Spring break 2k15: Mountains and beaches and wine, oh my!

Like omg spring break 2k15 YAAAAAS! (Sorry to the adults who may not understand this.) I just spent an incredible week in Cape Town for spring break, which was definitely one of the best weeks of my life. I spent all of it exploring Cape Town with great friends, views, food, and adventures. It was really nice to be away from the group – it’s sooo nice not to have to make group decisions with 33 other people all the time. We were running on our own time, yet still planning really well and making every day count. At the end of each day, I seriously couldn’t have imagined them going better; we were always busy but never rushed.

I stayed in a group of 10 people (Sophie, Emily, Mariam, Ben, Jeff, David, Kristie, Katie Mac, Cece, and myself) in two apartments, five people in each. We arrived on Tuesday, March 17th, but didn’t get to the apartments until mid-afternoon. They’re located right in the “bowl” of Cape Town (the main area), walking distance from the V&A waterfront and other main parts of town. The apartments were right next to each other, and identical. Each one had 1 bedroom with a queen-size bed, 2 sofa beds, 1 bathroom, a kitchen, and a small balcony overlooking the city and with a great view of Table Mountain (disclaimer: every apartment in Cape Town has a view of Table Mountain. Don’t go thinking that we pushed our student budgets enough to get some fancy schmancy place). After settling in a bit, we walked to the grocery store to buy food for the week. South Africa is generally much cheaper than the U.S., even in Cape Town, but not as cheap as Vietnam – we’re slowly working our way towards what the prices will be in Argentina.

Cape Town has been a completely different experience than that in Joburg and Bushbuckridge – though it is a big tourist trap, it’s full of people of different races, cultures, and nationalities. It also is a fantastic place to visit just because of the variety of activities – there are mountains and hiking trails, beaches, wineries and vineyards, city life, museums, and so much more. There’s something for everyone!

Wed. 3/18 – Sophie, Mariam, Jeff and I walked to the V&A (Victoria and Alfred) waterfront and explored before lunch, finding outdoor music, craft markets, and souvenir shops. IMG_5225There’s also a big mall there with a lot of fancy restaurants outside, right on the water, which look nice but didn’t appeal to me (or my wallet). The waterfront is absolutely beauuuutiful – there are lots of boats, bridges, and even seals in the water! We visited a few museums as much as we could without paying to enter (we kind of just wanted to walk around), then went to lunch at this incredible food market, filled with booths of so many types of food and tons of tastings, like fruits and vegetables, nuts, dried fruit, and chocolate (basically all my favorite things). The market was like heaven for everyone: Tunisian food, Indian, vegan, salad, flatbreads, juices/smoothies, Mexican, and anything and everything else you can think of. I had an amazing lunch from the Tunisian place of IMG_5223chickpea roti (basically a wrap with spiced chickpeas and vegetables) and lots of fresh veggies (spinach, tomato & cucumber, roasted eggplant & onions, peppers) on the side. AND HUMMUS. I also found hummus in the supermarket on Tuesday and purchased it immediately, but it was such a small container – clearly South Africans don’t value their hummus like I do. My entire lunch was 50 rand, which is under $5 – YES. We also ran into our friends Zack and Maddy and had lunch with them.

After lunch, we walked to Bo Kapp, which is a neighborhood in town of extremely colorful houses. Apparently they repaint them a different color every year! It’s also a mostly Muslim neighborhood, with multiple (colorful) mosques in only a few square blocks. After walking back to the apartment, the four of us and Emily got a taxi to Clifton beach to watch the sunset. This beach IMG_5238was absolutely gorgeous – mountains on each side, rows of houses along the hill, and beautiful (albeit cold) water. Zack and Maddy met us there with South African wine in tow to celebrate Emily finishing an interview and a wonderful first day in Cape Town. After returning to the apartment and cooking dinner, we went to another IHP apartment a few blocks away from ours and hung out – so many of us reunited after just one day! This was one of the best days ever – all of us kept saying IMG_5077that if we could describe our perfect day, this would be it. Exploring without a time crunch, with good food, and good company – all I need!

