November 27, 2010

I'm back!

Ok. So obviously a substantial amount of time has elapsed since my last post- my apologies. I have to admit, nothing extraordinary prevented me from posting, I just simply put off the task of writing. Something tells me it may be residual from the large bouts of procrastination I experienced while writing my senior thesis, but who knows. 

I am enjoying my time here so much that I actually extended my stay from five weeks to eight weeks. Extending my time really enabled me to really feel like a resident of Cape Town, as opposed to feeling like a tourist with only a short amount of time to take everything in. It really has been an education (and a privilege) getting to know the city and some of its people on a different level. 

Having Thanksgiving in another hemisphere was a first. Some of the volunteers got together and cooked us a lovely dinner – not my mom’s Thanksgiving, but it was so nice to have a slice of home all the way over here. The CCS staff were so accommodating in letting us celebrate (and take over their kitchen for a few days). Sometimes I think I write in too many clich├ęs, but being here has really shown me what it really means to be thankful.

Yesterday was the final meeting that we as volunteers would have with our coordinators here at CCS before our departures next weekend. All the volunteers went around and spoke about their experiences with volunteer placements and as a whole in Cape Town. I wasn’t expecting it, but when my turn came to speak, I was overcome with emotion-it’s been a while since I actually cried.

In essence, I said that my time in South Africa has been a true lesson in compassion, not only for the children I volunteer to help, but for the women who work at the care center who I now call friends, the ever-so-patient CCS staff, my new friends who feel a lot more like family, and even for myself. I came to Cape Town knowing that I would leave a different person, but the magnitude of this experience’s effect has really just blindsided me. Life has truly changed for me here, though I can't exactly say just how. I have promised to myself to try and always keep the lessons I have learned here close to my heart.

I have mixed feelings about going home next week. On one hand, my arrival home marks the end of a grand adventure, and my return to a perhaps all-too-familiar life awaits.  But on the other, I can’t wait to hug my family and friends.  I’m ready to see what kind of person that South Africa has made me into. But for now, I'm looking forward to just soaking it all up for one more week.

Can’t wait to see you all xoxo

October 31, 2010

For that I am happy and grateful

Welcome to Project Carry-On: Halloween Edition!

(Note: This post actually has nothing to do with Halloween, because the only people who celebrate it in South Africa are American/European students and volunteers. But because I know so many of you at home are enjoying your favorite day of the year, I had to at least mention that I am actually aware of what day it is. )

Last week, in a conversation with a new friend (one of the care workers at my placement), we spoke about the political and social status of South Africa. At one point, she said, “South Africa is black and white, really any way you look at it.” 

The context of this statement revolved around my friend’s perspective that the South African government overlooks coloured people (this is the title given to mixed-race people in South Africa; it’s not an un-pc term like it is in the US). Now, I don’t feel as if giving my own commentary on group discrimination by the South African government is at all significant here, seeing as I’ve only been in the country for three weeks. However, her “black and white” comment resonated with me, and I think it’s a good metaphor for my experience.

As I’ve said previously, the disparity between the rich and the poor in Cape Town is quite obvious. But I feel like it is SO difficult to get across how glaringly polar it is. I didn’t realize when I arrived in SA how much I would contribute to this disparity. After I do my volunteering in a poor area with kids who come from low-income families, I usually go home and spend money.  I sometimes feel torn between these two different worlds- working in poor areas and attempting to make a selfless contribution to the greater good, and then going and spending money on meals, drinks, and touristy excursions that seem so extravagant after spending time on the other side.

It really hit me just how privileged I am when the same friend told me that as a head waiter at a restaurant, her husband only makes 150 Rand (about $22) a WEEK as base pay. He has to make the rest off of tips from patrons, and if shifts are slow, then the family really struggles to make ends meet. But it’s all just the way of life for her- she wasn’t complaining, just trying to show me that getting by is still a struggle for many people in SA, even after the end of Apartheid.

I’m not trying to elicit pity for anyone here; I simply want to give a glimpse into what I observe every day. It’s always a hot topic of discussion between the volunteers.  Spending time in the townships gives me an even greater appreciation for what I have- not only in terms of material items- but also for opportunities like this.  It’s so incredibly refreshing to step outside of my comfort zone, every single day.

After three weeks here, I’ve decided that this trip is really just about compassion. Compassion not only for the kids and women I work with, but also for my fellow volunteers, myself, and for humanity as a whole. There obviously is much work to be done, but I am here willing to do my part, however small it may be. And for that I am happy and grateful.  The experiences I have and the relationships I am building here will forever shape me, and for that too, I am happy and grateful.

Love, xoxo
Laura

It's a penguin!
At Boulders Beach Penguin Colony

Erin and I are trying to blend in with the 80 Japanese people who had just taken a photo at this sign

October 24, 2010

Hi! 

