21 December 2009

Lion Hunting

I rode in a safari jeep for nearly 12 hours through Kruger National Park, eyes peeled for a fierce, majestic wildcat...

I finally spotted one behind a sheet of glass at the MGM Hotel
in Las Vegas.

I'm still not quite sure how I feel about all this. At least safari made for some good photo opps.



They are curiously charming, and charmingly curious.
They are collectively chaotic, consistently capricious and candidly cheerful.

They are children. They are kiddos, adolescents, bambinos, bambinas innocents, cherubs, crianças, niños pequeños, infants, enfants… No matter what we call them, they are representatives of youth, and sweet immaturity. They remind us fondly of our own naivety. And they remind us how to play,

The squirts I spent time with in Sea Wind, South Africa are dancers and singers.

They play dress-up.

And they fall asleep in your arms when they’ve had enough.

These little lambs were especially tired on this day because a slew of new playmates from Semester at Sea crowded their classroom. We were there to take data for the school’s nutrition surveillance program sponsored by Operation Hunger, a local nonprofit.

We took each of the 86 students’ weight, height and arm circumference measurement and graphed their nutritional intake as a bell graph. The top of the curve represented ideal weight, which most of the girls reached. Most of the boys, however, fell below the curve. One program volunteer explained that boys are often more malnourished than girls because they have more freedom throughout the day to go out and play with friends. Girls are required to stay home and help their mothers with household chores, thus they have greater access to food.

Most of the children suffering from malnutrition in the school are experiencing Kwashiorkor malnutrition, a condition attributed to older siblings receiving more food within families and characterized by gaunt arms and legs, and bloated bellies.

30 million children in Africa are undernourished. To learn more about Operation Hunger’s attempt to combat this statistic, go to http://www.operationhunger.co.za/index.html.

17 December 2009

Sunday Brunch

I’m six beers deep rummaging through a 3-foot by 3-foot blue plastic bucket of chicken seeking to devour my next piece of meat. It’s a challenge to get past the many hands grabbing into the bucket; I’ve got to act fast to feast on the rapidly disappearing pile of poultry.

There are one hundred plus hungry mouths surrounding me and they’re all smeared with barbeque sauce, and dripping with beer. We don’t have napkins, or silverware, or even chairs. Our standing, at this point stumbling, bodies pack the entire township block for Mazoli’s barbeque. Booming beats and freestyle rap rhythms sound in the background. Smoke from sizzling meat fills remaining light in the sky just before sunset.

An hour prior to the raging feast, I was cheering bottles with students from the University of Cape Town. I even made drunken, pathetic attempts to spout out rhymes to rap music with some locals clad in shoulder boom boxes.

An hour before that I walked across the street to use the facilities. I had to meander through the masses crowding the street, shoulder bumping dancers and stepping on rappers’ toes.

An hour before that we ordered our protein bucket. My comrades laughed at me when I asked for a menu. The waitress took our order and asked where we might be sitting. “We’ll be around,” says my buddy Ned.

Ned has been in South Africa for half a year now. He’s study abroad at UCT and showing us around while our vessel is docked at the Waterfront. Ned casually suggested that morning that we go to a Sunday barbeque. It sounded low-key.

Ned brought us to the convenience store down the road upon arrival at the township. He pointed out that most of the people filling up the block were coming straight from church. He grabs a six-pack off the shelf, and I suggest we split it at lunch. Through chuckles he responds, “Get your own—you have some time to kill. I’m not sure you know what you’re getting yourself into. We’re going to a brai, for Christ’s sake!”

18 November 2009

Falling for the First Time

Travel stories wedged into those short four months at sea slowly surface in a variety of forms. When I told the story of skydiving in Cape Town over Table Mountain, I was speaking to a crowd of people at a Toastmaster’s meeting. Here's the speech:

I’m sitting in a plane with the side door wide open, clear goggles squeezing my ears together, engine noise blaring behind me, legs dangling off the side, and heart racing because I’m about to jump! I’m about to free-fall from 10,000 feet.

I'm about to go skydiving.

Some of my friends had dared to dive in Namibia and they raved about what an exhilarating experience it was. Some of my other friends had heard that it was cheap in South Africa. I’d never really even thought about skydiving before… not that it seemed unappealing, it had just never entered my mind.

