Monday, December 27, 2010

Top 5 of T.O.

This blog was also published by GotSaga.

Sometimes it’s refreshing to feel like a tourist in your own city, so when my boyfriend came to visit I was faced with the daunting task of ensuring he saw the sights that would make him fall in love with my hometown.

Toronto is a great metropolis, filled with multiculturalism and rich history. The challenge is to find places (and deals) that will give a visitor a feel for the city. Toronto is home to some great hostels and a hidden backpacker culture filled with travelers that never left. Lonely Planet claims that 1 in 2 Torontonians was born elsewhere, and the multiculturalism of the city’s different areas – from the Danforth to Chinatown – drives that statistic home.

Although I’ve chosen some pretty cliché locales, I find these destinations create a foreground for exploring the hidden treasures Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area have to offer.

In the city

1. The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM)

Although I may be a huge nerd, the ROM has been one of my favourite Toronto destinations since before I can remember. Although it’s considered an eyesore by many Torontonians, the newly redesigned “Crystal” entrance, by architect Daniel Libeskind, has given the museum a facelift in recent years. For its architecture both inside and out and the largest museum in Canada for world culture and natural history. If you’re on a budget, be sure to check out the museum’s website – admission is free on Wednesday afternoons.

2. The Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) and the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO)

For art and architecture lovers, OCAD and the AGO could provide a days’ worth of entertainment. With a few galleries, including one that exhibits student art, the young OCAD has become a trendy downtown destination. Located just behind the school is the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), the 10th largest in North America and houses more than 68,000 works. Although visiting both could be expensive for the budget traveler, some exhibitions can be free but operating hours are sparing, so be sure to check out the deals.

3. The CN Tower

It may be cheesy and a bit pricy at $34.99, but the revolving CN Tower is one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World and is a must-see for travelers to Toronto. The view of the harbour, Lake Ontario and the city are spectacular and if you wish to splurge, the tower houses the award-winning 360 Restaurant.

4. Harbourfront

Uniquely operated by community-based volunteers, Toronto’s Harbourfront is bustling with festivals and events throughout the year. Although it’s a much better attraction in the summer months, visitors can walk along the boardwalk, participate in an art workshop or attend the International Festival of Authors in October.

5. Distillery District

In the east end of Toronto (if you want to take the walk down Front Street from Union Station, the St. Lawrence Market is well worth a stop), the historic Distillery District offers everything from theatre to quaint cafes. The old cobblestone streets combined with the refurbished buildings that house businesses including Balzac’s Coffee make for a great atmosphere. Although isolated from the rest of the city, it provides a great escape for an afternoon lunch or evening of theatre-going.

Outside the downtown core

1. Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake

2. Casa Loma

3. Science Centre

4. Toronto Zoo

5. High Park

6. Blue Mountain Ski Resort

7. Haunted Walk of Kingston, Ontario

8. Stratford Festival

9. Canada’s Wonderland

10. Explore the Toronto Islands

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Iguazu or Vic Falls?

Two posts back, I linked to AirTreks Travel Blog when I wrote about their article "Doing Difficult Trips - It's All a Matter of Perspective."

The wonderful thing about the age of new media means that the photographer of the photograph that goes along with the article, of Iguazu, commented on my blog saying he preferred the falls, which located on the border of Brazil and Argentina, over Victoria Falls.

So I thought I'd put it to the test! Here are both of SF Brit's photos of both of the magnificent waterfalls, so you can decide for yourself!

Which one do you like more?


My new favourite guy

With my latest adventure (the possibility of seeing Egypt) being squashed by me hosting an international visitor myself in the next two weeks, I've been living vicariously through my new favourite person.

Backpack with Brock has taken over my Google Reader and become my new favourite person to follow. Traveling through Europe (for the moment), Brock is a Canadian backpacker who gives traveling tips through vlogging. He's personable, funny, and he gives great advice.

It's incredible how some people have been able to fund their entire trips by setting up personal websites. Although not always as visibly appealing as some independently-run blogs, mostly because of the added distraction of advertisements, they're a great resource for learning about traveling and backpacking from a reliable source in the field.

Finding those reliable sources can be hard. I've mostly taken to Twitter, following companies like Lonely Planet as they link out to other independent travelers. I stumbled upon this gem of the Top 25 Most Inspiring Travel Bloggers in 2010, which has given me plenty of reading material. The website As We Travel isn't half bad either.

Happy reading!


Sunday, September 26, 2010

It's been a while

There has always been this odd lull after I return from a trip. It's this interesting block of time where I become nostalgic and wear all my grubby clothes until my roommate tells me to "snap out of it" and forces me out for Starbucks and some much-needed shopping.

Then there's my mother, who orders me to sit in a chair while I get a pedicure and haircut.

So the new me is back again. Or the old me? The Canadian me? The birks haven't been retired and I swear to wear them until October, but they've been replaced by $150 boots. My wide-leg jeans have been replaced by a skinnier counterpart and my untamed mop of hair has been straightened and now sports bangs - meaning I have to use a straightening iron every morning.

