data Bisbocci Abroad
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Sunday, July 27, 2014

A Farewell to Africa

           On December 29 2013, exactly one year after I set off on my journey across the Atlantic to Africa, I packed my bags one final time and said goodbye to the continent that I had called home for the past year. It was a bittersweet goodbye, filled with the sadness of leaving my Namibian friends behind, as well as the excitement of finally setting foot on Oregon soil and indulging in the comforts of home. 
              Though I was ready to move on with my life, leaving Namibia was challenging. I had grown quite fond of the children from my village and formed very special relationships with many of them. Each day, many of my little friends from the nearby primary school would come by my house for daily photo shoots, homework help and walks along the sandy village roads. 
              It was heartbreaking and painful to say goodbye to them, but on December 7th, I bid a final farewell to my friends, left the dusty floodplains of the Oshana region behind and headed into the next and final stage of my African journey. 
              Following my volunteer contract in Namibia, I decided to spend a few weeks traveling in southern Africa with my fellow volunteers. In those three weeks I spent in South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho, my journey took me full circle. It began with a pony trek in the highlands of Lesotho, where Mariella and I enjoyed a wonderful few days among the craggy peaks of Malealea--and effectively ended just across the border in South Africa's Drakensberg Mountains. In between, I spent time with WorldTeach friends in Cape Town, explored the country's winelands and wild coastline with Dan and visited three incredible wildlife parks. 
            At the end of the trip, Dan and I found ourselves back in the Drakensberg highlands, soaking up stunning views of the surrounding mountains. The addition of the Drakensberg mountains at the end of our itinerary was a last minute decision. Dan and I had been looking for a place to stay on the road between Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park and Johannesburg's OR Tambo International Airport for our last night in the country and, After a quick Google search, found a place called the Amphitheater Backpackers--a bustling traveler lodge not far off the route and perfectly situated at the foot of the mountains. The lodge's positioning between the national park and the airport made for a perfect stopover on our way home. 
                The Amphitheater  Backapacker Lodge seemed to be an ideal base for exploring the area and a wonderful place to meet fellow travelers, swap stories and relax by the pool. Unfortunately, our tickets back home dictated that our time at the backpackers would have to be cut short, so we went to bed early in order to squeeze in a quick foray into the mountains the morning of our departure.  
             The Drakensberg mountains are dramatic and majestic. Their vibrant, green peaks rise above the mist-shrouded surroundings and contain hundreds of waterfalls that give life to the verdant valleys below.

            We knew that we had very little time to explore the area, so Dan and I entered the park expecting to do a quick hike up to one of the park's waterfalls. 
             When we arrived at the entrance, however, dark clouds rolled in and it began to sprinkle. Thinking nothing of it at the time, I put on my raincoat and wrapped my camera in my bag. Considering the sweltering heat and dry weather I had grown accustomed to during my stay in southern Africa, the light rain was a welcome surprise. After such a long time living in a drought-afflicted area, feeling the rain against my face was a wonderful sensation. 
            In merely a few minutes, however, my sneakers became saturated with water and I had to wrap my camera in my raincoat to keep it safe. I began to lose traction as my shoes started skidding down the slippery path and I worried that the torrents of water would seep through my bag and ruin my camera. 
                  Reluctantly, we decided to turn back toward the car. And while I wish I could have spent a bit more time admiring the peaks of the Royal Natal National Park, I like to think that the heavy rain was a signal from Oregon, telling me it was time to come home.


           I have now been back in the United States for seven months and my life has changed dramatically since leaving Africa. Yet, not a day goes by in which I don't think about my time living abroad. After a year of teaching in Namibia, traveling throughout southern Africa and collecting a lifetime of memories, my return to the United States filled me with a mixture of emotions that I have difficulty expressing in words. 
           My time in southern Africa presented me with some of the most challenging yet rewarding months of my life. Throughout my year, I experienced the loneliness and isolation of living in a village  away from friends and family, as well as the wonderful company of my students, the children of Onantsi and my fellow volunteers. I experienced incredible pride in my learners who made progress in English and computers as well as disappointment in those who never did their homework and scored consistently below average on their exams. I experienced emotions and feelings that I didn't even know existed. 
              Because of this, my time abroad cannot be easily categorized or compartmentalized. There are no words or phrases that can adequately encapsulate the emotions I felt, the experiences I had and the endless memories I accumulated. 
            In the days leading up to my departure from Africa, I tried to prepare a short blurb for those who would be curious about my experience, since I knew I would often be faced with inquiries and curiosity about "how Africa was." But I had no idea how to give a concise, yet comprehensive answer. 
              And seven months later, I still don't know. 
            This will be my last post about my life in Namibia and beyond as a WorldTeach volunteer. From now, this blog will take on a different trajectory and follow my adventures as a flight attendant for a major airline. 
             This blog will shift focus without me ever addressing the loaded question of "how Africa was," but I hope that by following along on my journey from the beginning, you at least have a vague idea. Perhaps I cannot easily give you a good answer to the question in a few words but maybe, just maybe, by reading about the ins and outs of my life in Onantsi village and beyond over the course of the last year, you'll begin to understand a bit more about my year abroad and what it meant to me. 
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Monday, July 21, 2014