But now it was all anyone could talk about. It was exhilarating and cheap: sold. I jumped on the bandwagon.

Last week when I researched “skydiving” I found out that it’s more common name is “parachuting.” I also found out that choosing where and when to skydive is a crucial decision that one should consider before they even decide to go. Some companies are not certified and others have higher accident rates, so many articles recommend researching which companies have more experienced instructors. Jumping from thousands of feet can be a dangerous activity and one should make sure he or she is in good hands. The average death due to parachuting is 30 out of every 100,000 jumps.

I definitely missed all those memos.

 In fact, I didn’t even think about the risks or technicalities involved. I was only going to be in Africa for a week and I was going to do something outrageous while I was there. While we sailed on the ship, we were only allotted 2 hours of internet time for the entire semester. Needless to say, I did absolutely no research for my upcoming adventure. I googled “Skydive South Africa” and chose the first link on the list. I opened the website’s contact information page and immediately signed offline so as to avoid using up any extra internet time. I called the number, made reservations, and that was that.

Skydive South Africa is a member of the Parachute Association of South Africa, a governing organization that keeps parachuting companies certified and safe. The organization’s website says that all first-time skydivers are required to sign a safety waiver before they jump. When I arrived at the jump site, a friend taped me signing this waiver in a “Hi Mom and Dad” style video. What I didn’t know at the time was that they should have been there with me. Legally, persons under 21 who skydive in South Africa need written permission from their guardians.

The Parachute Association’s webpage also explains that first timers must take a 6-hour instructional safety class before they even go up in the plane. I think my entire skydiving process- including driving to and from the site—took about half that. The guides strapped me into some coils and carabineers and practically threw me onto that rickety little puddle-jumper. Before I could even blink I was in the air, plane door open, with my instructor in my ear telling me it was time to go.

Most people are slightly scarred, if not terrified, to fall thousands of feet. There is a great deal of fear and anxiety that goes along with this extreme sport, and understandably so. It’s dangerous…especially if you haven’t done your research.

But honestly, I don’t think I would have ever gone if I had to search for the right location with specialized instructors. My experience was intensified because I had limited resources and only a few days to plan. But even if you are home with unlimited internet minutes, I’d say follow your gut and be spontaneous. And not just when it comes to parachuting… we could all use a little impulse here and there.

So back to the airplane. I did a tandem jump, which means that someone attached to your back pulls the parachute for you. Julianne, my instructor, told me to put my arms above my head and let my body fall naturally whenever I was ready. There was no hesitation- I was only going to get nervous if I thought seriously about what I was doing.

I raised my arms… and fell.

For three minutes that felt like 3 seconds my body catapulted across the skyline. Lips flapping and entire body tingling. I don’t think I blinked once. I didn’t breathe. I was screaming out of excitement and the indescribable, overpowering adrenaline flowing throughout every inch of me. It was the most alive I have ever felt.

And I think I am still coming down. 

This article has since been published on the Art of Backpacking website. 

08 November 2009

Asking Open-Ended Questions

One needn’t travel far from the Waterfront to realize that South Africa is indeed a country of contrast, of extreme degrees between people and their environments. A few miles from the Waterfront marks the edges of the township neighborhoods, what laymen’s terms can only call “ghettos” or “slums.” On both sides of the gravel pathways are shacks of slapdash bricks with holey, cracked tin roofs. Dust settles into the clothes drying on strings tied between neighbor’s windows. I see no adults anywhere, but children flock at my feet. Their smiles consume their entire faces.

Established in 1867, District Six is one of the oldest townships in South Africa. Until government declared it a white-only area in 1896, it was the only district that housed multiple races. I learned this at the District Six Township Museum, where I interviewed our guide and the only grown up I could find. Ivy was contagious. She called everyone baby and gave us big bear hugs when the day was over. I didn't know what to ask, I just wanted to talk to her.

Ivy taught me that the contrast between black and white is only the beginning of disparity in South Africa…

Me: Tell me about family structure here.

Ivy: Just like white families, men are the head of the house. A big part of black culture is to respect men as the dominant. It’s hardest for black women because we are inferior in our skin and our sex. South African black women are the most oppressed.

