data Bisbocci Abroad
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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Exploring the Cape of Good Hope

          After three wonderful days indulging in the spectacular scenery, delicious food and beautiful architecture of Cape Town, my friends and I said a final goodbye to each other and split our separate ways. The girls I had met up with in Cape Town were all returning home via Windhoek and I, on the other hand, had planned on extending my journey for another ten days in order to explore more of South Africa with Dan.
            While I was sad to leave my friends, I was excited about the adventures that lay ahead. I was happy to finally welcome Dan to Southern Africa and to introduce him to the part of the world that had been my home all year. And it was wonderful to be on the road with him once again after so much time apart.

          Unfortunately, Dan's job only permitted him to take two weeks of vacation, so we had to be selective in deciding where to go and what to see. In order to maximize the time we had and to cover more ground with a greater degree of flexibility, we decided to rent a car for a few days.
           When we left Cape Town on the early morning of January 17th, the sun was shining and the clouds lifted from the mountaintops in time for us to see a spectacular view of Cape Town's Twelve Apostles. The dramatic mountains form a breathtaking backdrop to the  city's lavish oceanfront property and white sand beaches and, had it not been for the fierce wind and flying sand, I'd have probably plopped down on the beach and convinced myself that I needed another day in the Mother City.
           But the unrelentless winds pummeled sand into my eyes, nose and mouth, embedded in my hair and virtually swept me right back into our little car and down the road to the Cape of Good Hope.

View of the Twelve Apostles from Camps Bay Beach, Cape Town 
         The road encircling the Cape brought us through stunning coastal scenery. Much like Oregon's beautiful highway 101, South Africa's Chapman's Peak Drive cuts through sheer cliffs and twists around emerald-green mountains. Each bend of the road affords abundant views of rocky outcrops, sapphire waters and soft, white sand.

Scenery along Chapman's Peak Drive
             Our first planned stop along the Cape Peninsula route was Boulder's Beach in Simon's Town--a beach aptly named for the large boulders strewn about its milky sands. The beach is well-known as a breeding ground for the small and charming African penguins, so we spent time scrambling over boulders and wading through the shallow ocean waters in order to get a closer look at these charismatic, flightless birds.
              The penguins at Boulder's Beach were everywhere--playing in the waves, tanning on the open rock faces and crouching under boulders to stay cool.

African Penguins at Boulder's Beach
               After a bit of time photographing the penguins and observing their unique personalities, we hopped back into the car and continued along the coastal roads toward the Cape Of Good Hope National Park. 
           The Cape of Good Hope has long been associated with the southernmost tip of Africa, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans collide. In reality, however, the southern tip of the continent lies 150km East at Cape Aghulas. The misconception that the Cape of Good Hope stands at the tip of Africa has drawn millions of tourists over the years and now, even as it is becoming common knowledge that the the meeting point of the two oceans lies elsewhere, people visit the area in order to soak in the scenery.


        Throughout history, the Cape of Good Hope has been historically significant to sailors and explorers. Bartolomeu Dias, the 15th century Portuguese explorer, was the first officially recorded person to have successfully navigated these turbulent waters and was instrumental in setting up trade routes between Europe and the Far East. 

View of the Cape of Good Hope from the Cape Point Lighthouse
             The Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point lie less than two miles apart. When we arrived, we elected to first climb up the stairs to the beautiful lighthouse at Cape Point in order to view the Cape of Good Hope from above. The area around the lighthouse was fun to explore. We walked out to various lookouts where we could see sweeping views of the lighthouses, coastlines and pristine scenery. Looking North, we were able to see the mountainous Cape Peninsula stretching toward Cape Town. In all other directions, the blue waters spanned as far as the eye could see. 