Before I begin, I must just say thank you! Many of you have reached out to me, sending encouragement, support, and love. I am really truly deeply touched, thank you for following along on my journey. It means so much to have people like you all in my life! 

Anyways, it's been a lovely week 2 full of fun here in ZA. Yet even in a new place, with new people and new experiences all the time, monotony still happens. The most relevant example of this is my volunteer placement. I've only been in for two weeks, but I've fallen into the routine, which now that I think about it, it's just want I want. What initially was novelty is becoming normality. I'm getting to know the kids' personalities everyday, and may even have a few favorites (oops). The more time I spend with them, the more I know this is where I'm supposed to be. And even though it might seem menial, pushing little girls on the swings and blowing bubble is what I do here. Nothing is better right now than getting a smile or giggle. 

I am really enjoying the company of my fellow volunteers. We're really only apart for 4-5 hours a day while we are at our volunteer placements, and we all get along so well when we are together! After two short weeks, I really feel like we are a little family. It's fascinating to lean about these peoples' lives and what led them to Cape Town. It's definitely a comfort while being in such a foreign place to be in the company of people who share the desire to be of service, they are amazing!

We had a lovely Saturday yesterday, visiting a fantastic farmer's market called the "Old Biscuit Mill" - full of fresh, local food set up in stands by vendors.  Seriously, any type of food one could want, fresh juices, amazing coffee, wine, and beer, yummy desserts, and flowers so pretty that I had to take pictures :) all housed in two big tents. It was like they brought every amazing restaurant in Cape Town to us! After the Biscuit Mill, we headed out to Cape Mental Health's annual Kite Festival- CMH runs the special care center I volunteer at, so we had to go support! The sky was full of huge, colorful kites- so gorgeous with mountains in the background. And of course since we were surrounded by kites, I had to take pictures in the Theta pose! For those of you who don't know, my college sorority Kappa Alpha Theta uses kites in its symbology, and Thetas take lots of kite pics! Another volunteer here is a Theta from California, so we broke out our letters and took some pics. So fun!  We also spent some time at the beach, but it was windy so we didn't stay too long. Chalk up another fabulous day in Africa!


Gorgeous flowers at the farmer's market!
Cheesy? Ok maybe :)

Hope you all had a super weekend too! Lots of love!


Laura XO

October 19, 2010

Internal Conflict

Hey all,

Sorry for not writing for a while, I've experienced so much since I've been here! My volunteer placement is lovely, I work at a care center for intellectually disabled children ages 4-21. Last week and into this week I've been helping out in the classroom with the older kids who are mostly 12 and up- all of them are non-verbal (though this does not mean they don't make noise!) and are quite low functioning intellectually. Spending the day with these kids has been challenging and also enlightening; it can be hard at times to maintain enthusiasm when the possibility of forming any sort of social bond with them is so slim. I am going to see tomorrow if I might be able to spend some time with the younger children, just so I get the chance to try and get to know the personalities of all the kids at the center.

The director and 3 care workers at the center are great, all cracking jokes and laughing all the time. They really do a great job working with the limited resources available to them.  There are also volunteers who come and go, like the two German girls who were there last week before leaving on friday to volunteer at another care center, also run by Cape Mental Health.

Outside of volunteer placement, my experience here has provoked me to really examine the social consequences that still remain from the time of Apartheid. Like I said in one of my previous posts, we went for a tour of one of the many townships and got to see up close what it looks like to live there. Every day on the way to my placement, we drive past miles and miles of rusted metal shacks. It's not just  in movies. People really live like that. SO MANY PEOPLE really live like that here. Thousands and thousands. The unemployment rate in South Africa is around 43%, and it's obvious that the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer everyday. To make matters much worse, neighboring Zimbabwe has a 90% (yes, 90%) unemployment rate, and an estimated 50% (YES, 50%) of that country's population are now living in South Africa. The immigration crisis here is similar to what is going on with the US and Mexico. People are fleeing political and economic instability as well as violence only to be met with fierce resentment in the place where they seek safe haven. All of this has started to eat at me; I sometimes feel guilty for having the things I have and for the opportunities I have been allowed in this life.

Here are some pictures I shot during our day in the townships:





This weekend, group of volunteers spent two days touring the gorgeous vineyards of Stellenbosch, just outside of Cape Town. We ate, drank, and enjoyed each others' company in a very, very, lavish surroundings. Yet sometimes it was hard to ignore the feeling of guilt for spending money on something as superflous as wine tasting knowing that there were kids less than 45 minutes away who were starving.   While it was an absolutely beautiful experience with the best company, it definitely made me question my own effectiveness (if there was even any to begin with) in defeating the cycle of poverty that prevents true human equality here. The disparity is glaring - but also, what am I really doing to make it less so? Just something I've become aware of in the last week.