I'm now living vicariously through Kenji, websites like Lonely Planet and blogs, which explains (but doesn't excuse) my lack of blogging.

Funny enough, I stumbled upon an AirTreks Travel Blog that advocated exactly what I always expect from my adventures - change.

"One of life’s easiest ways to initiate change is to travel," said one of the opening lines. Nothing I didn't already know, as every time I step out my door with my pack on I never return unchanged.

The blog also has a link to an amazing flickr gallery. The main photo is of Iguazu, which Kenji claims is more beautiful than Victoria Falls. Lies.

Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!


Friday, June 18, 2010

Mental photography

I want to be able to write you something. I want it to be something profound, too. I don’t know what happened to me. Somewhere along the line of the last three years my blogs have become overly poetic and almost brooding.

Experiencing writers block is not something I’m used to. I feel like Carrie Bradshaw, sitting in front of a blinking cursor.

My room on the cruise is not necessarily the most stimulating place. It’s full of mirrors so I can watch my lack of progress from about eight different angles. But I’d be lying if I said I had been at all motivated even a month ago to inform you of what I have been doing.

In fact, you really have no idea what I’ve been doing. Two years ago my blogs consisted of a very structured pattern whereby I would debrief about the week on the project and update my blog on Monday with what I had done on the weekend.

There are certain aspects of this last trip that I cannot share with you, or will not share with you, because this trip was more of an experience for myself than events that I can exploit for your readership.

Take for example the fact that I took about 20 pictures over the last fifty days. The majority of the pictures on my Facebook page have been taken by other volunteers. I lived my last two trips through my camera lens and my laptop and I vowed that this trip would be different. Sometimes I would even sneak off just to be by myself to take in my surroundings, particularly in Drakensberg.

I wanted to remember everything through a mental photograph instead of a file on my computer. I wanted to remember the feelings and the emotions around a particular sight of situation rather than pull out my camera in an attempt to capture it visually.

So I perfected my mental photography on this trip, and as a result I can remember scenes and how I felt at a certain time. It is a perfect medley of feelings and sights that I can experience all over again when I shut my eyes.

Some of the scenes are beautiful and serene, others are full of guilt or sadness and fear. A picture is worth a thousand words even if it’s inside my head.

Traveling is not just seeing the new, it is also leaving behind. Not just opening doors, also closing them behind you, never to return. But the place you have left forever is always there for you to see whenever you shut your eyes. - Jan Myrdal

Thursday, June 17, 2010


Last year, I wrote a blog comparing my first experience in South Africa with African Impact with my second visit. I’m prepared to answer the question of which trip I enjoyed the most, by summing up what I got out of each trip.

My first trip, I gained perspective. I saw how other people lived and where my place was in the world and I discovered what I wanted to do, and who I wanted to be. I wanted to be independent and I discovered that those who do not have the courage to follow their own dreams will always try to belittle the dreams of others.

My second trip, I learned to be skeptical of what I see, and really discovered the ups and downs of development work. It was this trip that I truly decided that I wanted to continue my education in African development, and I really matured through this trip as I took on a more leadership role, which I enjoyed.

This last trip, I learned to have fun. Sometimes I can be too uptight and a bit of a workaholic, so I learned to let loose and soften the walls I so often hide behind. This trip was full of the most ups and downs, with the death of one of our home-based care patients, and some of the most gruesome home-based care visits I’ve seen. At one point we were popping two abscesses at the side of the road before tending to a lady’s finger that had been bitten by her neighbour, the bone of her middle finger exposed to the elements.

I learned to have emotions as a response to the patients that I saw, and I learned that I can only laugh off so many instances before it’s going to hurt my psyche. Sometimes it’s good to be able to shut down when a situation warrants it, but this group of volunteers taught me that it’s important to debrief and even feel.

I don’t regret changing my plans. Europe would have been nice, and I still got to see some of it. But volunteering has become the place where I can put all my emotions back in their proper place before continuing with another year. It’s exactly what I needed.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."

~ Mark Twain

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


“What’s the poorest place you’ve ever been?” an American from Dallas asked me at dinner last night.

Interesting question.

In an effort to avoid being confrontational, I had told him that many of the countries I had visited were poor, in a variety of different ways. From China to Swaziland, I couldn’t find the words to tell him it was impossible to compare nations’ wealth or lack thereof.

But it got me thinking about what makes a community rich, and what makes them poor. Khula and Ezwenelisha (both in KwaZulu Natal) were viewed as impoverished by many volunteers who had not been abroad. We pulled up to a dilapidated wooden house one day and one volunteer, on the verge of tears, turned to me and stated, “please don’t tell me that’s a house.”

However, one volunteer who had been to India pointed out that there were plenty of other places that were much worse off.

What makes these two communities unique was their dependence on the healthcare system, as a result of high HIV prevalence, and a lack of healthcare infrastructure available to them.

There are plenty of other areas in the world riddled by natural disasters, drought, and ethnic violence, among other perils.