The Original Cape Point Lighthouse at Cape Point
The Second Lighthouse at Cape Point
             After a few hours exploring the various points of interest in the Cape of Good Hope National Park, we continued along the coastal roads toward the small town of Gansbaai, where we planned on  discovering the unique marine ecosystem the following day. 
          When we finally arrived late that evening, we checked into our hostel, gathered our courage and prepared ourselves mentally for an intimate encounter with one of the most dangerous and feared animals of the deep.
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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Cape Town--Colorful Houses and Birds-Eye Views

                  There are a million and one things to do in Cape Town. Unfortunately for us, my friends and I were not be able to do them all. Our limited time in the city forced us to be selective in deciding how we spent our days and, over the course of our stay in the Mother City, we found ourselves continually crossing items off our list--not because we had completed them, but simply because we had no time to fit them into our packed itinerary.
             When Mariella and I arrived in Cape Town during the early afternoon of the 14th, we had a half day of sightseeing ahead of us. We decided to take this time to learn more about South African history by visiting the high-security political prison on Robben Island. Later that evening, after a few hours of wandering around the waterfront and dining out in Green Point, I went back to the hostel and waited for Dan to meet me.
                 The next day, my friends and I dragged my jet-lagged boyfriend around the entire day. We took the city sightseeing buses around Cape Town, beginning with a visit to the township and contrasting that with stops along the ritzy beachfront areas of Hout Bay, Camps Bay and Clifton Beach. In the late afternoon, we hopped back on the bus and ventured to the Kirstenbosch Gardens, where we would enjoy a Christmas concert among the beautiful flora at the foot of Table Mountain.
                With two solid days of sightseeing behind us and only one full day left to explore, we hesitantly scratched items off of our list and focused on maximizing the time we had left, prioritizing what we deemed to be most important. 
            And no visit to Cape Town would be quite complete without a climb to the top of Table Mountain, so we decided to spend the beginning of our third day in the city with a stunning and arduous trek up to the summit.

             Though I like to consider myself an experienced hiker, the truth is that my year of living in Onantsi whipped me out of shape faster than I would ever like to admit. Climbing the mountain proved to be a strenuous ordeal. I wanted to attribute this difficulty to the weather conditions, my unaccommodating footwear or something else out of my control, but could not. I was simply out of shape and keeping up with Kristin and Abby's superhuman ways, was not an option. I felt that the others among us were in a continual battle to catch up and that we were losing it quite miserably. At least I hadn't just hopped off a seventeen hour transatlantic flight from America like Dan had. Then this hike really would have been a struggle for me.
            Regardless of our inability to catch up with Kristin, Abby and our South African friend, Otto, the rest of us still somehow made it up the mountain surprisingly quickly. In fact, the hike only took us about half of the suggested time. To say we raced to the top would be an understatement.
             Now, looking back, I wish I'd taken a few more moments to soak in the fantastic views.

            On the day we climbed Table Mountain, the wind was so fierce that I could feel it lashing against my face, tousling my hair and drying out my eyes. At one point, it even blew my sunglasses right off my face, resulting in one cracked lens and another that flew straight through the air and disappeared halfway down the mountainside.
               The wind we experienced on our vertical climb, however, was nothing compared to the gusty blows upon the table top. At first, we tried to fight through the cold and took some time to appreciate the stunning views of the beaches, coastline and Cape Peninsula. From the top, we could see many of Cape Town's neighborhoods and beaches. We admired the craggy, green mountains around us, the jagged coastline and the azure waters. Standing at the top of Table Mountain, I felt far removed from the hustle and bustle of the city. The dramatic scenery reminded made me of an urban version of Lesotho-by-the Sea. I imagined how nice it would have been to spend an afternoon with a picnic lunch atop the mountain, soaking in the views and watching the thin layer of clouds cascade down the mountainside and into the City Bowl.
                 Despite the beautiful view, however, it was only about half an hour before the biting cold got the better of us and had us running back down the mountain in a hurry.

View from Table Mountain
              When we reached the bottom in the early afternoon, my friends decided to split into groups. Kristin and Abby, who had spent a good portion of our first day wandering the streets of the city while Taylor, Mariella and I went to Robben Island, decided to head for the beach. The rest of us thought it would be a good time to visit yet another of Cape Town's culturally rich and unique neighborhoods--the vibrant Cape Malay section of the city known as Bo Kaap.
                    My friends can attest to the fact that I fell in love with this little colorful gem. I found the area to be both historically fascinating and incredibly photogenic.
              The Cape Malay community has its roots in South East Asia. Many of the residents are descendents of enslaved Indonesians and Malaysians brought to the Cape by the Dutch East India Company in the 1600s. The population is predominantly Muslim, which is reflected in the many minarets scattered throughout the neighborhood. Today, about 165,000 Cape Malayans inhabit Cape Town and most of them live in the colorful neighborhood of Bo Kaap. This historically significant community adds a vibrant piece to Cape Town's colorful patchwork of cultures.
            The Bo Kaap neighborhood sits at the foot of Signal Hill and the surrounding mountain peaks create a backdrop to the beautiful rows of multi-colored houses--houses reminiscent, in many ways, of the colorful colonial buildings that Dan and I saw in San Juan a few years back.