Anyways, I hope you all are quite well and that I didn't depress you too much. I am going to try and post a few pictures (cheetah "encounter," vineyards and wine, botanical gardens)... I will upload all of them when I get home, because to put them all on Facebook here would be way too expensive. Enjoy :)

All my love,
Laura










October 11, 2010

Long-winded

Molo from Cape Town, South Africa!


Between my travel adventures and going through orientation for my volunteer placement, there is SO MUCH to tell you!

Let me first address some experiences from travelling alone. In my travels to South Africa, I met so many different people, all so willing to share their stories with me.  There was the history professor who missed the same flight to Joburg that I wasn’t able to get on; she and I ended up sharing a meal together in Atlanta and talking about everything from urban planning to sustainable farming to our mutual Diet Coke habit. So fun!  PS- if you are ever in downtown Atlanta, go to The Flying Biscuit- you will not be disappointed :)

Then there was the female missionary with her two sons who said she was on her way home to Swaziland to say goodbye to her brother dying of AIDS and told me she only had $20 to her name. She had been saving for years for her and her two sons to go back to Africa. She asked me where my husband and children were... the shocked look on her face was pretty amusing when I told her that I wasn’t married, nor did I have any children. It got even more awkward when she pressed me about my religious beliefs… How do you tell a woman who believes that God speaks to her in her dreams that you have no idea what you believe in? I did my best to slide around the subject, and she came around after I told her that I would be spending my time in South Africa volunteering my time.  Quite the convo.

Finally, there was the very attractive young southern gentleman who pulled a knife out of his pocket in the security line in Atlanta… I was ready to hit the deck. Turned out he had forgotten it was in his pocked and threw it into the garbage can. He then proceeded to break down in tears while telling me that he had just booked the flight and sped to the airport because he had just gotten news that his father had died. I did my best to console him while also trying to get through security in a relatively timely manner… it was heartbreaking to see a man who I didn’t even know in such pain. I sure do hope that he got to wherever he was going as soon and as uneventfully as he could.

I got on the plane from Atlanta to Africa the second time around… yay! Ate 3 weird airplane meals, watched 5 movies, and landed 15 hours later in Joburg.  The rest of the trip to Cape Town was equally as uneventful. I arrived at the CCS house safe and have been falling in love with the country ever since! The group of volunteers is fabulous, I truly feel very lucky to share this experience with them already!

Yesterday we did a driving tour of Cape Town- kinda meh because there was such massive cloud cover/fog. Fun Cape Town Fact: When the clouds partially block the view of Table Mountain (google image it), it is called the “Table Cloth.” Tee-hee. We got to get out in a few places, and took some cool pictures, and it was great to at least get a small glimpse into the city centre of the Mother City.

Today was totally life-changing. We were met in the morning by Mama Ivy, a woman who takes CCS volunteers to visit the several townships of Cape Town, one of which she lives in. There is no way to adequately put into words the impact of what I saw and experienced today. Tin-roofed shacks are no longer something I’ve only seen in National Geographic, but now are very real representations post-apartheid reality in Cape Town. We visited a pre-school housed in what looked like a giant storage locker- and were greeted by 40-something shrieking children rushing the door.  It actually took a few minutes for all 12 of us volunteers to get into the school because we had to wade through all of these kids who had latched onto our legs. They then sang songs for us- I will post a video when I find my usb cord.  It was incredibly moving, I have never been so aware of what innocence looks like.  We also went to an HIV/AIDS outreach compound and visited more kids, learned about the life-skills and after-school programs they have to keep teens off the streets, and met some women who made clothing and quilts to make money. They were all housed in this single compound, which was funded by the Elton John Foundation. The whole experience was so moving, making me even more excited to start at my placement tomorrow. Do you think they do it that way because of that?

If you have stayed with me this far, I’ll say I’m very impressed. Tomorrow is my first day at my volunteer placement- can’t wait! I’ll let you all know soon how it goes. Love and light to you all, thanks for following me!

Namaste
Laura

October 7, 2010

The Space Available Saga

Hello hello hello.
So. Sorry I didn't update on my packing activities as promised,  but here's a recap-


To me, packing may be quite possibly the most unpleasant part of this trip. Who really wants to spend time deciding what they can live without if absolutely necessary for 2 months? Luckily, I snagged some awesome vacuum-sealy-thingy bags that allowed me to pack enough clothes to assuage my fear of packing only in a carry-on suitcase. I managed to fit everything (minus my yoga mat - SAD DAY) into the suitcase and my giant Vera Bradley tote (pictures to follow once I track down a USB cord). No one in their right mind would actually consider that enormous tote a purse, except for the airlines, so lucky me! So yay, I now have the awesome task of lugging 70ish pounds of carry-on luggage through four airports for three days of travel. Not that I'm actually complaining, because having my bags with me is majorly awesome right about now. Let me tell you why.