I wanted to avoid being confrontational with “Dallas”, and conversation quickly moved away from the subject as our main course arrived. But the subject still resonated. It surprises me how many people look upon me with some sort of notion that I am brave or that I should be proud of what I’ve done. Of course, I am proud. I wouldn’t change my six months on the continent for anything, but I don’t consider myself brave.

Whatever bravado I exude is minimized by the resilience of those I’ve worked with, particularly in Khula and Ezwenelisha. It’s also belittled by the hearts of those I’ve volunteered alongside.

“The richest man is not he who has the most, but he who needs the least.”

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Manning up

Development is a slow process. If my recently completed university degree has taught me anything it's that lifting the "bottom billion" toa quality of life that meets even basic standards will be a slow and painful progression.

If three summers in KwaZulu Natal has taught me anything it's that everything here takes forever - Africa time runs painstakingly slow, if at all.

I joke that nothing has changed since my first visit. I've eaten basically the same menu, bought bananas from the same ladies and drank at the same hole-in-the-wall bar each year.

However, there has been a glimmer of hope this trip. Slowly but surely I have seen small changes i the way gender is acted. Zulu culture is highly patriarchal, ut there have been many instances this year where I have seen empowered and entrepreneurial women, and even men taking on domestic roles.

I will vehemently argue that the gender gap in many periphery countries is a reason for stunted development. Gender inequality has a strong effect on economies, social life, industry and infrastructure. I won't bore you with technical development study jargon, but if you empower half a nation and that has to be good for something.

Even our Zulu worker, Mpho, says that over the last few years the gender gap has been closing. Thye HIV education class I taught last week had three very intent men, all of whom took packages of condoms with them at the conclusion of the workshop. I watched a twenty year-old brother bathing is baby sister, and past quite a few men carrying babies.

It seems like the men of Khula and Ezwenelisha have finally decided that the dire straights of social life in the villages finally warranted their attention.

It was refreshing.

For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way
that respects and enhances the freedom of others. - Nelson Mandela

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Some photos...

We learn something every day, and lots of times it’s that what we learned the day before was wrong.

—Bill Vaughan

Monday, June 7, 2010

The reason

The world is a book, and those who don't travel read but one page, it's true. And recently, someone told me that at times those moments that feel like they make up a simple chapter, turn out to be the main plotline of the story. Often on this trip it's seemed like I've been re-reading pages of my life that I have already lived.

This trip to South Africa happened for a reason - everything does. I just have yet to figure out the reason for this trip, which happened on such a whim that there must have been a higher meaning.

Perhaps it was less about my work here, which I've done before, and more about the relationships I built this past month. Each person I worked with taught me something different about myself, whether I wanted or not. Some taught me to be more fun, others taught me to shut my mouth. One pointed out my sometimes faltering self-confidence, others relied on me for support. I learned from them, observed them, and listened to their advice when they would give it to me.

Some of my relationships you wouldn't understand, and I'm not even sure I understand them myself. I had a great bond with some people that others never got to know, and sadly I didn't have enough time to really experience other volunteers to the same extent.

One volunteer even taught me that just because something is far from my mind doesn't mean it won't slap me in the face. It's this relationship that I could write a whole chapter about - or maybe a book.

This last trip, unplanned, might have meant more for my person. Although it was a rollercoaster more for my relationships and interactions instead of emotionally on the projects, it fulfilled something for me that my last two trips did not.

I left home expecting an escape, and that's not what I got, but putting myself on the line to build a rapport with others paid off in the end, even if we had to say goodbye.

I wouldn't change a thing.

Friday, June 4, 2010


"Risk more than others think is safe. Care more than others think is wise. Dream more than others think is practical. Expect more than others think is possible. " -Cadet Maxim

All alone

I’ve been left behind before. Often, I stay so long here that volunteers come and go and I am left as the “veteran volunteer” – like a fixed piece of furniture. Since returning for a third time, I’ve sort of felt that way from the beginning.

Having experienced the coming and going and the dreadful weekend at the end of the month when all of the photographers leave and community volunteers embark on other journeys, I figured this year would be no different.

Time heals all wounds and I’d forgotten what it felt like to be left alone.

Martijn and I are the last ones left who arrived during the first week of May, and we are definitely feeling a pang of longing for our old friends. Poor Martijn is the only male volunteer left.

Maybe it’s my fault for getting so attached to some of the people, and I feel a jab of sadness when past volunteer’s notes are taken down from the wall, their e-mail addresses erased or their names taken off the schedules. Caroline, Martijn and I keep telling stories about last month, much to the chagrin of those who have newly arrived.

The truth is that once you’ve shared the ups and downs that occur so regularly on the project, and lived in such close quarters with volunteers, you become a team, and the breaking up of a team is never easy.

I’d thought I’d become hardened to it, that I could become a part of any team at any time. I thought I could switch camps without batting an eyelid, but I’m finding it much harder to do so this year.

Maybe I’m getting old.

