into the complicatedly simple lives of the people, entangled with oppression, poverty, disease and everything it means to be human. Besides, I also adore the accent of South African people speaking English. My experiences in South Africa have made me feel both eternally grateful and painfully guilty about my reality of life, but most importantly motivated to further promote change. As much as I spend my time planning the most creative, far-reaching and effective method to eradicate adversity in Africa, I find it equally important to pause everyday and appreciate the simplicity of life. Living simply is an idea that I am learning to adopt from the people and culture of South Africa. There is so much happiness to experience and I have found that it is sometimes necessary to look past the hardships and enjoy the complexities of life from a positive perspective. I have also found that a majority of the people in South Africa are naturally positive and have a very admirable ability to live in the moment – despite the fact that the ‘moment’ is not always an ideal situation. So appreciating the little things, as cheesy as that sounds, has been quite humbling.
I wanted to share my current appreciations in life as an insight into my deep emotions and feelings, which I may or may not have because I am female (that statement is intended to be completely sarcastic and is an inside joke here at TBB, apologies for all who do not understand, hopefully someday you will be able to think deeper thoughts). In all seriousness, this post is focused on my “personal core,” and my serious, but not that serious, appreciations about my current life in Africa, so take it or leave it.
I would like to start by appreciating zucchini. I miss vegetables dearly, especially well cooked and well seasoned ones. This past weekend in Cape Town I was lucky to have a group that loved to cook and lucky that Ben made zucchini multiple times. The group is feeling very ‘healthy-food-deprived,’ so we have to embrace it when we have the chance! That brings me to my next point – I have developed quite a passion for chocolate bars. For all who know me well, know that I am much more of a gummy person than a chocolate person, but the inadequacy of South Africa’s gummy selection or maybe the fact that South Africa has far better chocolate bars than the United States, has changed me. This discovery, although quite delish, is not ideal because I have put on a few pounds, but I appreciate the sweets nonetheless.
There are so many interactions and sights and sounds and ideas that I process everyday and like I said, time moves so damn quickly, that I tend to forget a fair amount. Possibly my favorite, or most appreciated appreciation is the time I get to spend in Percy’s van driving from place to place. The van is physically not all that wonderful and the 8 hour drive back from Cape Town was only 3 hours longer than expected, but if I get a window seat and we have a long ride, putting on headphones and closing my eyes with the wind and the sun simultaneously penetrating my face brings me nothing but happiness. I have time to think about anything my heart desires and I can watch the ocean turn into mountains and then to fields and then back to mountains that I daydream about summiting. Life occasionally slows down in the moments I spend in Percy’s van and I could not be more thankful for the opportunities I get to relax and daydream and listen to my favorite tunes.
Another appreciation stems from my profound realization at the National Gallery of Art in Cape Town - I have finally reached adulthood because I honestly enjoyed an entire museum!! I was enthralled by the diversity and energy of each of the pieces displayed in the small gallery. The history and the culture of suffering became alive in my mind through photographs, sculptures, abstract art, and multimedia creations. I gained a different perspective on apartheid - the perspective of the people affected. I had never thought about art in such an influential manner, but I now appreciate the depth of contemplation that one piece of art can arouse in me.
I also appreciate everyone at home that makes a point to reach out and talk to me – and also the fact that they are usually brief messages, just to check-in, but they are thoughtful and sweet. I appreciate Mclaine for staying up till 1 or 2 am to talk to me at the only times I have access to the computer and I appreciate my parents and family and friends for emailing me, but not too much and for not drenching me with information about what is happening back home. I honestly appreciate not having a phone. The conversations are more vulnerable and honest when I don’t have a distraction.
I could go on and on, but I’ll wrap up with a few more small joys:
- Real towels. I had my own towel, a real big fluffy one for the first time in over a month last weekend. As cool and functional as sarongs are, I forgot how quickly I could dry off.
- Going to bed early. Self-explanatory I feel, but very rewarding when it became easy to roll out of bed at 6:30.
- Idols, South Africa’s singing competition show. It’s probably down to the final 6 now – I’ve missed two weeks, but I’m rooting for Keegan, so I will keep you all updated.
- Coffee. I reluctantly admit that I have become a coffee person. It had to happen at some point, but now I appreciate a nice cappuccino or iced coffee a little too much, every time I can get one.
- Toilets and warm showers because I’m assuming that they will be less readily available in India.
- Life. Can that be an appreciation? I’m so grateful to have this opportunity and I absolutely love travelling and exploring and everyday I get more ecstatic about life as I shape my future!!
Peace and love and everything that makes you happy – appreciate it!!
I spent the past week working in Phakamisani Primary School. Although it was a complete shift from the public health focus of the previous two weeks, I felt energized in the fact that I was experiencing a different aspect of South Africa - especially a struggling system of society.
