Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

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View from the Island

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Tour Guide who was a former prisoner at Robben Island

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View of Nelson Mandela’s tiny cell. The red bucket was his “toilet”.

While visiting South Africa, I felt it was important to learn more about the history of the country to truly appreciate where it is today.  I decided to take a trip to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his life locked away under harsh conditions.  For much of his stay, he slept on  a small mat, used a bucket as  toilet, and was forced to do hard labor.  It is amazing that a man who spent a large portion of his life behind bars, was able to get out and become an instrumental piece in the resurrection of South Africa.  I am very happy I decided to take a trip there and certainly have a greater appreciation for where the country is today.

Before heading home, I stopped in a local sports shop to pick up a soccer ball for the kids that live in the neighborhood where I am staying.  Yesterday, I noticed that they were kicking rocks and tennis balls back and forth to stay entertained so I wanted to do something about it.  Soccer and rugby are the biggest sports here, so a soccer ball was a natural choice.  I also played soccer growing up so I am looking forward to playing with them tomorrow!

When I arrived home I spent the rest of the day with my host family and other volunteers.  My host mother brought out a cake and everyone sang Happy Birthday to the old man :).  Between being humbled by the trip to Robben Island and the celebration with some of the most amazing people I have met, it was quite possibly my best birthday to date.

I start my second week of volunteering tomorrow, more humbled than ever, but just as excited as when I first arrived.

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View of Cape Town from the ferry on the way back.

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During my stay, I am volunteering Monday-Friday and have the weekends free to explore the city.  Today, myself and most of the other building volunteers spent the day exploring Cape Town on a tour bus.  To be honest, I have never been to a more beautiful city.  The views on the coast are just breathtaking and the pictures do not even do it justice.  However later in the day, I was reminded of how sometimes the most beautiful places in the world can be the most dangerous.

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Tony, the crazy Frenchman

The volunteers and I enjoyed the day taking in the views, wine tasting, eating, among other activities.  We enjoyed it so much so that we lost track of time.  This means that we had to take a train and minibus back after dark…bad idea.  As soon as dark hits, the streets, train stations and everywhere else that were bustling minutes before, empty out.  The only people left on the streets are…lets just say they are the type of people that you would not want to meet in a back alley.

We arrived at the train station, quickly found our train and hopped aboard.  We sat down and were the only ones in the car.  Soon after we sat down, a man with eyes bugging out of his head (likely on some sort of drugs) came up to us, leaned over the seat and repeatedly asked “what are you guys doing” and “why do you look so nervous”.   We ignored him for a few minutes until he eventually realized we weren’t going to be bothered and walked away.  It was an ominous sign to start the trip back home.

When the train pulled into our stop, most of the volunteers separated to head back to their respective house families.  Myself and Jomo (the Englishman) got onto a minibus and started our trek home.  The minibus was packed with people and dropped off one local after another..after another, until Jomo and I were the only passengers left in the van.  This was not a normal occurrence so I found it a bit unsettling.

As we continued driving, we stopped at a stop sign and looked to our right.  A man was crouched down with a knife about 8 inches long, just scraping it in the street looking through the window and what felt like straight through my soul.  Jomo and I immediately thought the man was going to get on the minibus.  After 3 hours of stopping at the stop sign, luckily, the mini bus continued on (OK, so maybe it was about 10 seconds but it certainly felt a lot longer!).

After driving for a few more minutes we came across a group of gangsters walking down the middle of the street.  They were carrying something large between two of them in a makeshift bag made out of a blanket and sticks.  The mini bus stopped and the driver and the gangsters exchanged words in the local language (Afrikaans).  I started to think the worst case scenario..Were the gangsters going to get on the minibus Were they negotiating to kidnap/rob us?  Was this the reason why the driver dropped everyone else off first?  It turned out to be none of the above and we kept on driving.  We finally made it close to my home and the driver asked us to get out a few blocks away from the normal stop.  To be honest, I had no idea where we were as I was born without an internal compass and everything in that area looks identical.  Luckily for me, Jomo knew the way home and we walked/ran all the way to the front doorstep.