Me: Tell me about your employment.

Ivy: You know that image of a man on the couch reading the newspaper while his wife makes dinner? That is over baby.

Westernization has made women and men’s roles more 50/50. Well, maybe 48/52. Men are starting to share duties at home, and women are looking for better jobs.

Me: What do women do together outside of work?

Ivy: We don’t meet in the kitchen! We get together to keep up our spirits. We embroider, have tea parties, and talk.

Thanks for the in, Ivy. And more importantly, thanks for the bear hug.

01 October 2009

A Slice of Europe... at first glance, anyway

The southern tip of Africa is the merging of the Atlantic and Indian oceans, and thus the juncture of opposing waterfronts that create violent waves rocky enough to tilt the huge cruise ship in which I sleep. But not for long though; I’m abruptly awoken by a water glass siding across the counter and shattering in the sink in my cabin. I peer out the porthole to see only deep blue water and then only sky as the ship slants back and forth.

The orange ceramic mug that I bought in Namibia is still intact. I stumble between waves to snag it before it joins the glass shards in the sink, pull on my warmest wool cap and head outside into the chilly morning mist. I post up with my steaming coffee, eager to arrive in Cape Town. As we approach land, the port city emerges from the cloudy abyss. First I see the flat top of Table Mountain, and then crisp white and baby blue buildings appear in the horizon.

The sun rises as our ship slowly pulls into port. Baby seals, undisturbed by incoming vessels and people passing, bask in the first light on a wooden plank on the dock. We’ve arrived at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, a nautical metropolis that was once described to me as “a slice of Europe.”

I stand at the ship railing and gulp the now cold remains of my orange mug. The vision of a crisp, affluent Africa in front of me will soon be trampled by cultural stories, colorful people and distant neighborhoods that I visit in the following week.

24 September 2009

Countries as Appetizers

Of all the reasons to travel, trying new foods is high on my list. Much thanks to foodie parents, I’ve adopted the “try everything once” attitude that served my plate and palate well around the globe. On the last day in Namibia, I went back to to Kücki’s Pub for round two of the most delectable, garlic infused and dripping with cheese, melt-in-your-mouth oysters that were so good you had to close your eyes while you slurped them out of the shell.

They were a definite step up from the fried cheese dripping with maple syrup that I ate in Brazil, though even that was unexpectedly delicious.

Namibian adventures concluded with that plate of oysters, but the world sampling would continue in South Africa.

15 September 2009

Starry Starry Night

Of his many profundities, Vincent VanGogh said, “For my part I know nothing with any certainty but the sight of the stars makes me dream.” I’d like to think that he painted Starry Starry Night shortly after that statement. Although notorious and mass-produced around us, I do believe that its brush strokes have a mesmerizing, captivating effect; the piece is truly timeless.

VanGogh also said that when he felt the need for “religion” he would simply go and paint the stars. After camping in Africa, I think he’s on to something. And I think I'll write the stars instead...

The depths of remote and rocky Namibian desert yield stars galore, so many that night becomes day with the entire universe glowing above. When I close my eyes I still see that velvet blue sky speckled with yellow glimmers, free from trees or buildings or obstruction of any sort. Just thousands of bright dots above.

Flickering candles in white paper bags filled with sand illuminate the ground around me, creating ground paths to The Namib Marimbas band playing Namibia’s national anthem in the distance. I sit fireside between rock formations echoing the line of xylophones and drums. I awake in the morning wreaking of campfire soot, and wondering if I dreamed the entire scene.

01 September 2009


From makeshift soccer games to sand boarding the massive sand dunes that surround the country, skydiving over the desert, or even driving speedy cabs along the shoreline, Namibians are people in constant motion. They contrast their barren surroundings and make even the smallest towns seem sizable with bustle. In between the towns is when I become aware that I am in one of the least populated countries in the world.

The cab ride from Walvis Bay up the coast to Swakopmund is one of my more vivid memories from the entire voyage, perhaps because I became surrounded by 360 degrees of sand instead of water.

Only separated by a thin strip of highway, the white beach merges into skyscraping sand dunes. We travel a half hour before seeing any verve; finally we notice a tattered ship rocking next to a sandbar. Our cab driver crushes our excitement about a potential pirate ship, or signs of any life in general, when he tells us that the ship has been wrecked for more than two years.