For those of you who are not aware, I have the usually super, but sometimes not-so-fantastic ability to fly stand-by because my lovely mother works for United. Leaving home today, full of hope and optimism, I got the very last seat on the United flight from Denver to Atlanta, where I was then supposed to catch a 15 hour flight to Johannesburg. Stepping off the first leg of my journey, I was riding the standby-high. I got to my next gate stationed myself right in front of the agent counter, like a puppy waiting to be picked up and taken home. As boarding started, I started to get anxious. There were SO MANY PEOPLE. Let me tell you, though flying standby is way cheaper than purchasing an actual ticket, the psychological anguish it causes can be enough to make you want to buy two tickets in order to be doubly sure you can get on a plane. Basically, long (and otherwise uneventful) story short, I sat and tried to use deep yoga breathing to keep me from bursting into tears as they gave the last seat away to the woman who was one space ahead of me on the standby list. ARRRGH! Seriously? Seriously.


After calling the mamasita in tears, I composed myself... ish. Went to the ticket counter, rebooked for the next flight to Joburg, and headed to a hotel in Atlanta, where I sit now- with all my belongings.  Had I checked a bag, it would be in South Africa, and I would be wearing the same thing for at least three days straight - gross. But anyways, while I wait for my next space-available adventure to begin, I'm going to check out this great looking restaurant called The Flying Biscuit (www.flyingbiscuit.com) and get me some southern grits and fried green tomatoes. Om nom nom. I guess there is something to be said for blessings in disguise :)


Stay tuned, hopefully my next post will actually be from South Africa.


Love love love to you all,


LG

September 26, 2010

Here I go!

Hi Friends- Thanks for taking time to visit my little piece of the internet :)

I’ve decided to write this blog as a little side project as I take on my first big, post-Colorado College adventure to Africa! My intention in writing this blog is to fill you – my fabulous friends and family - in on my travel triumphs and blunders, as well as of any other adventures that seem relatively entertaining as I venture halfway across the world.

Let me begin by giving you a short explanation why I am going to Africa. As most college seniors do (or I would assume, at least contemplate doing) when graduation looms, I gave in to some *panicked* impulsivity when I decided to go on this trip. ("What?! No more structure? Years until I actually go to nursing school? Free time? What the hell am I going to do with my life?!") Going to Africa was always something in the back of my mind, yet never actually given serious deliberation. But a few weeks before graduation (most likely in a procrastinating state), I sat down and Googled: Volunteer Africa.

I looked through a couple of organizations' websites and found one that seemed well put together (www.crossculturalsolutions.org). I emailed Cross Cultural Solutions (CCS) asking for references from previous volunteers (which I ended up never actually checking... sorry Mom). Then, about a week later, I put a deposit down for five weeks of volunteering in Cape Town, South Africa. I think that I decided on Cape Town because it seemed like one of the farthest places I could get from Colorado. But in reality, I didn’t really put that much thought into it, or really ask for anyone's input. For once in my life, I just decided to do something without thinking through every. single. ridiculous. detail. My heart and my mind both yelled “JUST DO IT ALREADYDO IT NOW!” So, I did. Being the crazy meticulous planner that I am, it was quite out of the ordinary to do something so impulsive (or at least "impulsive" to me). Yet it just felt simply and totally right.

I’m afraid I’ve left many people in the dark regarding what I am actually going to do as a volunteer. I do apologize, but I can tell you now though because I just found out myself! I will be volunteering in one of four children's care centers/schools run by the Cape Mental Health Society (www.capementalhealth.co.za). I will be working with children who have both physical and intellectual disabilities. For those of you interested, the basic outline of my volunteer responsibilities (given to me by CCS) is below:
  • Assist the teachers with the daily program at the center  
  • Interact with the children in a group setting and one-on-one  
  • Engage the children in movement exercises  
  • Assist with massage and occupational therapy  
  • Assist the teachers and caregivers with administrative tasks  
  • Assist with transport and feeding of children  
  • Assist in implementing stimulating activities   
I am THRILLED with my volunteer placement. Beyond thrilled, actually. For those of you who don’t know, I have spent the last two summers in New York working at the Southampton Fresh Air Home, a camp for kids and teens who have physical disabilities (www.sfah.org). Working at SFAH, getting to know the staff and kids,  has changed my life. Nowhere else have I experienced moments of sheer joy and pure happiness like I have at SFAH. I know it may sound cheesy, and that’s ok. I just hope that at one point in all of your lives that each of you finds something that makes you feel just as euphoric. And now, to be able to take the lessons learned from my experiences in New York and use them in Africa- how cool is that?

I officially leave the United States in 11 days.  In my next post, I’ll tell you how packing for two months away from home in one CARRY ON suitcase turns out.  Stay tuned… :)
Namaste, xoxo

Laura, LG, Lego