Thurs. 3/19 – Today all 10 of us hiked Table Mountain! I would say that every tourist in South Africa visits Table Mountain, because you can take a tram to and from the top without hiking, so anyone can get up there. We decided hike up the Skeleton Gorge Trail, which starts on the opposite side of the mountain, and it also starts in Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. So we started our day around 10:30 walking through these incredible gardens (they remind me of Longwood Gardens near Philly), and began hiking straight up the mountain. What was cool about this trail is that it was a mix of what I’m calling hiking “mediums” – it was a mix of steep incline, steps, wooden ladders, and large boulders, all of IMG_5256which were in a heavily forested area, then slowly but surely, dirt paths through short brush (it reminded me of Arizona) and super skinny trees as we climbed to higher elevation. The change in environment made it so much more exciting! It took us a little over 1.5 hours to get to our lunch spot (this is the first of my 3 pictures featuring vegetables on a mountain), then an hour or so until we reached Maclear’s Beacon, which is the highest point on Table Mountain. From there, it was an hour or so until we reached the “table” of the mountain, which is where the tram goes, with a café, souvenir shop, and all things touristy. We hung out at the top for a while, then 4 girls took the tram down, and Sophie, Emily, Ben, Jeff, David, and I walked down via the Platteklip Trail – this trail was STRAIGHT down. We chose the two different trails so we could see the most of IMG_5104the mountain, and we knew the first trail was longer and that the second was shorter and steeper. This second trail was literally just straight down the mountain, so we were taking huge steps and being really careful not to fall – this was one of the many instances I wish I had my hiking boots with me! But ain’t nobody got room/extra weight in their suitcase for that. Midway down, my legs were shaking uncontrollably, just like they did after we hiked to a cave in Lac Village in Vietnam and had to walk down 1,215 stairs. It took us 1.5 hours to get to the bottom, and my legs were sore for 2 days afterward, but all in all, the entire hike was amazing. The views from all over the mountain were fantastic – you could see all the way to Cape of Good HIMG_5271ope, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet! Table Mountain is considered one of the 7 Wonders of Nature, so this is the 2nd of those that I’ve seen on this trip (the first was Ha Long Bay in Vietnam)! Since I’m already at 2/7, I probablyyyy should check the other 5 off my list in the future J

Fri. 3/20 – Speaking of Cape of Good Hope, 6 of us (Emily, Sophie, Mariam, Ben, Jeff, and I) spent the day traveling there and making stops along the way, thanks to a taxi driver, Zungu, whom we met on the way back from Table Mountain. Zungu offered us a great deal to have him drive us for the day, and he was quite a character. First we stopped at IMG_5117Muizenberg Beach, where a few of us actually got in the water (I wish I could say I did, but I’m too much of a wimp with cold oceans). We hung around on the beach for a bit, and ran into 6 of our other friends who were doing the same day trip as us. After getting back in the car, we drove through Kalk Bay and Simonstown, both of which are super quirky towns in which I would’ve loved to stop, but unfortunately, we didn’t have time. They were full of great restaurants and local crafts and all things hipster. Our next stop was at Boulders Beach, which is a penguin beach! We saw lots of penguins walking on the shore, swimming in the water, and sleeping in these little crates under trees. There were opportunities to swim with them, but we didn’t plan for that :(IMG_5305

Our next and final stop was the Cape of Good Hope National Park! There were two lookout points, the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point, and though you can hike from one to the other, unfortunately we didn’t have time to do it. We climbed to the highest point at the Cape of Good Hope, which was pretty much empty, so we had this incredible view all to ourselves. Then we drove to Cape Point and climbed to the lighthouse, with a 360 degree view of the surrounding water (the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and False Bay). I originally thought that this was the southernmost tip of the African continent, but it turns out there’s another Cape to the east that’s actually more southern – oops. The pamphlet from the park says it’s the most southwestern point in all of Africa, sIMG_5141o I’ll go with that. Also, though the Atlantic and Indian Oceans do kind of meet here, it’s only their currents that meet, not the exact “line” that divides the oceans – the currents meet in False Bay (maybe why it’s called False Bay? Not sure).


Moments before it almost mauled us

Today was the first of our two near-death experiences. When we got to Cape Point, we walked through the parking lot to go to the bathroom before climbing to the lighthouse, and we saw a baboon sitting on the ledge right outside the bathroom! We had heard and seen signs warning us about baboons in the area, but we didn’t expect to actually see one. There were lots of people taking pictures of it, and a ranger standing by making sure people didn’t get too close. Ben had taken an apple out of his backpack before we saw the baboon, and when we saw it, the ranger told him to throw the apple if the baboon advanced towards us. Sure enough, the baboon immediately starts walking, or “babogging” (baboon jogging, if you will – I’m on a plane and just made that up for some personal laughs during our first of three long flights to Buenos Aires; sorry if you don’t think it’s funny) toward us. In the span of about 10 seconds, the baboon ran until it was about three feet away from us, then Ben threw his apple into the brush (far enough from the parking lot) and the baboon went chasing after it. My heart rate went through the roof when that happened, especially because I was right at the front of the group! That baboon easily could have mauled us, looking for food or otherwise. Later, Ben said that he waited to throw the apple so he was sure the baboon saw him throw it, which was quick thinking on his part – it happened so fast and we were all pretty IMG_5150terrified. But on a lighter note, the view from the Cape Point lighthouse was incredible!