Take your records, take your freedom,
Take your memories, I don’t need ‘em.
Take your space and take your reasons,
But you’ll think of me.
Take your cat and leave my sweater,
Cause we have nothing left to weather.
In fact, I’ll feel a whole lot better,
But you’ll think of me.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Looking over the edge

Returning to the project for a third time brings up lots of mixed emotions. I feel more at home and comfortable here than ever, which has probably led to my laziness at updating the blog. Other than more personal development and issues, there is really not much new to tell you all about what I’m doing here.

Which is why I took a trip last weekend. Weekend traveling is a great way to take a break from the project. In the past years I've taken trips to Swaziland and Mozambique, so when the opportunity to travel within South Africa arose I was excited at the prospect of seeing more of the country.

Going on the photography trip to Drakensburg, the highest mountain range in South Africa, combined learning more about taking photos from guide Emil and some rather intense day-long hikes and climbs.

On our final day going to the summit we woke up at 4 a.m. and climbed the highest portion of the mountain in the dark (some of us without headlamps). The views were well worth the many early mornings, and climbing the mountain gave such a sense of accomplishment.

The group we went with got along really well and we all had a great time. We camped one night at the base of the mountain, which was just my style.

Hiking and being outside was such an exhilarating experience, I recommend climbing a mountain to anyone.

There's nothing like standing on the edge.

I don't measure a man's success by how high he climbs but how high he bounces when he hits the bottom. - General George S. Patton

My dearest Brier,

When you sent me out to find you a family to donate your money to, I figured I would be looking for a family with lots of children, or one very special child. You always had such a great connection to the children here and I knew you would smile knowing your money had made one of the kids here happy, like you always did with your lollies.

However, today I had a reaction not unlike yours at many of the houses we visited both together and separately last year. It was one that brought me to tears, with the type of expressions I envy in you. Your willingness to show what you’re feeling so easily is a quality I both envy and admire. However, Mussi (who had suffered from a stroke) and his family have touched me to display feelings more characteristic of you than of me.

The last time I saw his mother and girlfriend I was happy to see they were in good spirits. The mother even happily declared that she still was full of hope for her son’s recovery.

But sadly, he passed away this week from an apparent stroke. I immediately knew that this would be a situation that would touch you deeply. Three weeks ago I was taken aback by his girlfriends’ tenderness and loyalty – questioning myself as to whether I would be able to have such courage. His mother, who had attended counseling, seemed to be doing less well.

They don’t seem like the type of family I pictured for you, but their hope and sense of pride are qualities I know you would admire as much as I do.

Mpho, who I know you trust almost as much as me has explained that we must buy the two women food so when neighbours and loved ones come to donate money to them, they have something to give in return. So this is what used your money for. I hope you approve of this family. I truly think they would have touched you as much as they touched me.

In memory of what you did here, your love of making children smile just to have them smile when I find it such a small deed, when in reality it is all that matters. In an attempt to have as big of a giving, caring spirit as you do, Mpho delivered the food to the family and they were so grateful. I wish I could have pictures but I’m sure you’ll understand that it wasn’t my place to photograph them in their time of grieving.

Your money went to good use, and I wanted to let you know.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

"Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return. "
~ Leonard da Vinci

Slapped by reality

Every once in a while there is a moment here that delivers a slap in the face. It usually happens when I least expect it, which makes it all the more traumatic.

Since my first visit, Nompumilelo has been a constant shining light of energy and a youthful vibrancy by very few I had come across, especially in Canada. She constantly expressed her wish to be a dentist and to volunteer with African Impact in her community. Pumi, we called her, would go so far as to meet us to help build bricks and paint the church in 2008.

She just graduated school, a feat not easily completed here with such a high dropout rate, particularly among grades 10 and 11.

I drove past a seven-month pregnant Pumi yesterday.

It brings back questions I've received while teaching HIV education. "Why are you not pregnant?" they would ask me, "Why do you not have a baby?"

I know I am to remember that culturally a baby could be very welcome by Pumi's family, especially because the father, also a friend of mine, is taking responsibility for the baby, as far as I can see.

But it still delivers a pang of what may be grief for what Pumi has lost, or guilt that I have never had to deal with what she must be going through.

Or maybe it's relief that it never happened to me.

A little bit of optimism...

I often mention that being in Africa is about rolling with the punches and taking the hits as they come, but sometimes things just magically fall into place, like they did last Friday.

On Thursday we had a meeting with a teacher from the primary school about a special HIV day they were going to have - the next day. It turned out that we did our presentation to about 500 students!

Now, this is how things happen here. Magically, all of a sudden the students have a morning off of class to learn from invited guests.

The police were coming to speak about rape and underage drinking, and nurses and others from the clinic were coming to speak about HIV and teen pregnancy.

We had less than 24 hours to prepare a presentation, so we got to work and came up with an awesome presentation that we were all happy with, complete with scenarios, information and posters.

We decided to speak about healthy living and regular testing; two subjects that are often overlooked when it comes to HIV education.

Everything came together in a strange way like it usually doesn't here. Perhaps I shouldn't always be so pessimistic...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bump in the road

"I run to cope with things," I told one of the volunteers today. I didn't realize how profound the statement was until it had left my lips and had already been said.