           Unfortunately, we were not able to wander the streets of the Cape Malay Quarter as long as I would have liked, because we had a strict schedule to adhere to. At 6:00 that evening, we had plans to meet up with the rest of our friends for a sunset bus tour to the top of Signal Hill. As it turns out, we managed to meet with them just in time to catch the last bus departing for the mountain top. 
              Signal Hill may not afford the same dramatic views of the peninsula that we were able to see from the top of Table Mountain, but the aerial views of the city are spectacular.
Lion's Head from Signal Hill at Sunset
Cape Town from Signal Hill
              Though we spent a few hours that evening experiencing the pulsing nightlife of Long Street, I feel that my adventure with my fellow volunteers effectively ended here, at the top of Signal Hill, while the sun was setting over the Atlantic Ocean and drenching the surrounding mountains in golden hues. 
            And I think that the picture below couldn't encapsulate the adventures we had any better than it does--a group of young, female college graduates (plus Dan, who flew in from America for some Cape Town fun), standing in front of one of nature's remarkable masterpieces, perpetually caught off-guard by the exciting and often-times ridiculous experiences thrown our way. 

Me, Taylor, Mariella, Kristin, Abby and Dan
         I feel sad that our other friends were not with us during our final moments together in Africa. But I hope the volunteers who served with me in Namibia realize how important they were to my experience and that they understand how much I will miss them. 

             So here concludes the story of the group of young American girls who set out to conquer the vast and desolate corners of Namibia and learned to adapt to village life--despite insects, cold showers and unrelenting heat--in the process. Here end the conversations about lesson plans, troublesome learners and battling the African sun. Here end the endless combi rides, the bakki adventures and the weekend escapades to Ongwediva.

              But stay tuned, don't go away. 

            For, while my fellow volunteers and I closed this chapter of our African odyssey, my travels with Dan were only just beginning.
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Saturday, February 8, 2014

Post-Apartheid Cape Town--A Land of Contrasts

            After a year of living in rural Namibia, Cape Town hit me with a large dose of culture shock. The city seemed, on the surface, to be everything my dusty, northern corner of Namibia was not--cosmopolitan, diverse and sophisticated. Our drive into the city center was spectacular, too, leading us through mountain passes and past jagged peaks, into the heart of the thriving metropolis known lovingly worldwide as the Mother City. 
                 We fell in love with Cape Town immediately. The food was tantalizing, the air was crisp, the mountains were stunning. It was difficult to believe that just a few days prior, my friends and I had been navigating the dusty streets of Ovamboland and that we now stood in one of the world's great cities, at the foot of Table Mountain, soaking in the balmy weather, the abundant greenery and the crashing waves. We took a look around. It was no wonder Cape Town is considered one of the greatest cities on Earth, we thought.
             Cape Town, a city with a distinct international flair and melting pot of cultures from around the world seems, at the surface, to be the perfect city. It projects an image of a city that has emerged into the 21st century with its past behind it and a bright future ahead. It would be easy for a traveler to visit Cape Town and leave with the impression that the city is a beacon of wealth and opulence in Africa. And South Africa certainly has come a long way since the collapse of the apartheid era in the 1990s. Yet, my visit to the city highlighted the sad reality that no matter how much progress the country has made, it still has a long, long way to go.