At night, a bunch of us went out for the first time on Long Street, which is similar to Bourbon Street in New Orleans (though nothing can quite compare to Bourbon Street). I spent most of it in a bar called Beer House, where they actually have 99 bottles of beer on the wall, and great prices. It was packed with people, mostly foreigners, and I actually ran into two guys we met on the trail while hiking down Table Mountain. I also got to hang out with my friend Beth from Wesleyan who’s studying abroad here for the semester! When we left and started walking down the street, though, the vibe totally changed. Even though the streets were still packed with people going out, there were tons of locals who seemed very creepy. I don’t mean to generalize them, but this is definitely where a lot of the muggings happen. I know that South Africa isn’t the safest place and that getting mugged is common (someone told me there’s a 40% chance…wow), so I only brought a little bit of money and my local phone out with me (no iPhone, camera, or credit cards). But as I was walking down the street with some friends, I could see men grabbing at people’s pockets/purses and following us. We walked super fast, stayed together, and went home soon after. It’s really important to keep an eye on your friends and on your surroundings, and just move quickly. The night was fun, but that environment was nerve-wracking. Even walking around during the day can be uncomfortable, because people came up to us all the time persistently asking for money.IMG_5172

Sat. 3/21 – Our weekend was less “scheduled” than our first three days, but still super fun. A few of us walked around the town near our apartment, stopping in Company’s Garden to see some live performances from local singing and dancing groups, an event that takes place annually. The garden area reminded me of both Central Park and Rittenhouse Square, full of walkways and trees and gardens and fountains and beautiful buildings. After getting lunch at the Eastern Food Bazaar (bought my second falafel of spring break…so worth it), we walked to the Castle of Good Hope, but didn’t pay to go inside and just walked around outside it. We walked back to the apartment and left almost immediately to go hike Lion’s Head for sunset. In Cape Town, there are three mountains in a row (you can see them all): Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain, and Lion’s Head. Ben and Jeff hiked Devil’s Peak during the day, then met the other five of us hiking Lion’s Head – I don’t think I could’ve done that many miles with so much climbing in one day, but they crushed it. We started hiking around 4:40 and got to the top a little before 6pm; the entire hike was essentially walking in a spiral around the mountain until we reached the top, and it included steep inclines, ladders, chains, and of course, climbing straight up. On the way up, we actually ran into two kids from the other IHP Public Health track (theirs is called Spring 1 and travels to DC, India, South Africa, and Brazil, whereas ours is Spring 2 and goes to New Orleans, Vietnam, South Africa, and Argnetina). We knew both groups were in Cape Town at the time, but it was still funny that we ran into them and identified ourselves when none of us knew each other. Here’s where the second near-death experience comesIMG_5190 in (though it has nothing to do with the fact that they were the other IHP students…or does it??): we were talking to them for about 10 minutes, standing in a circle, when all of a sudden, this small boulder (is that an oxymoron? It defines the rock perfectly) fell down from way above and smashed right in the middle of us, easily a foot from my head. I’m not sure how it fell except that someone may have thrown it, but it was still really terrifying; it could’ve easily hit one of us and severely injured or even killed someone. Just like the baboon situation, we weren’t doing the wrong thing, we were just unlucky but lucky in the way that things played out. After that happened, we started hiking again, and slowly our heart rates went down. The view throughout the hike, but especially at the top, made everything okay again – on one side was all of Cape Town with the shadow of Lion’s Head over it, and on the other was the sun setting over the sea. We knew the sunset would be around 7, so we left by 6:15 to make our way down the mountain to a place where we could watch the sunset without having to climb down the steep parts of the IMG_5367trail in the dark. When we got far enough down, we sat down and broke out some wine and beer that we purchased earlier in the afternoon, which we lugged all the way up the mountain, and it was absolutely worth it. So many cheers to amazing views and amazing company.

Sun. 3/22 – Most of our apartment walked to the amazing food market in the V&A waterfront for brunch, and stayed to walk around for a few hours, before walking back to the apartment to cook our dinner at 3pm. We had bought tickets to one of the weekly summer concerts at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens (each ticket was 75 rand aka $6), so we cooked up all of our leftover food (mostly frozen veggies for an amazing stirfry) and brought it as a picnic. IMG_5378The concert venue was incredible – think of the Mann Music Center, but surrounded by mountains and gardens instead of the Philly skyline). The concert featured two South African bands, Beatenberg and Gangs of Ballet, and they were perfect for an outdoor concert – I kept feeling like it was summer, then I remembered that it IS summer in South Africa. I’m just completely skipping winter this year, and I’m totally okay with it.

Mon. 3/23 – This was our last full day in Cape Town! We packed up the apartments and moved to the Sunflower Stop hostel, just a few miles away, to meet back up with the group. In the afternoon, we had our Cape Town Caper at Camps Bay, where we met the other IHP group and hung out by the beach for a few hours. It was a lot of fun to meet them and hear about their experiences, some really similar and some really different. Their stay in South Africa has been really different than ours, in that they’ve been around Cape Town the whole time. They lived in rural homestays for 10 days, then came to Cape Town to live in a second homestay in Bo Kapp (the really colorful neighborhood), and their spring break is also here. While those still sound great, I’m so glad for my track’s experience. We got to live in Johannesburg, then Bushbuckridge, an area of South Africa that tourists probably never visit, and finally end up in Cape Town for spring break. I got a taste of three completely different areas of South Africa, while their group is mostly in the same place. As my friend Allie said, she felt a little too comfortable in Cape Town, so it wouldn’t have been the same type of experience if we lived here the whole time.