On a daily basis, the car drives up the drive after the project and within five minutes I've hit the road, running. It's a great way to unwind and reflect on everything and anything.

We had a long discussion about how being here was an escape. Maybe it's away from reality, or an issue at home. But at the end of the day everyone here is searching for or running from something.

One volunteer has had his heart broken, another wishes to find inspiration, and one is coping with the loss of her best friend. Another was crushed by not being hired for her dream job. I encountered a volunteer last year whose husband had slept with her neighbour. She had promptly destroyed that neighbour's garden, keyed her husband's car, and took off on a year-long trip volunteering around the world.

People's issues are overwhelmingly surrounding relationships.

But here, no one expects anything from you back home, one volunteer and I agreed. You're "in Africa", whatever that means, and you can disappear.

When I run here, all alone with the monkeys, bucks and hippos, I can disappear even from the place I have already disappeared to. It's an amazing feeling of complete solace and bliss.

Unfortunately right now my leg hurts and I think I have a shin splint.

I'm going to run anyways.



I have spoken in the past about my passion for teaching HIV education at the primary school here, and this first week I was able to reacquaint myself with the program I helped put together in 2008.

However, an ongoing trend of the ups and downs of development work has become apparent - even more so than when I returned last year.

Out of the 17 students in our class given to us by the teacher in charge of the program (although we have requested to only have classes of 10), only eight passed the HIV education test given to them at the end of the week.

It's discouraging because not only are the students struggling with the concepts being taught to them, they are also attempting to overcome a steep learning curve by having the program taught in English.

I will be returning on Monday with Sma, one of our Zulu translators, to try to decipher which students are failing the class because of their poor English skills, or whether they just do not understand the concepts being taught to them.

It brings about questions for me that surround an issue that was in the headlines when I left Canada over a week ago. When Dalton McGuinty pulled the new proposal for teaching sex education in schools, I was outraged.

I am a firm believer that sex education taught at a young age will produce a culture of dialogue around issues of great importance, like sexually transmitted infections and relationships in general. Silencing education for primary school students stunts any progress we have made in being more conscious of what dialogue around an issue can positively accomplish.

Sex education has been a hot topic in the house since the South African student's test results came back. Some of those in the volunteer house never received sex education, and some were given a watered-down version of an anatomy lesson. It seems no one is satisfied with their own education around the subject. For as many problems as we have with the world's teaching (or lack thereof) of sex, we have no answers; or at least we can't seem to agree on any solutions.

It's a harsh reminder of development initiatives and the burnout that can happen around certain projects.

Hopefully we can revive a program that once had the students jumping out of their seats to answer questions and participate in games, and had an impeccable success rate.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Black or white

So begins another chapter of my tumultuous relationship with race in South Africa.

Even as I stepped off the plane, speaking my first words of Zulu since leaving last year, I was gawked at. I probably deserve it, because I judge right back.

I find myself resentful of whites here, as I always have. Even at the ticket counter, the white South African lies to me that the plane I'd like to get on is full. The black worker at the counter would later tell me that 21 people were on a flight that could hold 50. "You could have been there already!" he exclaims. He seems angry that I was been lied to, and asks if I can point out the man who lied to me two hours earlier, but he's gone.

I get a porter to carry my bags, they're always very friendly and although the Johannesburg airport is notorious for theft, I know the airport well enough to know who to stay away from and who is trustworthy. The porter laughs loudly when I speak in Zulu to him. He says something to the effect of whites not knowing black languages, and applauds me for my flawless accent (he lies, but I tell him I'll pass his compliment on to my teachers).

I struggle when people ask me if I'm afraid to come here. Afraid of the blacks is really what they mean. They don't expect me to be attacked by a white South African when in fact all of my bad experiences in town have been with extremely forward whites, not blacks.

But a glimmer of hope. Two workers from South African airways joke with me that I should be learning Afrikaans from the "coloured" South Africans, as it's different and fun. They get along - a symbol of Mandela's new South Africa, symbolized by the nation's rainbow flag. But it's a pipe dream, so far as I can see. It makes me sad.

I shouldn't judge. White South Africans have also sacrificed and done a lot to help the peace process here, and although I may see them as a symbol of oppression and apartheid, such thoughts need to be pushed aside if real development is to occur.

But I do have hope that one day it will be better. For now though, I sit remembering the racism of visits past, and it clouds my optimism for the "rainbow nation."

Some of my favourite Nelson Mandela quotes:

"Let freedom reign. The sun never set on so glorious a human achievement."

"If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness."

"I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear."

"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."

"After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb."

Monday, May 3, 2010

Walk like you know where you're going

Everyone I have spoken to so far that has been traveling agrees - if you walk like you know where you're going, people won't bother you because you don't look like an easy target. When you look like you're in control, if you can create the illusion of being in-the-know, you sweep by everyone with ease. To master this ability is like art.

"My first day back on the road was a little tough. This trip was supposed to be taken with someone else, and being by myself is something I haven't experienced in a long time.