Phakamisani is one of two public primary (K-8) schools in Kwanokathula Township. The second primary school was opened recently in an attempt to make education more accessible in a larger geographic area and also to evenly distribute the children to schools that are an appropriate distance from their homes. Kwanokathula is a primarily black township so the majority of people are of Xhosa decent, meaning the schools are Xhosa speaking. That being said, townships that are majority colored speak Afrikaans and subsequently have schools that are taught in Afrikaans. This is clearly problematic given the fact that these very diverse townships are comfortably situated in approximately 25km area. To make it more confusing for the students (referred to learners in ZA), the Xhosa speaking public schools undergo a dramatic shift in grade 4 and start teaching entirely in English. Again this poses a multitude of problems for the learners, especially when most of their parents can't or don't speak English. The students become distinctly separated in ability levels in grade 4. Some of them understand the English language from experience at home or around Plettenberg Bay and others struggle to comprehend simple sentences, let alone a maths or english lesson.
Our job in the school was to act as a teacher's assistant in the grade 4 classes - all of which house 40 students even with the creation of an additional school. I was in a classroom that was primarily focused on maths during the morning hours I was there. I waked around the class, red pen in hand, granting the learners a small check next to every problem they correctly solved. It was astonishing to see how excited the children were to receive a simple check. Some of them would raise their hands after every question they answered, just to gain a new check - validating their intelligence and giving them the extra motivation to continue to the next problem. The grade 4's were doing math problems involving distinguishing even and odd numbers, rounding and word problems. It was honestly good to catch up on my mental math! The students were very diligent for the most part, the exception being when their teacher stepped out of the classroom. They referred to the teacher as Madame and stood up every time they talked in front of the class. It was evident that a majority of the learners had an innate desire to learn and were taking advantage of the opportunities they were granted.
I think the hardest part of the week was being exposed to the learner's wide range of abilities and sadly the lack of available resources to help all of the different children learn most effectively. Some of the learners were extremely intelligent and advanced through the lessons at a rapid pace. However, there were others that struggled to do basic math computations and did not understand when I tried to correct them in English. Another huge issue was copying. The students that quickly picked up on the topics - the ones who gained the red checks first - were often taken advantage of by the slower students. It was evident when two students sitting next to each other would raise their hands simultaneously or when one student would produce the correct answer and as soon as I turned around the clump of students nearby would quickly raise their hands, claiming profoundly, to have suddenly attained the right answer. The lack of work on the 4 digit subtraction problems was also a clear giveaway. I wanted nothing more than to make a difference in these learners lives, but it was hard to tell if I was actually helping.
One way the school is attempting to combat their language barrier is through introduction to English in grade 3. The woman who set up the partnership between TBB and Phakamisani, named Pepper, oversees a program for struggling grade 3's. She and her team pull students from class and work with them individually on reading and speaking English words. She has a structured system that the learners advance through, gaining confidence and knowledge to better prepare them for the upcoming academic year.
I had wonderful conversations with the grade 4 students in the field after we would finish the maths lessons. It was slightly concerning that me and another TBB student were in charge of 40 students in the field area, and no one seemed remotely concerned about their whereabouts and if they returned to class. We played netball (a less exciting version of horse), and another game that involved chucking a ball (a bag full of rocks and garbage) at people and just trying to dodge the throws. The actual hardest part of the week was trying to speak Xhosa. Saoirse and I asked some of the girls to teach us some Xhosa words and we quickly learned that our mouths are not cut out for that much movement. For anyone that doesn't know, Xhosa is a language that involves clicking noises and the X represents a very loud noise that sounds like a 'ch' and a tongue flick at the same time as pronouncing 'hosa'. In other words, it is quite difficult for my untrained mouth to produce. I received quite a few odd stares and blatant no's as I attempted to practice the different clicks in the field. I did successfully learn how to say 'what is your name?' and 'how're you,' and 'I'm good,' which I figured is all I really need to survive around here.
Overall the week at Phakamisani was a humbling experience. Although school has always come easy to me, I am unsure about how different my life would be had I gone to a struggling elementary school. The primary school age is incredibly important for formulation of ideas, development of the brain and future success and I feel equally as heartbroken about the struggling learners as I do the incredibly intelligent ones. Neither of which will receive the adequate resources they need, let alone the average students, who receive the least amount of attention. The high school graduation rate is not close to where it should be, let alone the number of students that successfully complete grade 8. The students are only allowed to fail once, after that, they are forced out of the school system. It's hard to pinpoint one core issue that all the problems are stemming from, but from my brief time at Phakamisani I believe that the education system is plagued by lack of infrastructure. Phakamisani needs more teachers, larger classrooms, the students need erasers, play equipment and differentiated learning tracks, just to name a few. It's hard to hold students to standards when they don't fully exist.
I'm looking forward to my time in India to fully delve into an education system. I believe education, or lack thereof, is the most pressing issue facing the world today. Although it is not my main interest, it is crucial and I want to do my part to first understand and then work to improve current failing systems.
Right now I am in Robertson working with Breede River Hospice. I won't get into details now because I promise a bog post about this week will come soon! We are spending the weekend in Cape Town, which will be unbelievable.
Stay happy and humble people :-)
An attempt to document my journey through 5 countries, 3 global issues and billions of people