What an incredible week!! I still can’t believe everything that happened and how fun it was. I spent it in a magical and gorgeous city with wonderful friends – I couldn’t imagine a better spring break. I don’t know how we’re already on our way to Argentina (I’m currently on a flight to Dubai…because it makes total sense to fly all the way up to Dubai instead of straight west to Buenos Aires and stay at almost the same latitude, much less the same hemisphere). (Side note/plug for Emirates Airlines: this airplane is tricked OUT – colored lights, stars on the ceiling that glow when the lights go off, and every movie you could imagine, including an entire section devoted to Disney. WOW.)

Here’s a short list of things I will and won’t miss about South Africa – it’s pretty short, probably because I haven’t slept in a very long time and my body just hurts from that and sitting on this plane for so long. I’m finishing this so I can go watch Tangled J

Things I’ll miss about South Africa:

  • My amazing host family, especially Hamilton, who ran with me every morning
  • The beautiful mountains and hikes we did
  • The variety of veggies my host mom cooked
  • How nice and friendly everyone was
  • The village kids who were always willing and excited to play games, especially the dance circle “On the stage”

Things I won’t:

  • Taking malaria medication
  • Allllll the carbs, all the time
  • (I’m too tired for this right now)

I can’t believe that I’m headed back to the states in just five weeks…time is absolutely flying, and while I’m enjoying it all, I want it to slow down. But I am ridiculously excited for Argentina! I can’t wait to speak (and hopefully drastically improve my) Spanish, dance wildly in tango and salsa clubs, and drink mate. ¡Hasta Argentina!


3 weeks later…Bushbuckridge: outhouses, bucket showers, and no advanced technology.

HELLO TECHNOLOGY! It’s been a long time since I’ve had even semi-reliable access to wifi. Disclaimer: I am no longer in Bushbuckridge, but in Cape Town for spring break! I wrote most of this throughout my stay in the village, so you should just pretend you got it while I was actually there because I’m too lazy to go back and change all my verb tenses. Also, sorry for not proofreading this very much – it’s much too long at this point. Here we go!

Avuxeni from Bushbuckridge, South Africa (I’ll tell you what that means later)! I’m here in rural Islington Village, which took us 10.5 hours to get to on the bus from Joburg on Wednesday, February 25th. Supposedly it only takes 3-4 hours by car, but a huge bus with 35 people takes significantly more time. The village has no wifi (I’ve gotten it a few times at a café during one of our day trips, and our classroom had it only sometimes, but if so it was unreliable), so I apologize in advance about the length of this post. It’s covering our entire time in Bushbuckridge, which was just under 3 weeks.

Driving to Bushbuckridge

View from the bus as we neared Islington

Our bus ride here was very long, but actually not that bad. You may recall from my last post that I spent a really long time acquiring Harry Potter 6 on audiobook, which was exactly what I was looking forward to for the bus ride. Well, let me tell you what happened: I excitedly plugged my headphones into my phone after we stopped for lunch, ready for the whirlwind adventure that Jim Dale was about to unfold for me, especially excited because I’ve never reread book six. I heard the familiar tune at the beginning of the recording and silently cheered – until I heard the words “order of the phoenix”. I spent an absurd amount of time trying to find the recording of book six online, then got book 5 instead, which I just happened to reread this past semester? That was disappointing, but I still settled in to listen to book 5…for 27 minutes until it stopped playing because it can’t play it past that point if it’s not on my computer. What a sick joke, right?? All of my hard work, down the drain after only 27 minutes of the wrong book. Oh well.

So BUSHBUCKRIDGE! I still can’t believe I’m getting this wonderful experience. Sometimes I’ll look around me, especially when I’m in my house, and just wonder how I got here. It’s an incredible feeling and I’m so so grateful. I’m staying with a homestay family for these two and a half weeks, and I absolutely love them. First off, just like Vietnam, my house is right across the street from our school, and it takes 5 minutes to walk there. So ironic that the person who likes to walk most lives the closest! One of my friends (who also likes to walk) told me she’s sorry that I got gipped again – about something other people would love – but since it’s usually really hot here, I’m fine walking such a short distance. Sarah (my homestay partner) and I often walk our friends home after school anyway.

My homestay family happens to be part of the royal “Mnisi” family here, meaning related to the chief of 11 villages in Bushbuckridge. My host dad, Hamilton (around age 67), is the uncle of the current chief. Hamilton’s brother was the previous chief, who died a year or so ago, leaving the son (age 40Cows walk everywhere at all times of day or so) as chief. Apparently there was some drama with this situation, in that most people wanted Hamilton to be chief because he’s older, wiser, and has more experience than the current, young chief, but the tradition of passing along to the son of the old chief remains. I personally think Hamilton would be an awesome chief – every time I talk with him (morning runs, breakfast, and dinner), I learn so much about this area and his work, and he really seems to care about the village. I told this to friends at school at the beginning of our stay and they’re convinced I’m lobbying for him to run. But I digress. Since the family is royal, our house and property are very nice. I love walking around the yard and seeing all of the crops, including mango trees, maize, squash, beans, and sweet potatoes, and seeing the animals, including dogs, roosters, cows, pigs, and PIGLETS. Yes, PIGLETS! They also have over 20 hectors (almost 50 acres) of land behind the house, mostly used for growing crops. Also, cows walk around the village all day long. Even through soccer fields during a game.