"For now though, I'm in Amsterdam with Emily. Yesterday she showed me around the city. I'm feeling somewhat melancholy that I should be leaving Europe so soon, since this was supposed to be just that: a trip to Europe. Change happens, as I wrote in a previous blog, and I must adapt. This trip is about enjoying every minute and not wishing my life away. Stop to smell the roses while you can, right?"

It's important, my mom always taught me, to live like this. Not hoping for tomorrow, when I'll be back in South Africa, but to live in this moment, in a beautiful cafe in rainy Amsterdam.

And to pretend that I belong. This trip is about pushing my boundaries in a different way than I have before. It's about fooling people into believing that I am confident when I am not.

Emily and I rode bikes around Amsterdam last night. For anyone who knows me, they know I am scared of bikes. For some reason I feel more comfortable on the back of a 17-hand, unpredictable Warmblood stallion than I do on the seat of a bike.

But I fooled everyone (except Emily who knew how scared I was). We rode through the red light district, through the town square. It was one of the most beautiful and exhilarating experiences of my life, and I'll never forget it.

If you walk (or ride) like you know where you're going, no one will know you are scared to death of bikes and the porters won't bother you in the Johannesburg airport. No one will know that you are walking in the opposite direction, that you're scared to death, or that it's your first joint.

They'll think you fit right in, that you were born to walk with confidence.

Something a little different

I am going to explain what it is I plan on doing here, since I have been blogging about my trips to South Africa for long enough that it seems a little pointless to bore you with the same old jazz all the time.

I was given the idea of creating more blogs as "profiles" of people that I meet on my trip, which I plan on doing. I think it's a great way to have you all get to know the people that I meet.

As always, this is a journey of self-discovery, and so I'm going to take a little bit of a more personal route. I will attempt to include parts from the journal that I keep. I hope this will help you get to know me a little better, and I'm sure this will be a little more candid than my last blogs.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

I take it back

I lied. I think maybe I do need to find myself again.

Sometimes I wonder if I've hit that weird quarter-life crisis we've discussed so often during production nights at The Cord. I feel like that one section in Dr. Seuss' "Oh the Places You'll Go" about "The Waiting Place."

I've graduated, I have a great job lined up as Editor-in-Chief, and I've been accepted to some amazing graduate schools to study African development, something I've wanted to study since before I can remember. But I still get this weird feeling of not being fulfilled - is it that I'm missing Africa? Do I crave adventure more than I realize?

Maybe it's just the result of all the changes that have gone on in my life this month, not just with this trip. I've moved into a new apartment, graduation is around the corner. Is it perhaps that I've misjudged my adaptability? Am I not the chameleon I thought I was?

Or is it just those pre-trip jitters?

Maybe I'll learn more about myself on this trip than I thought...


...You can get so confused
that you’ll start in to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
The Waiting Place…
…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or a No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.
Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a sting of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A New Leaf

When I was 12, my family's car broke down on our way back from vacation in Florida and all I could do was be excited that the motel in the hick town we ended up in had a pool.

People say I'm adaptable. Rolling with the punches is a quality I tend to take pride in.

So when my plans changed from backpacking Europe to another volunteer stint in Africa, one can imagine I adapted quite quickly.

I found flights and my accommodations within days - hours, really. But was it too quick? Maybe some would say yes, that to change my plans and life so drastically could only be the workings of a woman on the edge. But I'm not.

Others are saying that I'll go to Africa to "find myself again." But the truth is that I haven't been lost in quite some time. Probably not since my first trip to the continent. I always learn new things about myself while I'm out on the project, but in no way do I believe I will have an epiphany and become a new person.

This trip is to take time for myself, to learn and grow and see what I can make of life when I return. It's a chance to show myself that on a whim I can enjoy myself with just... myself.

I refuse to be sad or mad when things change, because from the outset no one can tell if change will be good or bad, so who am I to judge what the future holds?

I used to fear change, until my dad made me read the self-help book "Who Moved My Cheese?" When he forced me to sit and read it at age 13, I didn't understand why accepting change was so important. Now, I understand that if you're not adaptable in the world, you'd better move over because there are some real chameleons out there. There's no use having a freak-out over changes you can't control.

This is becoming so cliche it's hurting my brain. So if you've made it this far you'll know 1) I'm adaptable, so don't pity that my plans have changed because 2) in Africa I am truly myself and 3) I enjoy life anywhere I go, even if it's a hick town with only a pool.


Change is the essence of life. Be willing to surrender what you are for what you could become.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Why Prague?

Everyone has told me that if I'm backpacking Europe, Prague is the place to be. But Lonely Planet warns that Prague's charm can often be masked in a great number of tourists, so I'm having some apprehensions.

Stuck right in between two of the places I am most excited to see, Prague has slipped my mind on numerous occasions despite being one of the most highly recommended spots to me on our trip.

I'm worried that Prague's beautiful architecture will be lost on us after the experience we will surely have at Auschwitz.

Luckily, by the time we arrive in Prague it will still be low season in May, and there certainly won't be an abundance of tourists. I hope that we can find ourselves off the beaten track and away from the staple town square and castle.