Christmas Misadventures and Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park

              For most Americans, the holiday season often conjures images of tree decorating, gift-giving and wintry weather. It is difficult for many of us to imagine Christmas without also thinking of snowflakes, sleigh bells and a yearly visitor from the North Pole. And, though I remember very few years in which we actually had a white Christmas in Oregon growing up, the cold winter weather did not make it difficult to imagine a snowy wonderland outside. 
                It rarely occurred to me that, for those, living South of the equator, Christmas and snowflakes do not necessarily go hand in hand. I hardly ever thought about the fact that, for people who experience the holidays in the heat of summer, the word Christmas is unlikely to conjure images of sleigh bells, snowmen and hot chocolate by the fireside. I found it nearly impossible to imagine a Christmas with sunshine and long summer days. 
              Until 2014, when Dan and I spent the holiday season in South Africa and our notion of Christmas was flipped upside down. 

                 Once we learned that we would be spending the 2014 holiday season in South Africa, Dan and I figured we might as well spend it in the sun at a beach--since finding a winter wonderland nearby seemed an unlikely possibility. Besides, I was excited to fully immerse myself in the Christmas experience of those hailing from the lands down below. 
                 So, on Christmas day, Dan and I ventured toward a beach near the St Lucia estuary and prepared for a day of soaking up Vitamin D in the warmth of the African sun. 
                  But Christmas decided to throw a curveball our way. 
                 Shortly after we arrived at the beach, I went to change into my swimsuit and came back  to our rental car only to find Dan looking helpless and perplexed. He told me he had accidentally locked the keys inside the car and could not access them since we had just rolled the windows up. Thus, our Christmas on the beach turned into a daylong process of looking for the one locksmith in the area that would actually be open on Christmas Day. 
                  We searched the internet, asked around and twiddled our thumbs to no avail. After a while, we found a police station that was open and discussed our waning list of options with the man standing behind the desk. He flipped through the phone book and called around. Finally, the police officer was able to put us in contact with a locksmith in Richards Bay--a city more than 150km away. Since we had no other options, we spent much of  the rest of our day sitting outside the police station and waiting for the locksmith to arrive.
                Despite the lack of cold weather and holiday cheer, it was hardly the Christmas we'd imagined. 

                 Perhaps our South African Christmas didn't go exactly as planned, but spending December 26th at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park more than made up for our misadventures the previous day. Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is a wildlife reserve known for its remarkable contributions to the preservation of rhinos in southern Africa. It is the oldest nature reserve in Africa and spreads for nearly 1,000 square kilometers over the hilly, lush terrain of Kwazulu-Natal.  
                 If we had come to South Africa and only visited Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, it would have probably been difficult for us to understand the country's dire rhino poaching problems. The park is chock-full  of these beautiful animals. 
          In the early 1900s, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi spearheaded a preservation campaign that is largely responsible for bringing the white rhinos back from the brink of extinction. Yet, rhino poaching is still a major problem in South Africa. Every year, poaching claims the lives of hundreds of animals whose horns are sold in Asia for medicinal purposes. Though rhino poaching is illegal, the demand for rhino horns is so great that selling them in the black market remains a lucrative business. 
              The park has not entirely escaped the poaching problems that plague the rest of the country, but Hluhluwe-Imfolozi still boasts the highest concentration of rhinos in the world. Throughout the day we would encounter these majestic horned animals on numerous occasions.