                 Mariella and I arrived in Cape Town on the 13th of December, in time to meet many of our fellow volunteers for one last hurrah before returning home our separate ways.
             Our visit to South Africa coincided with a period of tragedy throughout the country. Just a few days prior, the world had received news of the death of a man who was the face of South Africa's transformation. Nelson Mandela, the country's nonviolent leader and political activist, passed away at the age of 95 and left a country in mourning.
              The day we arrived, Taylor, Mariella and I decided to take a ferry to Robben Island in order to pay homage to South Africa's deceased leader. 
Statue of Mandela Adorned with Flowers
              The comprehensive tour of Robben Island took a better part of the day, but it was a worthwhile and necessary excursion that gave us a greater perspective of life under apartheid.
                    To reach Robben Island, we took a ferry from the waterfront. Onboard the boat, we were afforded sweeping views of Cape Town and the surrounding mountains from afar.
Table Mountain from the Ferry
Robben Island
        Upon reaching land, the passengers from our boat were shuffled onto a bus and taken around the island for a briefing on the sights and significance of Robben Island. I admit I knew next to nothing about the island before my visit. Sure, I was aware that it housed political prisoners during the apartheid era, but I was unaware of how much history has been packed into the little island in the past few hundred years.
          The Robben Island prison was founded in the 17th century as an internment place for political prisoners from the Dutch colonies. Later, the island became a leper colony until, in 1961 it was used as a place where political prisoners and opponents of the apartheid regime would be brought to carry out their life sentences. 
             I was amazed by the scope of the island. Though today it is largely a ghost town, Robben Island once contained a functioning school, a permanent population and many of the conveniences of an ordinary town. The bus ride around the island gave us a foundation of the island's history as well as magnificent views of Table Mountain from across the bay.
           The second part of our tour consisted of visiting the high-security prison itself. We were met by a charismatic guide and former political prisoner who took us around and provided us with a human perspective of life inside the prison walls.
           My friends and I spent time meandering the empty hallways, reading poems and personal accounts that had been framed on the walls of individual cells and listening to our guide's accounts of the daily life he experienced as an inmate. At the conclusion of our tour, we were brought to Nelson Mandela's prison cell. In light of his recent death, his cell was adorned with candles, flowers and newspaper clippings.
Nelson Mandela's Prison Cell
             In fact, around all of Cape Town, thousands of people from all different races and backgrounds came together to honor their leader and it was easy to see the tremendous impact that Mandela had on the psyche of the nation. Banners flew from the tops of skyscrapers, statues of Mandela were adorned with flowers and, on the day of Mandela's funeral, the local Pick n' Pay grocery store donated 100% percent of its profit to charity.  This level of unity and respect toward their leader by all Capetonians alike, was touching to see.
               To me, it illustrated that in twenty short years, South Africa has come quite far in terms of moving toward a brighter and more unified future. The abhorrent laws have been abolished and integration is on the rise. But the injustices of the Apartheid era have run so deep, that South Africa is trying to recover decades later. 
          It was not until the next day, when we took a bus through many of Cape Town's neighborhoods, that we realized just how far the country had left to go. 
              It would certainly be easy to get a one-sided impression of Cape Town. It would be easy to overlook the four million Capetonians who live in squalid conditions, in shantytowns that stretch as far as the eyes can see, merely a stone's throw away from the multi-million dollar mansions that overlook the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, during our first day, as we walked the streets of the V&A Waterfront and gaped at the extravagant malls and boutique shops, I felt in awe of the level of development around me.
V&A Waterfront
          Cape Town presents a facade of glitz and glamor, but digging deeper reveals a city full of contradictions in an area of the world that still feels the deep scars of apartheid--scars that are slowly healing but still plagued by lingering inequality and poverty.  
               My friends and I were beginning to feel that we were getting a skewed impression of Cape Town, so we decided to visit the antithesis to the chic and ritzy waterfront. The next morning, we began our day with a visit to the Imizamo Yetho Township. The township sits at the foot of the mountains, just a stone's thrown from the upscale beach community of Hout Bay. 
          Walking around the township was a reality check for my friends and me. We had been accustomed to living amongst poverty throughout our year volunteering. We had visited townships in Namibia and knew of the realities. But there was something about Imizamo Yethu that hit me as though I were witnessing this level of poverty for the first time. Perhaps it is because of the contrast between the township and other areas of the city just a few miles away. Perhaps it is because the sheer number of inhabitants and the fact that houses are practically piled on top of each other. It all reminded me so much of Hebron in Israel and of the stark differences between haves and have-nots in the Occupied Territories.