Facts about Prague
  • Almost one-half of the national income from tourism is spent in Prague.
  • The city offers approximately 73,000 beds in accommodation facilities, most of which were built after 1990, including almost 51,000 beds in hotels and boarding houses capable of satisfying all categories of visitors.
  • One of the only major Central European cities to be left unscathed by WWII.
  • Many bars in Prague have signs that say "NO STAG PARTIES" because they are seen to be reckless and the boisterous nature and singing of attendees tends to be so loud that it scares off customers.
  • The Prague restaurant Allegro received the first Michelin star in the whole of post-Communist Eastern Europe.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

What makes YOU annoying?

It’s important to know what makes you annoying

During reading week, my friends and I were in the midst of playing a black jack drinking game we had just invented when near the end of the evening, one of my close friends started talking to me about our upcoming trip., and pointed out “this will be a true test to your relationship, to see whether you guys can handle each other or not.” Everyone nodded in agreement.

While I obviously agree with this, I really don’t think Alanna and I are in any sort of trouble, for two reasons.

One, Alanna and I went to Algonquin last year on a camping trip, and even though it was only for two days, the potential for one of us to want to decapitate the other was quite high, and we worked out perfectly together, besides the non-stop rain and the wet tent.

We work great as a team. I’m not a domineering man who needs to take charge of everything. If Alanna is better at something, and to be honest, she quite often is, I have no problem taking the follower or helper role. With my girly techniques and Alanna’s handy-man attitude, we’re ready to go!

My second reason is I developed a plan that is foolproof for such a long trip.

I told Alanna that it’s smart for us to write out a list for each other of everything we expect of each other for the trip. For example, I have a tendency to snap occasionally just for the hell of it, and it can be quite annoying and hard to deal with. For Alanna, she can be a too emotional at times.

As long as both of us know our faults and what we need to do to please each other, I think were ready to go!

Of course this is all just theory and speculation. I may feel differently when I wake up one morning only to find myself alone in Brasov with my money gone and a note that says “let’s see you snap at me now.”

Only time will tell…


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Never Again: From Berlin to Auschwitz

After a few days in Berlin, we plan to travel to Krakow, a city that flourished in the 12th century and has a rich history of being the ancient capital of Poland.

Destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century, Krakow was rebuilt with a near-perfect grid plan and was left virtually unscathed by World War II, an amazing feat since it is only a one-hour bus ride to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Less than 10% of Krakow's Jewish population survived the Holocaust, and the city is rife with the history of the atrocities committed at the concentration camps. Over 4,000 people were gassed and cremated every day at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and today the camps stand as a reminder to the world of the atrocities that were committed. Free for visitors, Auschwitz is now more of a museum, paying homage to those lost with displays of hair, shoes, and other belongings taken from those interned.

Traveling to Krakow is less about the city and more about the day we'll spend at Auschwitz. This is the part of the trip right now that I'm looking forward to the most. The nature of my studies have led me to study genocide and its history, and especially with the controversy surrounding the Armenian genocide right now, I think making the trip to Poland, despite it being slightly out of our way, will be beneficial for us both.

I'm told that visiting Auschwitz is a profound experience, and I expect it to be. I'm sure I won't be disappointed.
I decided to devote my life to telling the story because I felt that having survived I owe something to the dead, and anyone who does not remember betrays them again.
- Elie Wiesel, holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Going green?

How could one even fathom traveling "green"? It seems like a daunting task that is going to cost far too much money and take more energy than it's worth. However, it's been proven that this is a misconception, that although jet-setting can be detrimental to the globe, there are small things that everyone can do to make their travel footprint a little lighter.

When I think long and hard about it, maybe going green is the way to... go?

One billion people around the world travel every year, meaning everyone needs to watch out for the effects this type of global movement can have on the environments we're visiting. Increase in globalization has led to an interconnectedness unlike anything the world has experienced, but often this means a loss of respect for the impacts of unrestricted travel.

The potential negative effects of tourism are both local and global; oceanfront hotels contribute to beach erosion in Hawaii, rising numbers of visitors threaten the fragile ecosystems of the Galapagos Islands, and carbon dioxide emissions from planes are a growing contributor to global warming. - MSNBC
Go Green Travel Green says that traveling green is more cost-effective (good for us since we're on a students' budget). Their "15 reasons to travel green" was however, not very compelling. Reason #2 was "It's good for your children, and your children's children" - not really something high on my priority list, I have to say. Although "You'll lose weight", reason #9, was sadly more compelling.

I hate to say I'd rather go cheap than go green, but let's be honest here - the majority travel with their ecological footprint only in the back of their mind as a small voice reminding them to take a shorter shower. But I think I've resolved myself to attempting to be as environmentally friendly as I can while I'm traveling. While in South Africa, I worked alongside wildlife projects, which gave me a good sense of what I should and shouldn't be doing as a visitor abroad.