Was my life in danger? Probably not.  However,  there is a reason why the Projects Abroad team members warn volunteers about going out at night without a door to door taxi.  I made it home safe but will most certainly not take public transportation after dark again!

Note: What made this night a bit scarier is that I found out earlier in the week that in 3 separate incidents, volunteers had been robbed. Two of them at knife-point and 1 at gun-point, which are stories all on their own.

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View from the Winery

Why half day Friday?  It is not because the volunteers want to leave early or because Deen wants to give us a break.  It is because the residents in the township tend to start partying a little early on Friday and it starts to become unsafe.  Even though the day was cut short, it was still a good productive day.

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Playtime!

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An everyday activity with most of the children. Love her smile in this picture!

The volunteers and I spent time plastering the wall we worked on yesterday.  In what is becoming a recurring theme, I also spent a lot of time with the children.  We played in the playground and I ran around like a big kid, playing games and making them laugh.

While we were at the site, a woman in her early 30’s  had a heart attack/stroke in her home next to the building site. (I later found out that she was the mother of one of the children at the site)  Deen, being the amazing man he is, jumped into action and rushed her to the hospital.  By the time he got her to the hospital she was unconscious and remains in critical condition. Unfortunately crazy things like this are more common than uncommon here.

After the day of work, all the building volunteers went to Deen’s house for dinner. His wife made an amazing meal and we laughed and had a great time.  His talented sons (Vash and Nash) provided the entertainment by singing, playing piano and the drums.  Also providing entertainment were 9 puppies.  Deen rescued a female dog from the building site and brought it home.  The dog met his Siberian Husky and one thing led to another…yadad yada yada… 9 puppies!

After being stuffed with food, we all sat around listening to Deen tell stories about former volunteers.  The love and joy in his face when talking about other volunteers can light up even the darkest streets.  He has been a mentor to the younger volunteers throughout the last 3 years, and even though it has been a week, he has taught me a lot and I feel like I have known him my whole life.

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Puppies!

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With my favorite puppy!

Today, I spent the day building a wall..maybe not “the great wall of South Africa”, but a wall none the less.  The process really is quite simple.  Step 1: fill the bags with sand.  Step 2: lay down cement.  Step 3:  Place sand bags on cement  Step 4 place cement on bags Step 5: repeat steps 1-4 step 6: plaster the sides and tada!  A wall!

The Great Wall of South Africa

The Great Wall of South Africa

I also spent a large part of today playing with the children again.  Since it was nice weather, we were able to play on the playground at the site. One thing I noticed today about the children is that they are all sick.  Every single one of them had a runny nose and was coughing.  They are all staying in a small room so when one gets sick, they all get sick I suppose.  Either way, we still had a great time and I am looking forward to finishing the wall tomorrow.

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As the title indicates, the day was filled with rain.  Weather in cape town is a bit sporadic.  It is bright and sunny one minute and pouring rain the next.  The few times the sun came out, we mixed cement and did our best to add onto the foundation.  Our efforts may have been futile as I don’t think it will dry very well by tomorrow.

View of the Building Site

View of the Building Site

The good thing about the rain is that it let me spend more time with the kids.  What kids you ask?  There is a day care center right in the same complex as the building project.  I spent time doing what I do best: acting like a kid..making funny faces and noises, lifting them up in the air to the ceiling, tying shoes, and anything else I could do to make them happy.  These children crave attention and immediately latch onto you when they see you.  I was told it is because they do not get it from home so they look for it from volunteers like myself.  It is quite sad but I will make sure to give plenty of love the rest of the time I am here!

Day Care Center

Day Care Center

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The kids and Jomo from England.