Imizamo Yethu Township
               Visiting Imizamo Yethu was perhaps the most important part of our travels to Cape Town. It gave us perspective and reminded us that the opulence and luxury that we were witnessing merely presented one side of the coin. 
               During the remainder of the day, while we spent more time strolling down the waterfront promenade, indulged in the city's scrumptious cuisine and headed over to the ritzy areas of town, our experience in the township kept our perspective in check.
                On the evening of our second day in the city, we were exhausted and, given that we had plans to wake up early for the arduous hike up Table Mountain the next day, we decided to end our day in a relaxing fashion, at the beautiful Kirstenbosch Gardens for a Christmas concert in the park. The Kirstenbosch gardens are among the most magnificent worldwide. They showcase indigenous flora from five of South Africa's biomes and are a wonderful place for a casual stroll or for an afternoon picnic at the foot of Table Mountain.
               Standing at the base of a mountain, among the artistic arrangements of colorful plants, one would never know that they were smack in the middle of one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities--much like a visitor to Hout Bay could be completely unaware of the Imizamo Yethu township just a few paces away. Yet, unlike the lingering polarity between race and socioeconomic status in Cape Town, the opposing forces of nature and industry have found a way to integrate beautifully into the landscape of the city.
Christmas Concert in the Park
                 South Africa is a land of contrasts, and Cape Town is a microcosm of the dynamics at play in this varied country. It is at once a city of prominent architecture and magnificent nature--a place where a fusion of architectural styles from different epochs collides with mountains, beaches and forests.  It is Western yet African, historical yet modern. It is a city where rich and poor live side by side, yet isolated in their own realities. A city with racial divides between black and white are still quite evident, despite progressive laws that have abolished segregation. 
                 Yet, as the elements of society and nature have meshed to form a varied and dynamic city, I believe that, so too, will the polarities between races and classes fade over time. The toughest battles for equality and justice have already been fought and the elements for a harmonious future are there.      
              It is now up to the next generation of South Africans to see it happen.
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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Pony Trekking in Lesotho

            "Ummm....are we going to try to go down that on our ponies?" I heard Mariella ask our guide as my horse pulled up to the edge of a canyon.
              I looked at the road in front of me--at the loose scree, the vertical slope and the twisting path. "I hope not" the voice inside my head replied.
                 Our guide admitted that for novices like us, it might be better to walk the horses in order to ease our jitters. I felt a wave of relief wash over me. I was certainly not prepared to put my life in the hands of this pony, though it turns out I probably could have.

           The truth is that the sure-footed Basotho ponies have adapted miraculously to this mountainous terrain and can probably be trusted more than my clumsy feet when presented with the daunting task of traversing Lesotho's most rugged mountain passes.
                For centuries, the Basotho people have relied on this unique breed of horse as their primary means of transportation. Today, inaccessible terrain, coupled with Lesotho's poverty, have resulted in a sparse network of roads and many communities that lay a long ways off the infrastructure grid. As a result, to reach many of the smaller villages, one can only follow footpaths that wind through valleys and around mountain peaks.
         Since Lesotho is a largely rural country and many people live away from the main arteries of infrastructure, horseback remains the preferred method of transportation for many people.

          For us, exploring the country on horseback would be the best way to get a glimpse of life in rural Lesotho. 
Setting off on our Adventure
Walking into the Canyon with our Ponies
                  Still, it was difficult for Mariella and I to dismiss our apprehension completely, considering the path ahead of us and the fact that my pony got spooked once and even fell to his knees momentarily. This descent into the canyon was the first of many tests that measured our courage and the amount of trust we were willing to put into our horse. Throughout the next two days, there were many instances in which we would look at our guide incredulously and ask, "are we really going to go there on horseback?"
              One such instance occured on our first day of riding, shortly after we got back on our horses following the descent into the canyon. When we reached the bottom, our guide told that we would need to ford a river.
            The river was not merely a tiny mountain stream that our ponies would be able to gallop across. No, it was a murky brown ribbon of water that the horses would be required to wade through--despite the current--before reaching the other side. 
            My little pony struggled against the moving water and I clutched my fancy camera tightly, hoping to shield it in the event that we tumbled downstream.
              Of course, we didn't. There is a reason that the Basotho ponies--Lesotho's unique breed--are so highly regarded in this proud little country.

