Fun Times with the students

Last week I took Karelle and Hope (plus Julie, an extra volunteer we met in Plett) to the Women’s Shelter where we worked with

Gardening at the Women's Shelter

some ladies in the garden. It was a mess so we weeded and then planted some carrots, beets, cabbage and spinach. It was the first time Karelle and Hope had ever worked in a garden and it was fun to see how much they enjoyed it.

On Saturday evening I took my mentees out to a nice dinner in Plett. We have a great time together as a group sharing stories of home, what we’ve been

My silly mentos from left: Tom, Claire, Kaite, ME, Sarah

doing and learning and of course, always laughing!

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Ramblings about my Vacation

I rented a car over my vacation and drove 12 hours towards the mountains. The drive took me over mountain passes,  along stretches of roads bordered by fields and small villages and through crowded dusty towns. I saw a woman walking down the road balancing three large (at least 6ft long) logs on her head! No joke. How does one do this? I don’t understand. Baboons frequently run in front of cars here, like deer in New England…I came close to hitting a few. I saw a herd of zebra grazing in a field too.

Drakensbergs

I took a tour up the Sani Pass in Southern Drakensberg. I don’t usually participate in the touristy world of guided tours but it was actually nice not to be on my own. I realized I’m not a big fan traveling solo, even though I did meet some interesting people along the way, including the quirky people who ran the hostel, a 32 year old dutch doctor practicing medicine in a small rural village, 2 Israelis and a British woman who had attended the climate change conference in Durban. Anyway, the Sani Pass is a series of steep rocky switchbacks that end up in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho (less-oo-too), a country I have never given much thought to.  Once in Lesotho we toured some villages to meet people and see how they live. The landscape changes dramatically once over the pass. On the South African side the mountains are covered with bright green grass leading up to flat mesas as well as jagged peaks of basalt and sandstone. In Lesotho, however, the landscape

Lesotho Village

becomes quite barren. The wind is unforgiving, the mountains and plains covered with very short dry grass and small bushes they use for cooking fires. The houses are called rondovals, round huts made of stone and dung with thatched roofs. There are no openings in the roof to allow smoke from the cooking fire out. The one hut we went into was clean but the grass from the thatch roof hung down covered in moldy soot. I thought about lungs and health and how people are so far away from the nearest clinics and schools.  How they have no transportation, electricity or cell service. Men walk around with their faces covered, to shield themselves from cold and dust and are covered with wool blankets with a hole cut in the middle, worn like a poncho.  It is a harsh existence. A young woman baked bread and gave us a piece to share along with a cup of very sour beer that also tasted exactly like the bread. It felt strange being there – looking at her life, paying her to show us her small humble home. Very voyeuristic and slightly uncomfortable. Tourism should go to help local people but there is something strange about viewing people as you would a mountain pass or a piece of art in a museum. Every day people wake up and herd sheep, bake break and walk hundreds of meters to get water. Every day life is about survival.

Matasha, the horse I rode.

Oh and I rode a horse for the first time. Galloping through fields I sort of felt like I was out west. For a moment I could understand the beauty of the ranching lifestyle.

Returned to Plett to find that summer has officially arrived here in South Africa. Hot, sunny days and loads of tourists.  Our seminars on the beach are accompanied by a loud base and hundreds of 18 year olds drinking beer and dancing. I’m impressed that my students are able to concentrate and hold long conversations about the state of public healthcare and discuss why it so difficult to prevent the spread of a preventable diseases such as HIV/AIDS. I even find my eye drifting to the waves crashing and I move my body ever so slightly to the beat.  Next week the students are off on their independent travel to Cape Town and so am I!  We have one more seminar left in this unit on public health and currently the students are busy working on their media projects.

Hope this note finds you all well. I find my thoughts drifting to home as of late even though I’m so grateful to be here. Missing you…

ps. thanks to those who sent out letters, postcards and packages! I so love notes from home and appreciate the time you spent getting them to me. xoxo

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heading out of plett

Today is the first day of my vacation! I’m renting a car and driving inland a bit to the Drakensberg Mountains for some quiet time. It would have been nice to have my friend Erica along for the ride but I know life is full and South Africa is an expensive plane ticket! If I have internet access I’ll send an update. Hope

I'm trying to hug the ocean!

everyone had a great holiday weekend. We went to Monkeyland and a walk through some old growth forest to the beach. The ocean here is spectacular.

the group out hiking

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Happy Thanksgiving from South Africa

It’s relatively warm here in South Africa. It’s also light for more hours of the day

Plettenberg Bay

than it is dark.  People watch cricket and play rugby instead of football. And none of you are here with me. It sure doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving.  Hope everyone is doing well and enjoying the holiday with friends and family.  I’m enjoying the beautiful beaches here and the friendly people I’m meeting along the way.  Missing you…