Rhinos at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi
                   Although the park is known for its rhino population, many other animals find a home in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi as well. The game reserve houses Africa's Big 5 as well as a diverse array of small predators, herbivores and birds. Throughout our self-guided game drive, we had many wonderful wildlife encounters, despite the thick foliage and tall grasses of the rainy season. 

Beautiful Bird in Tall Grass
Family of Warthogs Crossing the Road
Herd of Buffalo at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi
               Our most prized animal sighting came toward the end of our drive, while Dan and I were finishing our loop of the park. We were meandering along one of the park's smaller roads when, all of a sudden, we encountered a line of cars stopped near a dry riverbed. 
                  Dan and I rolled down our windows and craned our necks to see what was going on, but found nothing except for grasses and shrubs. We asked the passengers in the stopped car in front of us, but the driver merely shrugged and pointed at the other cars, suggesting they knew something he did not. When the cars lined up in front finally continued on their way, we pulled up into their places and scanned our surroundings.
                 And then we saw the prize. Sitting under a tree in the distance was a pack of rare wild dogs, whose patchy brown and black fur camouflaged perfectly into the surrounding area. 
                    The dogs were far away and I had to sit on the car's window ledge to see them. I took out my camera and screwed on the 300mm zoom lens to try to capture an image of the animals. 

            Though the quality of the image is compromised due to the extended zoom and significant cropping, I am happy that we were able to at least capture memento of the wonderful sighting. Seeing the dogs was a wonderful belated Christmas gift that nearly made us forget our misadventures the previous day. It rounded out an incredible week of wildlife sightings and close encounters with the continent's most dangerous predators and was a great finale to our whirlwind three-week tour of Africa's southern tip. 
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Friday, July 11, 2014

Hlane Royal Wildlife Park

             Given that Dan and I planned our trip to Southern Africa during the rainy season when animal sightings are more difficult to come by, we didn't expect much from our visit to Swaziland's Hlane Royal Wildlife Park--a relatively obscure little conservation area located in Swaziland's northeastern corner. 
                But just because its small stature pales in comparison to that of the mightier Kruger to the North, doesn't mean that visiting Hlane is any less worthwhile. From the moment we entered the gates of the park--just minutes prior to the camp's closure for the night--Hlane set us up for one big adventure. 
                 Though Hlane and Kruger are not far apart, the two parks couldn't be any more different from one another. Kruger has always been a well-established and highly publicized romantic getaway for those wishing to catch a glimpse of Africa's majestic wildlife. The park houses a network of paved roads, eateries and accommodation options that cater to every traveler's needs. It is large enough to get lost in for days, spans a variety of different habitats and houses some of the highest concentrations of wild animals on the planet. 
                Hlane, on the other hand, sits off the tourist trail and only makes its way onto the itineraries of the intrepid travelers who are drawn to Africa's tiny kingdom by curiosity. Some would say Hlane sits off the beaten path, though such a description seems far from fitting. In fact, Hlane sits on a path so beaten (by weather and lack of infrastructure) and trodden (by animals), that attempting to drive around on our own in our rented Fiat 500 would have no doubt resulted in disaster.
               After taking one look at the roads--with their meter-deep wheel ruts and water-filled potholes--it became apparent that we would have to book a tour in a safari truck if we wanted to have any chance whatsoever of making inroads into the park's interior. 
               So, the next morning, Dan and I woke up at the crack of dawn in time for an early morning safari. First, however, we decided to stop by the campsite's water hole to catch a glimpse of animal activity. 
                  What we saw was incredible. 

Rhinos Sleeping in Hlane National Park
                   As the sun rose, the area around us began to take form and come to life. At the waterhole, we saw a cluster of brown lumps sitting around the water.  Twelve rhinos were sleeping in a clearing near the camp, merely a stone's throw from where we were standing. Unlike camps at some of the other wildlife refuges that I had visited, Hlane had very little protecting our tents from the wild animals. 

Waking Rhinos in Hlane
                  A small fence with two strands of wire was all that separated us from the massive mammals. We tried not to think of the fact that a thin metal wire stood very little chance of protecting us from a charging rhino.