Fording a River on Horseback
                  Despite the hair-raising moments we encountered on our journey, it was easy to see why the area around Malealea Lodge is best explored on horseback and why these horses are so highly touted in Basotho culture. It simply would have been impossible to cover so much ground on our own two feet and taking a car was completely out of the question, since there are no roads linking the smaller villages throughout the country. 
               As we led our horses through the mountains, we found ourselves admiring picture-perfect postcard scenes at every bend. We passed children running toward us yelling "bye bye" and waving emphatically. We greeted blanket-clad sheepherders who trudged up and down the mountains in their rubber boots and tried to ensure that all of their livestock was accounted for. We trotted through idyllic villages, where no cars or remnants of modern technology mar the landscape. I had the strange sensation that I was traveling back in time. It was the same feeling I had in  Maramures, Romania, though this time the scenery was markedly different.  

                     Each village we passed seemed more picturesque than the last and each vista was so awe-inspiring, that I didn't notice just how sore my bottom was until about five hours into our trek. 
                    For those of you who are inexperienced in riding horses, let me just warn you that seven hours on the back of a trotting pony is no cakewalk. For the last two hours of the trek, I shifted  my weight continually from side to side, hoping to minimize the bruising of my tailbone and consequently confusing my  pony who had very little direction under my haphazard control. 
                   I must say that I was a bit relieved when we finally reached the picturesque village of Ribaneng in the late afternoon. I was ready to give my bum a rest and allow it to gear up for the next day's journey. 

A Hairy Goat
Our New Friend
              Ribaneng is a tiny village perched halfway up a mountain. The village consists of a small cluster of round, stone huts called rondavels, a sheep kraal and a surprisingly clean pit toilet for overnight visitors. It overlooks a valley and is only a few kilometers away from the lovely Ribaneng waterfall. 
                   Mariella and I opted out of hiking to the falls that afternoon and, instead, decided to spend  the rest of our day exploring the village. We played various games of peek-a-boo with the charismatic village baby, watched the sheep herders scamper up mountains with remarkable agility and witnessed village life unfold before our eyes. 
                    In the evening, we cooked a generous portion of bland spaghetti by torchlight, chatted with a wonderful Belgian couple who had joined us for the first day of the trek and absorbed our surroundings, as the setting sun finally emerged from behind the clouds and blanketed the countryside with a sun-drenched glow.            

View of the Mountains from Ribaneng
The Village from our Doorstep
Residents of Ribaneng
               The next morning, we woke up at sunrise for an early hike to the waterfall. The hike was about two miles long and afforded us breathtaking views of Ribaneng village and the surrounding mountains. 

Ribaneng Village
                The path to the waterfall wound down the mountainside to the river. Once we reached the bottom, our guide advised us to take off our shoes and stash them behind a bush so that we could wade through the river toward the base of the falls. 
                The water was frigid and sent daggers flying through my body. I was not accustomed to such icy temperatures--not after spending a year in one of the world's hottest countries. 
                 Mariella and I navigated the slippery rocks at the base of the waterfall with numb feet and relished the views. It felt incredible to have such a beautiful spot completely to ourselves. There were no hoards of camera-toting tourists talking loudly or complaining about the lack of WiFi or cell reception. It was just us and nature. And the occasional goat or sheep that ran in and out of the scene. 

              By 9:00 that morning, when we returned to Ribaneng, we sensed that our guide was anxious to get back to the lodge, so we said goodbye to the lovely village that had hosted us for the night and  hopped on our horses. We took an alternate route back to the lodge and followed the river the majority of the way. It was another grueling seven hours, but the second day was easier than the first. And just as beautiful. 
              I began to trust my pony more. I let him guide me down the slopes and even along the edges of cliffs, knowing that his steady feet would likely keep me safe.  