Host brothers Ze and Fumani

With my host brothers!

Besides my host dad, Hamilton, I have a host mom, Eva, three brothers (Ze, Fumani, and Nsuku), and a handful of other people coming in and out all the time. When in doubt, they live here. Many households in Islington consist of 10-15 people, so when I ask someone if they live here, I haven’t been surprised when they say yes.

I already feel much closer to my host family here than mine in Vietnam, solely because we don’t have the language barrier. Even though almost everyone here speaks multiple languages, they all speak at least a little bit of English. I have had so many conversations with my host family that I couldn’t have had in Vietnam, and I’m learning so much more about their lives and community. It’s crazy how important language is – even though it is possible to communicate otherwise, it’s just not the same type of experience. I’ve also found it interesting that my host brothers are so comfortable with adults, which has to be because they live in a household full of them. Many people are walking in and out all the time, and their grandparents, not parents, are raising them, so the kids have to be comfortable with adults of all ages. They are very well-adjusted in that sense.

Every morning, Hamilton, Sarah and I go running in the village, which is a fabulous way to start the day. We run at 6am because it starts getting hot early, and Hamilton always points out things along the way, like a tree that he used to sit under with his grandmother as a kid. We’ve also been going to bed between 9 and 10pm at night, and I’m loving the early to bed/early to rise routine. When we get back from running, Sarah and I shower with cold water (which is wonderful in this heat), but then drink hot rooibos tea at breakfast, so I get hot all over again. We have a fan in our bedroom, thank GOODNESS, because the temperatures are usually in the high 80s/low 90s, and the sun is crazy strong. I don’t want to speak too soon, but no sunburns yet! (3 weeks later – successfully didn’t get sunburned once YESSS)IMG_5139

However, even though the house is pretty nice, there is no running water or plumbing – we use an outhouse and take a bucket shower (you have a bucket of water – that’s it). I’m actually a fan of the bucket shower because you know exactly how much water you’re using and make every drop count, while at home it’s so easy to just let the tap run. Bucket showers also take like 2 minutes, which is so convenient.

After breakfast and dinner, Sarah and I always wash all the dishes to help out. Unlike at home but similar to Vietnam, all the dishes here are cleaned by hand, which takes time. Lifestyles in Islington are very laborious, in the sense that everything is done by hand and can take time: washing dishes and clothes, picking crops, and tending to the animals. Wifi is also a hot commodity here – most people don’t have it, and I haven’t seen many smartphones. People here are focused on their daily activities, and most of their jobs don’t require internet access.

We’re almost entirely disconnected from technology here. There’s no wifi in the homestays, which is really liberating since I now don’t have much to distract me at night and I can actually journal when I have time! We have a small router in our classroom that IHP got for us for small uses, so it’s nice to check my email (and read my news emails…I read “the Skimm” and highly recommend it to anyone who wants a brief version of the big headlines every weekday – it is absolutely prime now that I’m abroad), but also really nice not to have to think about being connected. Free time here is spent playing with my host brothers and the neighborhood kids, reading, running or walking, and exploring the village. No internet whatsoever outside of the classroom to distract me.

I was a little apprehensive about what the food situation would be when I got to the village, but it actually has been FANTASTIC. My host mom was very surprised when Sarah and I told her we don’t eat meat. She also keeps calling us “you people” when referring to vegetarians, since SoutIMG_4883h Africans tend to eat a lot of meat. However, we’re extremely lucky because my host dad loves vegetables, so our dinners usually consist of 2-3 vegetable dishes (including salad!), baked beans, rice, and some meat for Hamilton. I have other friends who haven’t gotten any vegetables at all, which is sad. Another staple food here is pap (pronounced like “pop”), which is a white porridge thing completely devoid of nutrients that people eat as a grain (imagine a much harder version of cream of wheat, but with the nutrients of white rice). Most people take about half a plate of pap and the rest is meat and a few veggies. “Cold drink”, aka any type of soft drink, is also very popular, as water is often hard to come by. One of these is a drink called marula, which is a fruit that is fermented into a thick liquid and is RIDICULOUSLY strong. We were actually warned to be careful of it because of the strength before coming here, and what do you know, on my second night, my host dad offered me a sip of his. One small sip in and I knew I would be drunk after about five (I’m also an extreme lightweight…shoutout to my other lightweight homies out there), so I didn’t take any more.