              Due to widespread rhino poaching throughout southern Africa, the rangers at Hlane have attempted to maintain a close eye on the animals by enclosing them in an area away from predators and by monitoring them consistently in the relatively small area of park. 
              Hlane is divided into three sections--the rhino section, the lion section and the section housing only game. 
              Following our incredible luck with the rhinos, we decided to begin our safari-truck adventure with a foray into the lion area of the park. Our guide warned us right away that lion sightings in the park was not a guarantee--especially in the rainy season when the tall grasses would hinder us from being able to see at a distance. 
              Yet, thanks to our guide's keen ability to spot camouflaged animals, it was only minutes before we found ourselves zooming down the park's potholed roads in the direction of four tan bumps in the grass. 
              For the second time in the day, we couldn't believe our luck. Sitting in front of us--merely a few arms lengths away from our open-air vehicle--sat a black-maned lion with three lionesses. It was arguably the best animal sighting I had had during my year in Africa and certainly one of the most thrilling moments of our South African trip. 
              I felt totally and completely vulnerable and unprotected in the truck as we inched closer and closer for a better view. 
Sleeping Lioness

My Best Lion Sighting Yet
             It turns out that the elephants (not the lions or rhinos) were probably the animals we should have been concerned about all along, however. 
          Merely moments after we reached a safe distance from the lions, I heard the car engine sputtering. I could see a wave of panic wash over the face of our guide as we drove by a herd of African elephants. 
              The animals were majestic and beautiful. I took out my camera to snap a few photos of them, but I could see that the guide had no interest in absorbing the view or admiring the animals. 
                With good reason, I soon learned. Only a few days prior, a massive elephant had knocked over a safari truck. From the incident, our guide had developed a palpable fear of the world's largest mammals. As I sat snapping photos of the animals, our guide's sole concern seemed to be getting us out of the elephant area of the park before our car engine failed us completely. 

Elephants with Babies, Hlane
                  And we barely made it. The car engine sputtered one last time and died completely just seconds after we exited the gates of the park. It was a thrilling and exhilarating finish to yet another successful wildlife adventure.
               Though we had shed our expectations of seeing animals in the park, Hlane just kept delivering. With every bend in the road, a new and unforgettable sighting appeared before our eyes. It was the quintessential African wildlife experience--never dull, often uncomfortable, a bit terrifying and, as always, full of surprises.
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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Kingdom of Swaziland

             The landlocked Kingdom of Swaziland rarely receives much international attention and often sits forgotten in the shadow of its much larger neighbors. And in the few instances that it does pop up in conversation or make its way to the news outlets, it often draws inquisitive looks or comments from people who are quick to confuse it with Switzerland.
            But Switzerland and Swaziland share very little in common, save for their similar names and beautiful scenery. While the former is an organized, wealthy European bastion of stability, neutrality and punctuality, the latter more often conjures images of poverty, disease and corruption. When Swaziland garners international attention, it is usually for something negative, like the country's exorbitantly high AIDS rate or low life expectancy. 
           Swaziland is probably plagued by more problems per square mile than just about anywhere else, but it is saddening to think that these issues are what the country is usually associated with. The few who happen to make it to the tiny kingdom will be quick to tell you that Swaziland is a friendly, welcoming dot on a map that has much more to offer than one would often assume based on its miniscule size. 
             During our quick foray into the kingdom, Dan and I experienced the country's rich heritage, its stunning scenery, its incredible wildlife and its genuine hospitality. 

Swazi Countryside
              Swaziland is a small kingdom sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique. Though it was originally established in the eighteenth century by Ngwane III, it was later settled by many Europeans from Britain who sought to make a home amid the country's rolling hills. During the Scramble for Africa in the late 1800s, the British decided to annex the kingdom of Swaziland and, following the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa, incorporated the area as a British protectorate.
                 Swaziland remained under British control for over half a century, while slowly giving the Swazis more self-governing power. In 1968, the country was granted complete independence.

                 Despite being subject to European control for many years, the Swazis never lost their sense of identity and culture. To this day, they remain a proud people with a vibrant culture and centuries-old traditions. Their tiny country is home to some of Africa's greatest festivals and handicrafts. A ride through the beautiful Ezulwini Valley in the center of the country is an art-lover's dream and a wonderful way to catch a glimpse of the country's rich heritage.

Ngwenya Glass Center, Swaziland
Basket Weaver at Work 
                Swaziland's Ezulwini Valley is dotted with well-established craft centers that draw tourists looking for high-quality, handmade artifacts at reasonable prices. One such establishment is House on Fire, a concert venue and craft center with quirky, artistic decor and beautiful shops selling artifacts that range from baskets to batik and from candles to clothing. 
               House on Fire is a fantastic place to shop--not only because the stores are full of quality handmade products rather than kitschy, mass-produced souvenirs, but also because many of the proceeds trickle directly back to the artists and weavers. 