                  The two-day trek from Malealea Lodge to Ribaneng village was everything Mariella and I had hoped it would be.
                Yet as pleasant as the journey was, when our horses finally galloped through the gates of the lodge after a second long day of trekking, we were ready to be back. We had debated tacking on another day to the trek, since it would have been nice to explore remote villages further afield, but Mariella and I were more than satisfied with our decision to spend our last day around the lodge instead. I think our sore bums were thankful, too.
              As a result of our decision, we spent the rest of the day and the next hiking to the Paradise Pass, mingling with fellow travelers and feasting on carrot-cake and amarula milkshakes--a blissful end to a wonderful five days in the Mountain Kingdom.
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Thursday, January 30, 2014

On Development and Tourism in Namibia and Lesotho

            I am sitting alone in a teahouse in Eugene, Oregon, sipping bubble tea and trying to process the last year I spent volunteering in Namibia. It was only a month ago that I boarded a plane to come home, yet everything feels like a lifetime ago. I have gotten used to the routine comforts of life in America and fallen back into the trap of sleeping in late and staying awake until the wee hours of the morning, taking advantage of high speed internet and unlimited access to news and entertainment.
             Yet, in being home, I fear that I have done exactly what I feared most. I have packed up my experience and placed it on a shelf to collect dust.

            Since coming home, I have inadvertently put off writing posts about the end of my journey in Africa and am letting my experiences fade away to distant memories.
              And distant memories are not what I want this experience to be.
             Living in a rural African village gave me a lot--probably more than I am able to comprehend at this point in my life. And while I cannot say all the ways this experience has changed me, I do know that it allowed me to internalize the education that I received at Macalester, and has given me a much deeper understanding of the complexities surrounding international travel and service.

      After spending a year in a developing country and witnessing firsthand the hardships of implementing projects in the field, it was easy for my friends and I to get discouraged. For young college graduates who are bent on making an impact, the reality of just how difficult it often is for ideas to come to fruition, can be a brutal wake-up call.
            My friends and I soon realized that, more often than not, our grand ideas fell prey to deaf ears and that there would be many obstacles standing in the way of our success.

               In the end, did my school benefit from my presence? I hope so. Did it really, truly need me? Probably not. My school already receives a flood of international aid and support. 
              A select handful of schools throughout Namibia have received thousands of dollars in funding and equipment over the last few years, as international aid agencies have poured money into the country in order to develop the fledgling democracy's broken education system.
               At first glance, all this funding seems good. What bad can come from a rural African village receiving an outpouring of support from nations abroad? Surely the thirty five new laptops and interactive smartboard could bring a world of new possibilities to the thousands of students who have never so much as seen a computer before.
            At face value, this all seems grand. Africa will be transformed by the efforts of the world's powers coming together and lifting the continent out of its stagnancy.
                But wait. Not so fast.

            Among these well-intentioned projects lies a problem. Too often, the money spent abroad is money wasted.
              This is perhaps the greatest lesson I learned in Namibia, as I got to see firsthand why it is that development projects from abroad often fail. WorldTeach did a good job of highlighting the importance of followthrough and implementation when working on initiatives, but I couldn't help but notice that around me, these principles were often relegated to afterthoughts.

             The Millenium Challenge Account (MCA) donated a smorgasbord of educational equipment to my school--from books to computers to air conditioning to wireless internet. Yet, this influx of luxuries and classroom materials has done little to advance the school. In fact, I wager that the quality of education my learners have been receiving is the same as ever.
             The problem lies in the way the aid is implemented.
          When the MCA facilitated the construction of a computer lab at Olukolo, it left a cabinet of laptops sitting in the storage rooms, a new whiteboard that nobody was trained to use and a cabinet full of books that stood locked away in the back corner of the library. None of the teachers at my school had been trained on how to use computers or the whiteboard. Lack of followthrough left a school with an abundance of resources, but nobody who knew what to do with them. This problem could have been mitigated with more extensive training provided by MCA.
            When I arrived at the school, I was assigned to teach ICT to the students, not based on the fact that I know a lot about computers (I don't) but on the assumption that I am American and thus have a better understanding than the other teachers. My position as a computer teacher at the school reinforced the notion that this equipment was a gift from America and that the world's most powerful nation would keep providing.
               A few months before leaving Olukolo, I was concerned about the future of the computer lab. Nobody wanted to take over as an ICT teacher and I was afraid that the laptop cabinet would once again remain locked in the corner of the room.
              When I tried to address this problem with my colleagues and offered to teach them basics in order for someone else to take over, I was often met with the response "oh, the next American will take care of it."
               This response saddened me. I realized that what I feared all along was becoming a reality. My presence (and the involvement of the American government in providing my school with resources) had created a dependency that would be difficult to wean off of. I began to see the  implications it could have for self sustainability and tried to remind my school that I was merely a facilitator rather than a permanent solution.
               My school is lucky to have received both a local librarian and full-time ICT teacher for 2014, but I realize that its luck is an anomaly. Most of the computer labs that my friends have been so dedicated to over the past year, will not be as lucky. Thus, schools will most likely entrust the responsibility to foreign volunteers. If there are no volunteers, the resources will go unused.