Salt River Hike

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along the inca trail

Two weeks ago (sorry for the delay…lots of travel and limited/poor internet abilities) we hiked for four days and three nights along the Inca Trail. We were in great hands along the way with our guides Socrates and Jesus…super knowledgeable and encouraging! Despite the hundreds of people we shared the path with and the crowded campgrounds, the trip was amazing. The Andes are simply spectacular from every vantage point and I couldn’t get enough of looking at them and at the clouds that consumed us on most days.  The Incas built some seriously steep stairs up to 14,000 feet and then back down again to about 8,000 feet…my ankle didn’t appreciate that much, nor my knee. I was in the back of the pack the entire trek but in good company. Yes, I’m starting to feel my age. And would you believe, one of my students said to me, “You remind me of my best friend’s mom”!  I suppose this is a compliment but at the same time a reminder…This was the poshest camping trip I’ve ever been on. Porters carry all the camping supplies (tents, sleeping bags, food), set up your tent so by the time you get to the campsite everything is all set up for you, and they cook all the food (good food at that – quinoa pancakes for breakfast, soup for lunch, popcorn at tea time and rice/chicken/pudding for dessert)

The Incan ruins are incredible and fun to explore. It is amazing how they have stood the test of time over hundreds and hundreds of years, their irrigation system still working, the wall of building and terraces still in tact. All the students made it, even the ones who had never really hiked much before. For some this was definitely the hardest thing they have ever done in their lives and I’m super proud of them.

I’ll be here in Plettenberg Bay, South Africa for the rest of the year. During this leg of our journey we’ll be learning about public health, no doubt a challenging subject we’ll be exploring through many lenses such as race and class. Currently students are out in surrounding townships with public health workers. I’m definitely looking forward to understanding the social/political climate of South Africa.  More details to come…

I hear there is snow in New England already! I hope, if you are there, you are enjoying it…i feel like I’ll be chasing summer around the globe during the rest of my trip, living in perpetual spring. ahhhh

much Much MUCH LOVE to you all!!

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Adios Ecuador

Later this morning we leave Atahualpa. We have been welcomed here with such generosity and kindness, a brief glimpse into another life. What a privilege! I definitely won’t miss the bus that honks and roars passed my window every morning at 5am and then again at 6, nor the many barking dogs that run after me as I walk by, but I am somewhat sad to be leaving these mountains, the fog, the click of the crickets in the evenings and the fresh fruit juices every morning with breakfast. And yet there is so much more to come. I feel ready to be moving on.

It’s been a few weeks since I last wrote.  What have I been up to? The students built tables for the vivero (greenhouse) that we also helped to build.  The plan is to use the greenhouse to grow trees to reforest the hillsides and medicinal plants to introduce this cultural practice back to the community.  It was a big moment when I taught a couple of the young women how to hold and use a hammer.  I think Karelle maybe went through 15 nails before she was able to hammer one in completely.  In the moment I don’t think she was too happy with me when I continued to give her nail after nail but in the end, knowing how to use a hammer is a valuable skill. The students have finished their seminars about the environment and natural resources. The last few were especially interesting to me, and a good introduction to the students who hadn’t thought much about such topics as gender, race and class and how they pertain to environmental justice.

Last weekend I went to a town called Mindo with my fellow program leader Kayce. The students were off for the weekend travelling on their own for the first time so we took the opportunity to explore as well.  Mindo is a small tourist town in the cloud forest, and despite the tourists it was muy tranquilo y a lot of diversity. We went on a five hour bird watching tour where we saw three varieties of toucans, parrots, tanegers, hawks, woodpeckers and many more whose names I can’t quite remember.

Toucan

We went on a frog walk and saw a poison dart frog the size of my thumbnail, a robber frog (named this because of the black bank around its eyes), a stick bug, horn toad, katydid, a glow in the dark log (the endophytes (microorganisms) in the log help it decay and in the process actually glow in the dark – I think this was possibly the coolest thing I saw), a crystal frog, wolf spider and some kind of possum. We also saw beautiful butterflies and hummingbirds. Went on a chocolate making tour at this small farm where we saw the entire process for making chocolate – pretty tasty. The farm was a work in progress but really interesting to see the mix of coffee bushes, fruit trees, animals and vegetables. So much food off of a small plot of land. And for the first time in weeks, a really good cup of espresso!