House on Fire Premises, Swaziland
House on Fire, Swaziland 
           Supporting these craft centers in Swaziland is a wonderful way to give back to a country plagued by some of the worst health issues and poverty rates in the world. Many of the shops we visited donate a percentage of their proceeds to women's cooperatives and to victims of HIV, while buying and selling products at a fair price.
               As these craft centers in Swaziland become more renowned, I believe larger numbers of tourists will inevitably follow. My hope is that Swaziland can benefit by reaping the positive effects of tourism and investing in its citizens and grassroots organizations in a sustainable way.
            The Swazis have a lot to be proud of and a visit to the country is like walking through an open air museum of the country's history and tradition. I hope that, as more people discover the beauty of this tiny country, Swaziland's image will shift from that of a nation decimated by HIV, to one that is celebrated for its rich contributions to African arts and culture. 
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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Blogger Awards Part 1--Versatile Blogger Award

                 Ever since I left Africa and started working for the airlines, I've felt as though my blogging has hit a bit of a rut. With the chaos of coming home from overseas, adjusting to my new life stateside and working a new job, I've put my little blog on a backburner and largely forgotten about it.
              Finding time to post during the chaotic monthlong window between Africa and my job training was difficult. Finding time during my two month training was nearly impossible. And once I started the job, things did not get any easier. Between flying, trying to maximize time on my layovers and catching up on sleep during my days off, I've found that the idea of writing is often burdensome.            
                 As a result, I have often found myself sitting on my couch with a backlog of information to jot down, more new experiences piling up by the day and little motivating me to take out my laptop and write.
                Until now.

Versatile Blogger Award

            I woke up this morning to a notification on twitter that a fellow travel blogger--author of the Travelling Penster--had nominated me for the Versatile Blogger Award. The award is given out by bloggers who recognize fellow blogs for the quality of their writing, content and photography. Needless to say, I felt honored to be recognized, especially by the author of such a well-established blog.  
            The premise of the award is to recognize other blogs and create networks among writers.  Upon receiving a nomination, Versatile Blogger Award nominees are asked to nominate fifteen of their own favorite blogs. There are so many wonderful blogs out there with a wealth of information and engaging stories, that narrowing the list down to fifteen can be a challenge. In the end, I tried to chose a diverse range of travel blogs--from the blogger newbies that have just recently discovered their love of travel, to seasoned veterans who have found a way to make travel blogging their livelihood. Here is my list of fifteen travel-related blogs, in no particular order. 

Great Travel Blogs

In addition to listing fifteen of my favorite blogs, the second component of the award requires me to reveal seven things about myself to my readers. To those of you who know me in person, the following list probably comes with no surprises. To those of you who only know me through my blog, the list may give you a tiny glimpse into my life and interests. 

A Bit about Myself

1. I speak two languages fluently (English and Italian) and have studied six for various lengths of time and at different periods of my life (Spanish, French, Portuguese, Japanese, Arabic and German). I am still convinced that I will somehow, someday learn them all. 

2. When it came time for my classmates and I to do country report projects in fifth grade, most of my friends chose places like Ireland, Australia and Germany. I chose to research Papua New Guinea. I guess I was always destined to explore and study the world's lesser-known and forgotten places.

3. I was never allowed to watch TV growing up. As a result, I know very little about popular culture and, to this day, have very little interest in learning about it. 

4. I love sports. 

5. I could listen to Simon and Garfunkel's songs on repeat every day and never grow tired of them. 

6. The more I travel, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I want to to travel. It's a vicious cycle that has totally sucked me in. Traveling has become an addiction, to say the least. 

7. As much as I love traveling the world and hopping from place to place, Eugene, Oregon will always be my home. 

           I would like to thank the Travelling Penster for nominating me for the Versatile Blogger Award, for getting me out of my writing funk and for reminding me that this blog is something I should not neglect any longer.
         It always feels good to get a little recognition, especially from those who are the best at what they do. The nomination was just the remedy I needed to dig myself out of my rut and to keep writing. I'm now more motivated than ever to catch up on the backlog of posts from my December travels and have made it a goal to catch up on my posts by the end of July.
             Let's hope that, this time, I hold myself to it! 
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