                Don't get me wrong, I am not writing this to discourage people from donating to charities or from volunteering abroad. I treasure the experience I had in Namibia and sincerely believe that I have contributed to some positive changes at my school. I would not hesitate one second before recommending a program like WorldTeach to others who are interested in teaching abroad. I am only writing this to highlight the inherent complexity of international aid and to encourage future volunteers to think critically about how they can ensure that their impact is maximized.
             I truly believe that there are countless wonderful development initiatives around Africa and that the lives of many people have been impacted by the generosity of others.

                   Malealea Lodge in Lesotho, for example, provides the perfect example of how tourism and charity can truly benefit a community in a self-sustainable way. The owners of the lodge have created a development trust that works closely with the local community to assess areas of need.
               I visited Malealea Lodge in Lesotho with Mariella shortly after the close of my service, at a time when I began to really start thinking about the interplay between tourism, volunteerism and development. As a backpacker and avid explorer of the world, I like to think that there is a big distinction between tourists and travelers. I like to think that by traveling on public transport, eating in local establishments and purchasing goods directly from street vendors, I am impacting my host community in a positive way. 
                 And I truly do believe that travel can be beneficial in many ways--both to the individual explorer and to his or her host community. Tourism has extraordinary potential in Africa. The continent's abundance of wonderful destinations has the potential to draw millions of vacationers who could bring valuable dollars to local economies. 
                  But the tourist dollars that enter the country rarely fall into the right hands. 
                  I think tourism in many parts of Africa provides a perfect example of how the travel industry can take strides toward advancing the well-being of the host country. When I traveled around parts of Namibia and Botswana, it saddened me to see how many luxury resorts coexisted with destitute poverty and how little this high-end tourism really benefitted locals. 

Rondavels at Malelea Lodge, Lesotho

Mural at Malealea Lodge

                  But Malealea showed me the power that tourism can have in bringing prosperity to entire communities. 
                   In my opinion, Malealea is a shining example of a well-orchestrated interplay between development and tourism and represents what the travel industry could do. Malealea is a small, environmentally friendly, no-frills lodge, tucked away amongst Lesotho's tallest peaks and the driving force behind many of the development initiatives in the surrounding area.
               Malealea works closely with the local village to expand employment opportunities in the community and give back in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner. Proceeds from the lodge have funded schools, land reclamation projects, recycling initiatives and orphan care. The lodge seeks to promote sustainability both among its visitors and in the surrounding community. It employs many local individuals as hiking and pony trekking guides.
Primary School Built Using Proceeds from Malealea Lodge's Tourism Facilities
              Mariella and I fell in love with Malealea the moment we arrived at the lodge and absorbed the sweeping views around us. We had five days in the village and immediately sat down to map them out, agreeing that the plethora of activities would likely keep our days occupied to maximum capacity. 
             We signed up for an overnight pony trekking excursion into the surrounding villages and participated in many hikes around the area.
                We filled our agenda to the brim partly because the activities were of such great value and partly because we felt good about where our tourist dollars would be going.
View of the Gorge from Malealea Lodge
               Lesotho offers a lot of adventure and excitement to those who choose to visit, but that is not the only reason for which traveling to the kingdom is so rewarding. When I visited the Mountain Kingdom, I truly felt that the money I was spending would trickle down to the residents of Malealea and that if other countries looked to some of Lesotho's lodges for guidance, Africa could usher in a promising and successful new era of responsible and sustainable tourism. 
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