Friday, March 11, 2011

Really? This Is My Final Stop?

Molo from Plettenberg!

From Costa Rica to Ecuador to Peru to China to Cambodia to India and now South Africa. Wow, what a journey it has been. I hope my blog - although relatively quiet over the past two months - has given you a small taste of the many once-in-a-lifetime experiences I have had over seven months. 

As my greeting indicates I have now landed in Plettenberg Bay which is located on the Western Cape of South Africa. It is a beautiful destination for tourists who wish to bask in the sun, enjoy the beach, or get attacked sharks! While I am able to appreciate the luxury of living in a beach town, after my previous stops, there much sobering work to be done here in Plett.

What most the smiling tourists fail to see on their magical vacations is the foundation upon which their luxuries are built. The roads that take the tourists to the beaches, to the restaurants, and to their comfortable accommodations continue on. From the paved avenues of Plett one can travel just a few more miles down bumpy roads to the townships that are home to the vast majority of the Western Cape population. Here the sun still shines, the people still smile, but their is a very human toll to be recognized and understood. 

Each day I take a 5 minute taxi ride to Kwanakuthula where I meet up with my care worker, Pumza. Together, we make our rounds through the township providing home based care.

The first patient we visited today is HIV positive and has recently come down with TB. The dear woman is 70 years old and lives in a small two room house with her son. Unable to work because of her illnesses she is receiving a government grant to provide for her very basic needs. Tragically, however, her son believes his needs - whatever they may be - are more important.  Consequently, my friend is unable to buy food, making it very difficult to take her medicines which must be taken on a full stomach.

Abused grants are a common thread throughout the townships and it is very evident that there is a need for social workers. Pumza and I sat there and listened to the eldery woman express her feelings of hunger and fright. I feel helpless. I feel ashamed. Just days before I spoke to my Dad about the opportunity to pay $200 to go skydiving in Plett. Do you know how many meals that would buy for my friend? How can I do that? 

Oh, if that was my only friend who needed help . . .
Another patient Pumza and I visit on a regular basis is a forty year-old man who was diagnosed with spinal cord cancer last year. With no money, no thought of nationwide health care, he has few treatment options. We find him each day lying in bed waiting for his next fix of morphene, which he takes every 4 hours. Each day Pumza and I  bath him, fix him breakfast and pray that he finds peace some time soon.

A few houses down lives a single mother with three children. The mother is only twenty-five, but looks as though she is nearing sixty. She has AIDS. Afraid of being left by her husband she refused to get tested. The disease has now progressed to this terrifying stage. But even more tragic, because of her refusal to get tested her youngest daughter was born HIV positive and will be on ARVs for the remainder of her life. As the tragedy so predictably unfolds, the husband has now left the mother to fend for herself and her sick child. Pumza and I visit to the mother and daughter to make sure medications are being taken and that a resistance to the treatment has not formed. What else can we do?

Each day Pumza and I visit anywhere from 2 to 20 patients. We see everything from stroke victims to diabetics, and a large number of HIV positive patients. The tasks we preform are minor but essential is trying to help improve their standard of living.  As we walk through Kwankuthula we see rows and rows of shacks, with government housing in between. I will perform these visits of care for a mere three weeks. Pumza does it as her calling, her passion. Pumza is my hero. 

After hearing these stories, my Dad keeps telling me to read THE ONE'S WHO WALK AWAY FROM OMELAS by Ursula K. LeGuin. I tell him put down the books and come live it . . .

As I wrote earlier I am living in Plettenberg Bay, near the center of town on a large hill overlooking the beautiful vast ocean. I am spoiled and am finding it hard to fully enjoy all the luxuries at my disposal. The vast contradictions I see in South Africa make me realize how much I take for granted in my life. As I prepare myself to go back home, I am haunted and blessed by images of my work here that will remain with me for my life. I fully understand why Plett is the last stop on my TBB journey.


I went bungee jumping last weekend from what I'm told is the highest bridge in the world!!! It was insane. I now truly know what it is to free fall. With all the time in the sun - both in the air and on the ground, my skin is slowly begining to match my hair. Oh, I also took a roll down the hill the other day ago and scraped myself up silly, but don't worry Bruce (my host) made me a liquid silver clay to clean them. A new business perhaps, Mom?

Ohhh, did I tell you I come back to the USA in less than a month?!!!!!!!? I'm ready.

Plett is beautiful. I strongly recommend that you take a vacation here. Truly. But if you do, promise me one thing: That you'll visit my friends.

Bye for now,


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

There's A First For Everything

This saying (yes, Dad, I know it's a cliche) more than anything else, describes the life I’ve been leading in Jaipur, India over the past four weeks. From a camel safari to renewable farming I've seeming done it all . . . for the first time!

The TBB mission during our time in India is to study sustainable agriculture. This objective has landed us the lovely job of volunteering on an organic farm which develops cow byproducts such as  biogas, organic fertilizer, and diabetes medicine. I’ve seemingly stomped in, walked through, and rolled up more cow dung than stars in the night sky, but what more could one expect in the land where cows are sacred?!?

When I am not scooping poop, my time in Jaipur is spent trying learn as much as I can about the diverse Indian culture. This has included Hindi lessons with my 12-year-old host brother Sashwat, bargaining for cheap “tuk tuk” rides, and eating a strictly vegetarian diet. I’m enjoying these experiences, but at times it’s overwhelming. It is very difficult to know when I can relax and be myself in this male dominated society. I feel self-conscious wearing my jeans, going to the gym, and simply walking down the street with a few friends. Most women in India do not have the freedom to enjoy such simple pleasures. The societal expectations of women is such that whenever I am asked my age, the next  question is invariably, "Why aren't you married?” I'm tempted to say, "Because my Dad would disown me," but I don't think they would understand the humor!