We zoom further North through sand and dust clouds to arrive in Swakopmund, a beach resort spot with no tourists. During the week to follow hundreds of American students would mob the town’s variety of hostels, shoreline market, and three small bars that quickly ran out of tequila but seemed to produce an endless stream of Jagermeister. Once a province owned by Germany. Namibia maintains many of its colonial roots.

At sunset we walk past half-timber style buildings to The Tug Restaurant pier, which I later read about in a SkyAfrica on a plane in South Africa. The magazine rates the eatery as one of the top ten in the world to enjoy the sunset. It’s truly breathtaking. It’s so mesmerizing, in fact, that all I can write in my journal that night is picturesque pier.

Almost a year later those are still the only words I can think of.

06 June 2009

"Welcome to Walvis Bay"

Men with what I can tell to be dreadlocks, or maybe braids, kick around a ball of duct tape, at least it looks like duct tape from where I’m standing. They wear navy blue jumpsuits, which have to be relieving in the chilly morning air.

A train steams by miles of trucks and wooden panels. The horizon of my vision reveals warehouses and a large water tower that reads “Welcome to Walvis Bay.” My gaze is brought back to the workers as they collide kicking the make shift ball. I unsuccessfully stretch on my tiptoes to distinguish their words. I’m seven stories above them, floating in the dock as the crew from my ship splashes its already shiny sides with fresh soap and water.

I repack my bag before disembarking the ship. I add socks and extra layers- it’s freezing here. When I reach the dock, the duct tape ball kickers have resumed their work packing nearby trucks. They smile and wave frantically at the hundreds of foreign students pouring out of the spotless ship that contrasts boldly with the dusty town.

My group and I walk about a quarter mile to the gates of the port. We walk past many more blue jumpsuits and wooden panels, past barbed wire and over metal tracks. When we reach the base of the welcoming water tower, I see a naked woman caked in dirt sitting in the road. Adorned with only beads around her neck, she nurses her newborn. She’s planted on one of many tapestries laid out in the street to display wooden bowls and masks and carved jewelry for sale. Her spot is across the street from a drive-through KFC.

As we sailed through the Atlantic the night before, I couldn’t sleep. In my dark cabin I scribbled in my journal…

I’ve never considered visiting Africa before this trip. I love that I don’t know what to expect.

20 May 2009

'Slum Tourism'

I recently discovered WorldHum, a very well-developed online travel magazine. I am so hooked.

Eva Holland, thank you for keeping it real with her article, "Brazilian Favelas, 'Top Model' Style." Her discerning commentary is almost too kind.

11 April 2009

Obrugado or da?

There was a certain degree of sadness in my writing as we sailed away from each port. Just when I gathered my bearings, met a friend, or just generally felt comfortable in a new place, it would be time to board the MV Explorer and venture to a new land of unknown.

As we sailed to Namibia I couldn't believe how much I had gotten out of only the first port. I left my journal with some final words of wisdom from South America...

I learned that Brazillians kiss long and hard with lots of tongue, often with many people per night. I learned that fried bananas are probably the only way anyone should eat bananas. I learned that to articulate 'thank you' in Portuguese, women say 'Obrigada' and men say 'Obrigado.'

And finally... I learned that smiles are universal, n
o matter the language of the mouths making them.

Obrigada, Brazil. You treated me well.

18 March 2009

Capoeira Lessons

This is my friend Diego Soledade.

He lives in Lencois, Brazil, which is a place that you should add to your list of places to go before you die if you are any sort of adventurer, climber, tree-hugger, or basically any type of person who enjoys the outdoors.

Diego leads precarious 6-hour, 10km treks to the Lencois waterfalls from the cobblestone town. He arrived at our hostile barefoot and stayed that way all day. This agile, energetic individual can do some amazing flips and flops from the cliffs that he's touring.

He's also incredible at Capoeira, an ancient Afro-Brazillian dance and martial arts ritual. You can check out the youtube link I've got up, or you can scope some of my pictures of Diego and his friends giving us a private show in the "Bob Marley Shrine Bar," as I like to call it, after the hike. I've never seen more Bob Marley images in a smaller space.