Every night, just after I’ve turned the light off to go to sleep, I draw back the curtains and look out at the night to remind myself of the extraordinary. It was Robin (founder/CEO of TBB) that reminded us before leaving for this trip of how quickly the extraordinary will become ordinary. And I look out the window each night to remind myself of how extraordinary the ordinary is. The lights of the nearest town flickering on a distant hillside, the hazy yellow light from the street lamp shining through clouds now completely covering our very existence, to remind myself that yes, I am here in this quiet small village that most in the world know nothing about, high up in the Andes.  This privilege can’t be overstated. Mary Oliver (one of my favorite poets) writes in her poem Mindful: “Every day – I see or hear – something – that more or less – kills me – with delight, – that leave me – like a needle – in the haystack – of light. – It was what I was born for – to look, to listen – to lose myself – inside this soft world – to instruct myself – over and over – in joy – and acclamation. – Nor am I talking – about the exceptional – the fearful, the dreadful, – the very extravagant – but of the ordinary, – the common, the very drab, – the daily presentations…”

I’m a bit tired. Definitely starting to miss the freedoms of my life back home and the ease of being with my friends, however the group is doing well and I’m content. Living with some gastro issues for a few days but I think it has passed and I’m in the clear, ready to trek the Inca Trail.  This weekend we’re in Quito, visiting USAID this afternoon, a hike on Saturday and some free time on Sunday. I should have internet access through Sunday if you want to connect. I leave for Peru on Monday and will be on the trail from November 2 – 5th.  Will definitely send photos and an update as soon as I can when I return.

I hope this finds you all well, loving, laughing, working and playing hard. I’m thinking about woodstoves and pumpkin bread, a good beer and hike in the cool crisp autumn air.  Please keep in touch. I love to hear how you are all doing and of course you know how much I like a good story.

xo

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Happenings around Atahualpa

Being here in this small village high up in the Andes feels so much like a combination of my life both when living in Moldova and also in Vermont. People are so tied to their communities, their families and the land here that this place so far from home immediately felt familiar, except for the fact that my Spanish is taking longer to come along than I thought it would. This is partially because every time I go to say something, Romanian words pop out of my mouth.  Patience, yes I know.

Main Street in Atahualpa

Just like in Moldova I first begin to wake to the roosters calling to one another across the village at about 4:30 every morning, just as many are getting up to begin their journey through the dawn to their fields on the edge of town to milk the couple of cows they own. Last Saturday I did this walk with two students and their host families. As the stars gave way to a brightening sky over Fua Fua (the

Fua Fua

major mountain where we are working) I stood among the many small plots of land that dot the hillsides in browns and greens; freshly tilled earth, pastures spotted with cows, rows of corn, beans, potatoes, carrots and squash. I was struck from within with a feeling of missing home. It is amazing how landscapes can burrow their way into our bones.  Memory is not just mental – it comes from our cells, it is stored within our bloodstream.  I don’t miss Vermont in the way one longs for a lover not seen in days; I was simply struck by similarities. Maybe it was, in a sense, a feeling of love, or awe, or respect one has for the earth or for the people who work the land with reverence or the beauty in the simplicity of routine.  And as we made our way in a single file line along this skinny dirt path out to the cows, Marge Piercy’s poem, “To Be of Use” came to mind, repeatedly: “The people I love the best, jump into work head first, without dallying in the shallows…”

We’re staying in a guesthouse in the center of town with an extremely lovely family. They are organic farmers and have been quick to try to pick my brain about how to improve their soil and fight off a white worm that is attacking their avocado plants and some white mold on other fruit trees, and how to grow grapes (if only I knew!). If only my Spanish skills were better but we’re having fun. I’ve helped them a couple of times pick berries and they took Kayce and I to press sugar cane last week.  We eat hearty vegetable soups every day for lunch and dinner, which feels about right for this time of year.

pressing sugar cane

The weather here is like September in Vermont in that the days are warm and the nights are cool.  Unlike Vermont in September when the mists sometimes take all morning to rise, here warm bright sunny mornings give way to clouds that come over the mountains around noon, descend and sometimes encompass us, as if shutting out our very existence. 

The students have been working on an eco-tourism project of sorts. With so little work here, young people leave for work in Quito or out of the country and the town is looking for ways to bring in more money.  The students are helping repair a trail that goes out to a beautiful waterfall. Currently the trail is a bit worn and dangerously narrow in parts.  This coming week I think we are going to help build a greenhouse.  

The students continue to learn about the environment, closely looking at the choices they make, their consumption patterns and the affects those choices have on the world around them.  Who do our choices affect? How do they affect the world around us?  Perhaps obvious, but we easily make choices when we don’t see the consequences of those choices.  We can’t be perfect in our decisions but at the very least, we can begin to think more closely about them. What kind of world are we leaving behind? It is a good reminder that even when we don’t see the ramifications of our decision the fact remains, we all live downstream.

I’ve finally figured out how to Skype call from my computer, as some of you may have already figured out by the voice messages I left for you, or the actual contact I was able to make with some.  So great to hear familiar voices!  The Ecuador/Venezuela soccer game was a hoot (packed, standing room only) and I think everyone had a great time.

I do believe that is about it for now.  Things for me are great except for the very fact that I miss you all tremendously.  A big shout out to Rick who sent me my first letter…hint hint…

Hope everyone is well, happy and healthy, laughing and doing some dancing for me!

Hugs,

a.

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