Day 3: Culture Shock

Posted: September 16, 2013 in Deed 30, South Africa, travel, volunteer

Today, I got picked up early in the morning and met the other volunteers.  There are 2 guys from France, 3 girls from Germany, a girl from china and a guy from England.  Just like every other volunteer I have met so far, they were nice and interested in learning my background.

The building site is about a 10 minute drive from where I am staying.  We pulled into town and there really is no way to describe what I saw.  Homes/shacks were made completely out of scrap metal, tarps, plastic, wood, tires, or anything else they could find.  There is no running water and most have no bathroom to speak of.  Most shacks house around 10 people or more.  Around town there are stray, very unhealthy looking dogs running everywhere.  There are children running through the dirt roads.  To be honest, it was all a bit overwhelming.  It was one thing to see it from afar, but another to see it up close and personal.

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I did not take this photo but the village I volunteered in looked very similar.

When we arrived on the building site we were met by the building site manager, Deen.  As he does with all new volunteers, he took me around the grounds and told me his back story as well as the back story of the township we were in.  There really aren’t enough kind words to describe how incredible this man is.  Deen is from Indian descent but was born and raised in South Africa.    He is in his early 50’s with 2 sons in their late teens.  He was working a construction job making good money and and was relatively happy.  He heard about the destruction going on in a place called Lavender Hill and wanted to help.  He left his job making 10 times the money to help out.  Deen did extensive leg work to get the project off the ground including securing all the permits, getting the government’s buy in, OKing it with the locals, among probably thousands of other things.  Deen’s situation before the start of the project is something I can relate to and after the talk, I felt safe and right at home.

The way they are building the community center is much different than  I am used to in the western world.  Everything is made from cement and sandbags.  The structures are very solid and insulate very well.  After being shown the ropes, I first filled a wheel barrel with sand (plenty in the area) and brought it close to the building.  We added dry cement mix until we had a good color, added water, and then mixed it with spades.  I spent the next few hours plastering a wall to fill in some gaps and quickly learned two important lessons: don’t layer it on to thick and don’t hit the wall too hard with the trowel.  The first resulted in my wall collapsing and the latter gave me a face/mouthful of cement.  In all it was a great first day at the building site.

Unrelated to volunteering: That night we hiked up Lions Head mountain to watch the sunset.  The views of the ocean and city below were simply breathtaking.  It was nice to get some exercise and clear my head to get ready for the next day.

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Me at the top of Lion’s Head peak

Day 2: Scared Straight

Posted: September 11, 2013 in South Africa, travel, volunteer

On day two, a volunteer coordinator stopped by my house to take me to orientation.  It is important to learn the public transportation system, so that is
wpid-20130819_103252.jpgwhat we used to travel around.  We left the house and walked to the corner to catch a minibus.  A minibus, which runs regular routes in the area is sort of like a mini van that they cram upwards of 20 people into…well that’s exactly what it is.  After about a 10 minute ride, we arrived at the train station. The trains weren’t the cleanest in the world but after working in NYC and traveling the filthy subways, I am pretty used to it.

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Minibus

We picked up another volunteer, made our way to the main Projects Abroad office and that is where “scared straight”  began.  We were informed that Cape Town has settlements with some of the highest unemployment rates I have ever heard of- upwards of 80%.  Obviously higher unemployment and poverty typically leads to more crime.  Over the next few hours, we spoke with various people who give you great information, but also essentially try to scare you: “Don’t ever go out after dark unless you take a private cab door to door”.  “Don’t sleep with anyone as the country has one of the worst HIV rates in the world”. “Don’t carry a lot of money or flash your smart phone around.”  Basically, don’t be an idiot.

After we were “scared straight”, we went out to lunch and to a local mall.  The mall was similar to those in America with a lot of the same brands.  I bought some work boots to use for the building project that I plan on leaving with someone in need in Cape Town after my 2 weeks.  I headed back home around 3:00 and enjoyed a delicious home cooked meal made by my house mother.

I start my first day at the building site tomorrow and I am very excited to get to work.