Backpacking is going to be a different story. With a wide array of places on our list to visit, we will try to take more environmentally sustainable methods of travel, like train instead of bus or plane, since USA Today reports that a flight from New York to Denver produces as much carbon dioxide per passenger as an SUV produces in a month, a train seems like a healthier solution for the planet.

With some quick Internet searches, it's easy to come up with a list of easily attainable goals for traveling, and I hope to keep the following things in mind.

Goals to travel green
- ask hostel staff not to change towels or sheets every day
- use public transportation in destination cities
- bring your own toiletries
- when hiking, always stay on marked trails
- when snorkeling, avoid touching sea life
- buy local
- carry your own reusable container for drinking
- visit a local park, waterfront, aquarium or museum
- rent a bike, sailboat, canoe or kayak to explore
- travel light

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Berlin: History meets modernity

As a political science major, I have always been enchanted by the fall of the Berlin wall and the Soviet Union, which is why Eric and I have decided to take our travels east from Amsterdam to the German city of Berlin.

Berlin has had a history of occupation and reform, including the 1806 Napoleon occupation which lasted three years but also introduced a self-governing, early form of democracy to the city.

The sometimes tumultuous monarchy in Germany was abolished in 1918 with the end of the First World War, which was followed by a period of relative prosperity throughout the 'golden' twenties until the US stock market crash of 1929. There are many historical locations which reflect Germany's monarchy and its legacy.

The cite of many historical events, such as Napolean's entrance in Berlin and the celebratory procession after the rise of Hitler in 1933. In May of 1945 Berlin fell to the Soviets after on April 30th, after being encircled, Hitler killed himself and Eva Braun, his mistress.

Berlin has suffered the brunt of many of the bombings during WWII, with more than half of all buildings and one-third of industry destroyed or damaged. At least 125, 000 Berliners had lost their lives and around one million women and children had been evacuated.

Second World War history is where Eric's interests lie, whereas mine revolve generally around the Berlin Wall, which we expect to visit. Other interesting destinations in Berlin include the Berlin Zoo, the Brandenburg Gate, and the numerous town squares in both east and west Berlin.

We have been warned by a German friend of mine to stick to the tourist parts of Berlin, though I didn't envision us straying from the beaten track while there.

Rick Steves claims that Berliners joke they don't need to go anywhere because their city is always changing, and we hope to catch a snapshot of this year's Berlin.

Facts about Berlin
  • The earliest evidence of settlements in today's Berlin central areas is a wooden beam dated from approximately 1192.
  • Sixty percent of Berlin residents have no registered religious affiliation.
  • The Teufelsberg (Devil's Mountain) is an artificial hill in former West Berlin. It rises about 80 meters above the surrounding Brandenburg plain built by the Allies after WWII from the rubble of Berlin during the following twenty years as the city was rebuilt.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

From the Past

Thought you all might enjoy some old pictures!!

(from left) Myself, Eric, Danielle and Jose
in Tiananmen Square, Beijing

Sept. 2008

China, Nov. 2005

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Memories Resurface

OK, so I'm struggling a bit with not returning to South Africa this year, and I'll admit it.

Eric is getting upset that every day I seem to turn to him and question: "So, you wanna just go to Africa instead?"

I rarely get an answer any more. Just a glare. In recent days a promise of "next trip" has become commonplace, which gives me some peace of mind, but I still find myself pining over not going back this year.

For the past two years, February has marked the time where I would be preparing for leaving, getting shots or even booking flights. This year, I'm left with an empty void once filled with plans of volunteering on development programs with African Impact.

A few weeks ago, when images of relief work in Haiti flashed across the TV screen, Eric and I debated going to do relief work. We both speak fluent French and I've worked on development projects before, and I've been to Haiti.

Despite this, neither of us could find an organization where we were assured we would really be making an impact, instead of taking a space that could have been taken by a doctor or nurse, or even someone simply more valuable than the two of us.

So I think I've come to terms with not returning to my aid work on the continent. There's always next year, and maybe I'll have someone accompanying me on that trip, too.


It Begins...Again?

Today, we finally booked our flights. There's no turning back now.

Leaving on May 1, we'll arrive in Amsterdam for the day on May 2 before moving on to Berlin. The rest of our trip has been tentatively laid out, but I figured I'd let the path we'll take unfold as I complete blog posts. I'll give you a hint that a few of the countries listed in previous blog posts will not appear on our route, but a few extras will!

And so the planning begins, for real this time. With time seemingly running out, Eric and I have started flipping through the many travel books given to us over the Christmas break. But with searching and applying for jobs over the past month, it seems that our travel plans have gotten away from us and today was a big slap in the face.

We're predominantly using Lonely Planet's Europe on a Shoestring book - which is by far the best guide to traveling Europe on a budget that I've ever seen. Even their website is so navigable and helpful, it's making a daunting task seem manageable.

As is expected, we do have some problems with planning (and most of them stem from me). I like being in control, and having more experience I often feel like I need to control the planning, forgetting that Eric is just as capable as I am (he's going to love reading this).

Otherwise, planning is going well, so stay tuned for our first destination, Berlin, and what we plan on doing there!