Speaking of water – the water around here usually comes from a borehole, which is a type of well that is almost 60 meters deep in the ground. It is pumped up to the surface into a 25-liter tank, which people will carry home for a few kilometers so they have drinking water. Water access is a huge problem here, by far Bushbuckridge’s main public health issue. As Hamilton said to me on one of our runs, “If we had water, rivers flowing like you do, we would be kings of the world.” They can grow so much here, have plenty of resources and seem very happy, all except water. When I asked Hamilton about water-borne diseases such as diarrhea, he said it wasn’t much of a problem except when related to environmental pollution. Lots of people throw their trash on the side of the road, and when it rains, it runs into the river. When people need water and can’t get it otherwise, they’ll use the river as a last resort and get polluted water.

South Africa has 11 official languages, the top 3 being Xitsonga (pronounced “sheet-songa”, also called Shangaan), Zulu, and Afrikaans. Most people here speak multiple, and my host dad speaks all 11. That is CRAZY to me when I’m struggling to learn just a second language (which I will soon be speaking in Argentina!!). We’ve had a few language lessons in Shangaan, which I use every day here (the stress is on the underlined syllable):

  • Avuxeni (pronounced “ab-shay-ni”) = good morning/day
  • Riperile (“ri-per-ri-lay”) = good evening
  • Minjhani (“meen-jah-ni”) = how are you
  • Hi pfukile (“heep-foo-khi-lay”) = I’m fine
  • Inkomu (“in-kho-moo” = thank you

I say all of these phrases every day when I see other villagers. When you say good morning, the second person responds by saying “Ahé”, which basically means you acknowledge what they’re saying, then they ask how you are, I respond that I’m fine, and we’re both on our merry way.


At the orphanage – host dad Hamilton on the right.

On our first Sunday here (our free day), Sarah and I hung out with our host family. In the morning, we went to the Ekurhuleni Center for Orphans and Vulnerable Children, which is an organization with which Hamilton works. Since he used to be an educator, he’s very interested in improving their schooling and facilities. The orphanage doesn’t actually house children, as they live nearby with relatives or guardians, but they provide breakfast and lunch, as well as a space for them to play sports, do arts and crafts, read books, and do homework. About 100 children come there every day. The children aren’t all orphans, but if not, they’re “vulnerable”, and they’re accepted based on level of need – apparently 500 children are on the waiting list. It was a lovely visit and I enjoyed seeing the space, but it also was a little uncomfortable. I know I’m supposed to lean into discomfort on this trip, which I definitely have, but I’ve felt a difference in the level of discomfort in South Africa than that in Vietnam. When we first arrived at the orphanage, the manager brought all the kids who were there (about 40) to the entrance and had them sing us welcome songs. Then they said we could take a picture with them, which I did, but I felt pretty awkward about it. I felt like they wanted me to take one because I’m a white person visiting and they were advertising themselves as an African organization in great need, believing that as a white American I may be able to get them something. We also got a tour, and when the manager showed us the list of items that they need (which included a car, air conditioners, more kitchen supplies, etc.), she asked if we wanted copies of it. She told us to spread the word at home and to fundraise for them – I felt like she thought we were visiting because we wanted a cause to fundraise for or something like that, and even though I know she’s doing her job, it was uncomfortable for me when I know I probably won’t end up fundraising. Don’t get me wrong – I think they do great, necessary work, but I’m still not used to that type of encounter. Sarah and I wanted to visit the orphanage because of what Hamilton has told us about it and the kind of work he does, but our visit there was definitely approached in a different way than we anticipated.  One of the songs that the children sang went like this: “When you see me, in the future, I will look much better than I do right now.” Keep repeating that line but replace look with eat, dress, and drive. I didn’t get to ask what the lives of these kids usually are like in the future, but I hope that song turns out to be true for them.

Traditional dance in South Africa

Traditional dance – ask me for videos when I’m home :)

We visited the orphanage in the morning, and in the afternoon we went to a performance of traditional South African dance. It was all outdoors, with lots of food and drinks around, and it ran all afternoon, with different groups getting up to perform. We were there for about two hours, and I don’t think I’ve been approached as much in any previous two hours of my life. The minute Sarah, Jeff and Ben (two of our friends in the program), and a few members from each of our families walked in, we were absolutely swarmed with people. We were just trying to walk through the crowd to see the dancing, but people kept coming up to us saying, “Hello! How are you! Hello yes what is your name? Can I have your hat?!” It didn’t help that many of these people had been drinking (our host dad warned us that people drink a lot at these events), especially one woman who would not leave us alone and also requested that I give her my hat. Similar to my experience in Vietnam, this is my first time being a racial other. I know most of the people in this area haven’t seen white people before, especially who aren’t from South Africa, but it’s still so uncomfortable to be in this type of situation where people are only demanding things of you. We wanted to watch the dancing, but people kept talking to us, requesting pictures and even kisses, which completely obstructed our views of the dancing. Overall, it was definitely an experience to remember. I really enjoyed the dancing, but other people enjoyed my presence more.


Look at the arrow – I’m hidden behind everyone else.

Everyone in the village is very friendly to us, but that’s an understatement when talking about the kids – they absolutely LOVE us being there. Sometimes we play soccer with them on an open field in the village, and when a group of 5 of us walked up, there was immediately a crowd of 15 kids surrounding us. Ten minutes later, when the game began, there were at least 70 kids on the field, of all ages. I made it a goal to touch the ball once since the field was so crowded, and let me tell you – this non-athlete did indeed kick the ball. Just once, but I’m happy with it.