17 March 2009

Letters Home

I sift through journal pages and notice a common theme: letters.

My normal methods of communication ceased to exist during the trip; students were limited to a mere 2 hours of Internet for the entire voyage and my cell phone became a foreign object. In fact, I still forget it constantly after months of being home.

Far removed from my reality, in the middle of the ocean and unfamiliar territories, I think I reached out by writing to those whom I missed.

I wrote the first letter the same day of the flip-flop drop. With wet feet I traveled on a guided bus to the outskirts of Salvador and Bahia to the Saramandaia community. These outskirts communities are called favelas, which roughly translated in English are slums. The word slums, however is not only degrading but also presents a connotation of poverty that cannot even skim the surface of the depths of the conditions in Brazil. It even suggests a level of ignorance that the people living there might possess. What these Saramandaians lack in what I might call “formal education”, though, they compensate for in innovativeness and street smarts.

Upon arrival we met the leaders of the Grupo Cultural Arte Consciente, a grassroots movement devoted to reducing violence among children in the favela. Many community members teach the children boxing, acrobatics, dancing, drumming and painting to foster their skills and promote neighborhood peace.

On the way to Saramandaia I saw a man flying a kite on the highway. I saw another man riding his horse, weaving in and out of zipping cars. Culture shock was quickly setting in… and this letter is proof of my boggled mind that day.

Dear Professor

Before I left for my voyage, you advised me to “document, document, document.” You told me to take endless pictures so that I might use them in my future journalism endeavors, and you reminded me to always keep my audience in mind.

I’m afraid that I have already failed your mission on the first day in port at the first port of the journey. I’ve landed in Salvador, Brazil. My lack of prior knowledge about Salvador has sheltered me to the extreme poverty that I witness as I walk the streets of this favela. Skeletal children walk barefoot in dirt, scraps of metal and what I gather from scent can only be human waste. Mothers and countless children crowd into windows of shacks to watch a large tour bus of Americans invade their grounds. Tattered, ripped clothing lines the fences for hang drying.

Colorful. Chaotic. Filthy. Crowded. Disheveled. Perhaps the most shocking element is that these people are alive. The bold graffiti they paint on any visible surface throughout their neighborhoods reflects the reality of their being. The artwork sings a song, it dances to their drums, it tells their story. Every inch surrounding them become their canvas.

In your classes I’ve learned that my main objective as a journalist is to tell someone else’s story in the most vivid way possible. My job is to jot quotations, snap photographs and create a tale with my words and images. These tales then become my artwork. I cannot do my job as a journalist today. In order for me to “document, document, document,” someone else’s reality becomes my artwork. And I don’t feel quite right about it.

I’m putting the camera away for now. Instead of my lens I will use my eyes. The only audience I can document for right now is myself. I might not be doing my job as a journalist, but I think I’m doing my job as a human.

For more information about Grupo Cultural Arte Consciente, email Alex ou Fabio at programarteconsciente@hotmail.com

03 February 2009

Off on the right foot

The MV Explorer, cruise ship turned floating campus, arrives first in Brazil. After a week of only seeing 360 degrees of waves and sky, 650 slightly seasick, disorientated students pour out of the vessel and onto the cobblestone pavement of the port in Salvador. I have a field trip scheduled, so I wait outside the ship for the rest of my group to arrive. I walk to the side of the dock, scoping out the surrounding boats and ships. How strange to see life outside my new little ship bubble. Another ship is pulling in next to mine and a rowboat of fisherman is anchored nearby. I flop down on the dock and pop my foot out to sit cross-legged when off flops my flip-flop into the ocean. Great. My first step into a new country is going to a barefooted one.

Before I even have a chance to react, one of the fishermen anchored for lunch dives away from his companions into the ocean and swims fluidly to rescue my floating flop! Tired from the swim, his strapping shoulders hoist him back onto his boat. Immediately he turns back to me, waving with a wide smile. He and his fellow fishermen mutter to one another in what I can only assume to be Portuguese.

On the way to my field trip in the bus I write, My reality is warped- where I am in unfathomable and these people are real and warm. No expectations… surreal results. Then I apologize to my neighbor for the puddle on the bus floor from my soaking wet shoe.