Aside from my culture shock, I have been trying one new thing after another. This past weekend I decided extend this pattern of behavior to an athletic endeavor. On a whim, Lauren and I decided to take part in the Jaipur half-marathon. I regretted this decision as soon as I found out there were 40,000 participants, but my ego stood firm like a brick wall - I couldn’t back down. On Sunday at 7:30am  at Ram Niwas Bagh the race began and Lauren and I were ready to run. As soon as it began I knew I made the right decision, it was possibly the greatest way to view the city and boost my ego at the same time. 

Being two of only a few hundred females amongst thousands and thousands of men of men led Lauren and I to be the center of attention. We were constantly photographed, asked our record times, and hollered at. Other than being sprayed with henna dye (to mark that we did not cheat) and having to run around natural obstacles (cow dung), the run was surprisingly pleasant. After 2 hours of running Lauren and I made our best attempt to sprint across the finish line! I must admit I am pretty proud. Finally, Mom (and Laura Hughes wherever you are), I have made up for my first track meet when I collapsed after only two laps of the mile run.

 I only have 10 days left in Jaipur and while I can’t guarantee I will be running 21 km again anytime soon, I can guarantee you that I will be trying many more things for the first time.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Lost In Cyberspace

If a blog is posted in cyberspace, but never reaches it assumed destination was it ever written at all?
Like the the noise coming from a tree falling in a forest when no one is around, we may never truly know. What we do know, however, is that I have been decidedly quiet since the middle of December and there have been no forests around!

Existentialism aside, so much has happened in the past month, I'm not sure where to best begin. So let's wind the clock back to December 26th, elevate to 35,000 feet and take a look at what I was running through my exhausted brain . . .

Wow! What an unbelievable experience rural China was for me. Shaxi, a village in the Yunnan Province was home for the first three weeks of December. The landscape was beautiful. Mountains provided the canvas, while rice fields as far as the eye could see was the detail. Gone were the skyscapers and bustling traffic of industrialized China. What a blessing. With the peace, however, came reminders of rural Ecuador, of a society, a culture largely forgotten for the past 100 years. Once again I was sleeping on a rickety wood plank mattress. Indoor conveniences such as a shower or a toilet were only a dream. When nature called, my toilet consisted of a hole in a middle of a cow pen. The contrast between that and the Juicy Couture boots my Mom sent was not lost on me. And while the temptation was to use the boots for something that were not made to be, I resisted and relied upon the conveniences provided. My hope was to use the cow pen as little as possible - even to the point of bloating - but that was not possible since a bout of food poisoning once again tightly gripped my internal systems.

Like everywhere else I have traveled over these past four months, my host family was extremely caring. Language, however, was a constant barrier. Even the survival Chinese that I had learned several weeks earlier was useless, since the local dialect was quite obscure.

During our time in Shaxi our daily assignment was to continue to explore the Chinese educational system. In this case, comparing and contrasting the opportunities available in rural China compared to the city we had just left. My immediate impression was that the students did not have many of the same benefits the urban children had and this was reflected in their knowledge of the English language. It was minimal - think Maddie's knowledge of Chinese. This provided for some frustrating moments in the classroom, but one to be learned from just as well.

In addition to the classroom work, we spent much time working on our media project. You will find that posted below. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did putting it together.

During our final night in Shaxi the villagers put on a performance for us that consisted of traditional music and Bai dancing. The time and emotion that put into their performance was touching and reminded me of the tearful farewell in Ecuador.

All in all, the time in China went by very quickly, quicker than Ecuador. I suppose that is because I'm more comfortable traveling and better adjusted to daily living away from the United States. That brings me comfort in some respects, but is also a foreshadowing, I suppose, of how quickly the last half of my Thinking Beyond Borders adventure will go. There is more than a touch of sadness in those words for me.


Once the goodbyes in China were complete our itinerary whisked us off to Cambodia. And if I have found melancholy in some of the living conditions I have experienced in the past two months, they paled in comparison to the Killing Fields. The silence amongst the group, in the air was palpable during our visit. The emotions that ran through my minds chaotic. Have you seen a tree that was used to beat thousands of children? Mass graves that held many more? I had not. Did your educational system find it important to teach you about such events? Mine did not. Should they?

I suppose most Americans, of any age, are ignorant of the actions of the Khmer Rouge. Is ignorance really bliss?


New days come, but not soon enough for many. For me the sun rose again quickly as the tour traveled on to Siem Reap. There we visited the temples of Angor Wat by foot and bike. The exercise lifted my spirits, not to mention Christmas, which was now only a day away.

My Christmas was anything but normal, but fun nonetheless. Christmas Eve was spent eating a typical Cambodian meal and watching the locals dance celebrations. On Christmas Day I did some last minute gift shopping and went - of course - swimming. Mom and Dad you certainly did the same in Minnesota, didn't you? I must admit, I truly missed my family traditions - things like fighting with my sisters and crying about the gifts I didn't get. That's what family and holidays are all about, right?!? No seriously, the holiday was indeed a bit empty without my parents and siblings to share it with. . .

As I wrote at the beginning of this entry it is currently December 26 and a new journey awaits. We are onto to Jaipur, India, where a new adventure most definitely awaits.

Happy Holidays.