IMG_5007Our second weekend in the village was packed and so worth it! On Saturday, a group of 12 of us went to Kruger National Park for an all-day safari. My program is actually providing a free visit to Kruger this year, for the first time ever, but it’s only about an hour and a half looking at animals. I’m really glad I got the chance to go on a full-day safari, because I don’t think an hour would’ve fulfilled my interest in seeing so many beautiful animals. And we saw a TON! First of all, the birds in South Africa are incredible – so many different bright colors, and it reminded me of a lot of the birds I saw in Costa Rica this December. One of these birds was the Yellow-billed Hornbill, which is Zazu from the Lion King! Here are a few things I learned/experienced while I was there:

  • It would take 4 days to drive through all of Kruger – it’s the size of Holland.
  • Elephants – have 6 sets of teeth, and they’re replaced every 10 years.Zebra
    • Its trunk is as long as its body, and the trunk has over 1000 muscles (fun fact about giraffes: their necks have the same number of muscles as we humans have in our entire body).
  • Wildebeests can hear better and zebras can smell better, so they often travel together.
  • We traveled a total of 500 km (310 miles) over a span of 11 hours in Kruger (entered at 5:30am, left at 4:30pm).
  • Visiting Manyeleti Private Game ReserveOne of our guides, whose name was Hert Kruger, is six or seven generations down from the original namesake of Kruger National Park. Pretty cool.
  • I watched and heard a lion roar. Multiple times.
  • I saw lots of elephants, including a group of 7 with a 1-month-old baby!
  • Most importantly: I SAW THE BIG 5!!! The Big 5 refers to five famous animals (rhino, elephant, cape buffalo, leopard, and lion) in South Africa and everyone knows and almost worships them. They’re also on the backs of the 5 different pieces of paper money. It isn’t common to see all 5, but we did and it was incredible. We saw the leopard right before we left too, so none of us were expecting it.

View from Mariepskop lookout

All the animals we saw: white rhino, elephants, kudu (like an antelope), impala (like a deer), warthogs (so much Pumba), African wild dogs (endangered and very rare), steenbucks, Lilac-crested Roller (a bright blue/purple bird), giraffes, baboons, Southern Red-Billed/Yellow-Billed Hornbills (the Zazu bird), zebras, wildebeests, cape buffalo, kingfisher, waterbucks, male lion, hippos, ostriches, Southern ground hornbill, whiteback vulture, and last but not least, A LEOPARD. It was an incredible day. Many animals, much excitement, and allll the smiling when we saw the leopard at 4pm and checked off seeing the Big 5 on our South Africa bucket lists.

The clouds cleared up a bit for a beautiful view

Completely in the clouds

On Sunday, we took a beautiful hike in Mariepskop. Apparently it’s about 8km each way, but we drove up the first part and hiked the second. The views were incredible. The lookout at the top was pretty cloudy when we got there (I should reword that; we were IN the clouds), but it cleared up enough to see out just a bit.

There are a bunch of things I’ve noticed here, mostly through the homestay experience, that make me uncomfortable. But that’s what this program is supposed to do, right?? Regardless, that’s what makes this experience so cool – I’m completely out of my element and probably won’t be in an environment like this again anytime soon. The first thing that made me feel awkward was our meals – my host mom prepares every breakfast and dinner but only sets the table for three (Hamilton, Sarah, and me), and she never eats with us. Sarah and I have asked her many times if she’ll join, but she often says that she’s full from eating at her meeting, or she just nicely refuses. Family structure and women’s roles here are very different – at home, my family eats dinner together every night, and we all help out with the preparation and cleanup (okay, Jordin and I definitely load most of the cleanup on Mel, but she provokes it by not eating vegetables). Here in the village, women do all of the cooking, cleaning, and housework, and serve their husbands but don’t eat with them. Additionally, the three of us eat in the dining room, and everyone else eats in the kitchen, often with our leftovers. This made me so uncomfortable because 1) I would prefer to eat with everyone to get to know them more, and 2) I want the kids to eat the same food that I’m eating, which is a lot of vegetables that I know isn’t the main dish on their plates. I feel like we eat like queens and they just get our scraps (even though there’s always a ton of food left). When I brought this up to some friends in the program, they said maybe the fact that they eat after us is a sense of pride for them, that they’re proud of the fact that they can feed us this great food, serve us in the dining room, and treat us really well. I don’t know. It still makes me feel weird, but talking with others made me feel better about it.

During our last week in the village, we worked primarily on our case studies. As you may remember, my group is focusing on water quality and sanitation throughout the semester, but everyone’s topics changed a bit in South Africa. According to feedback from the homestay families, they are tired of answering the same questions about the same topics every year (understandably so), so Jan (our coordinator) thought it would be best to alter the topics a bit so we could study problems that we have observed ourselves and give some suggestions to future IHP groups who also will live in the village. All of the topics turned out really well, and it was a nice change of pace. Since my group is focused on environmental health, we decided to look at community spaces (or lack thereof) in Islington. Long story short, we found that many kids want open spaces to play sports and activities, and though there is a soccer field, it isn’t centrally located, but more importantly, there are no soccer balls. Adults tend to congregate in liquor stores, which obviously is a factor in increased alcoholism in the area. While many of our suggestions rely on funding (as most problems do), we’re hoping that future IHP groups can work with the nearby schools to plan organized sports/activities after school and set up some type of organization that can be maintained after they leave. And also somehow acquire a bunch of soccer balls. Obviously, this is easier said than done, but we’re hoping we can improve different health situations in Islington through our studies here, instead of asking the same questions each year and produce nothing of substance to the community.

Our last weekend here was packed to the last second but so much fun. On Friday night, a few IHP students organized a talent show, inviting all of our host families and anyone who wanted to come. It went splendidly (especially considering it was Friday the 13th), and my host brothers and I even did an impromptu dance to a popular South African song, but the performance mostly featured their CHEETAHSamazing dance skills (8-year-old Fumani really knows how to work the crowd). On Saturday, we went to Kruger National Park as a whole group and went on a safari/game drive for a little under 2 hours. In terms of animals I didn’t see the weekend prior, I saw 4 cheetahs (!!!) from a distance, as well as hyenas who look nothing like I imagined (my imagination is only what I know from The Lion King). And lots and lots of fantastically gorgeous birds again – the colors of these birds are so vibrant and beautiful. While we were there, I had some interesting conversations with friends about the food IMG_4846system, as they were commenting on the fact that we see so many animals in our village that are raised and killed for food. It’s interesting because I’ve heard a lot of people complain about seeing mistreatment here, which I totally understand, because it devastates me every time I see it. But the system is 1000x worse in the United States and we all contribute to it if we eat animals from factory farms. Seeing animals treated as objects to be mishandled and mistreated will always bother me anywhere I go, but at least the animals here are moving around and eating grass and experiencing the sunshine, all of which most food animals in the U.S. never experience. Additionally, we had a braai lunch (the South African version of barbecue) at Kruger, and they had a few different types of meat, including impala and giraffe. People were saying they didn’t feel right eating the giraffe, but in my eyes, all animals are the same. It doesn’t matter if they’re common at home or in a new environment, I don’t think eating a giraffe is any worse than eating a cow or a chicken. Sorry for the rant, it just really bothers me that our food system is so concealed in the U.S., but thankfully there is a plethora of information about it on the internet – just look up factory farming and you’ll be appalled at what you find. To end this section on a positive note, during the discussion with my friends, one of them said, “Being vegan makes more and more sense every day”. Especially from a public health approach, I couldn’t agree more. Want to improve food access, reduce hunger, reduce diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension, and improve the quality and length of your life? Eat more plant-based foods. It’s that simple. And as I said in one of my first posts, anyone is welcome to come to my house in Philadelphia and eat the delicious food that I’m so lucky to get at home to see how easy it is.


Three Rondavels

On Sunday, our last day in Bushbuckridge, we headed out to see as many spectacular views as we could (that wasn’t the official goal, but you would think it was from the pictures). We started at Blyde River Canyon, where we could see the “Three Rondavels”, which are mountains that look like huts. The view was INCREDIBLE – I live for moments like that. Seeing the world’s natural beauty is by far what makes me the happiest – that’s probably both a cause and effect of my family only going to national parks for vacation. We could also see the river dam. After leaving the canyon, we headed to God’s Window, another popular lookout point. Even though we were on the bus for most of the day, I was cheesin’ SO hard because I was so happy. It shows in the picture of my host family we took later on at our farewell dinner in the IMG_5051village.We had a big dinner with all of our host families, and my host dad gave a little speech at the beginning on behalf of the village. He even mentioned that Sarah and I ran with him every day and that he is officially fit now, so he invited anyone to run 5k with him since we’re leaving. (We always ran an out-and-back route, and on our last run, he ran the entire way out and most of the way back – we were so proud, and that shows how much you can improve in just 2 weeks!) As a very sentimental person, of course I was a little teary-eyed to leave. When Sarah and I gave Hamilton and Eva our gifts, IMG_5068they gave us each a traditional South African dress – when I say dress, I mean it’s a cloth that you just tie around yourself. But I can also use it as a tapestry to hang up when I’m not wearing it, which will be awesome (house group at Wesleyan next year, heads up – I have a lot of artwork I’m bringing from around the world!)

Sunset in Islington Village

Sunset in Islington

Overall, I had an amazing stay in Islington Village in Bushbuckridge. I can’t believe it’s over already – it felt so much shorter than our stay in Vietnam. I can’t believe we’re already 10 weeks into the program (and only 6 left, what?? Denial is setting in) and that we’re headed to Cape Town for spring break! I’m so excited to explore and relax and have a blast. I’ll send out a last update for South Africa at the end of this week, just before we head off to Argentina! ¡El tiempo pasa muy rapido!