Monday, July 29, 2013

Weekend 4: Johannesburg

For my last weekend in South Africa, I headed to Johannesburg, or, as most people call it  “Joburg,” or “Jozi” if you’re really local. Downtown Joburg is only about an hour’s drive from Pretoria, so it really wasn’t much of a trek. Some people even do the commute daily, especially if they work for the government or NGOs in Pretoria and want to live in more of a bustling city.

My good friend had gotten his MBA at Duke with an American fellow named JC, who started a job in Joburg just after I arrived in Pretoria. Our mutual friend put us in touch, and I planned to visit him in Joburg on my last weekend here, so he could show me around and I would (gratefully) have a place to stay. So I hopped on the Gautrain on Saturday morning and our adventure began!

Bungee jumping in Soweto
He picked me up around 9AM, and after dropping my bags at his spacious apartment in Illovo (a lovely neighborhood), we met up with a bunch of his coworkers to head to a big soccer game at FNB Stadium (also called Soccer City) which was built for the World Cup. We first stopped at a sort of makeshift restaurant and bar called Chaf Pozi, which was located underneath the famous Soweto landmark of these two former nuclear reactors that have since been painted with beautiful murals, and a bungee jump bridge has been erected between the two. So we hung out, had a braai lunch, drank some beers and watched the bungee jumpers. Then all 40 of us piled into rented taxi minibuses, and headed to the stadium to see the Orlando Pirates play the Kaizer Chiefs.

These are apparently the two most popular soccer teams in the South African league, and they both happen to come from Soweto – the biggest township in the world (and a fairly impoverished mini-city on the outskirts of Joburg). This game was actually an exhibition sponsored by Carling Beer and didn’t count toward any standings (kind of like the Beanpot in Boston – it’s really just about winning bragging rights/team pride), but it was exciting because the fans actually got to vote for the starting lineup of their team via SMS, and could make substitutions throughout the game via SMS as well. Kind of crazy when you think about it, but definitely kept everyone engaged. So as you can perhaps imagine, it was about 4 hours of total mayhem – fans painted from head to toe in team colors, wrapped in team flags, wearing crazy hats, doing crazy dances, and NONSTOP vuvuzela blowing. Remember hearing it droning in the background constantly during the World Cup games? It is deafening in person. I had an absolute blast watching the spectacle, but I came home with a splitting headache. I don’t know how you could avoid it!

Soccer City stadium 
A Chiefs fan getting into it
The group that I was with!
After the game, we headed back to JC’s place to rehydrate and recover, and headed to dinner at a nice little Italian place in Illovo. We then met another group of his friends at a bar next door called the Griffin (which was super cool and could have been straight out of downtown NYC), who were celebrating his roommate’s birthday. It was a great group, and we spent the evening laughing about strange English South African-isms (like “shame,” which people say all the time and can literally mean “what a shame” or, some bizarre positive reinforcement, like “what a cute baby, shame!” or “sharp” which is pronounced more like “shop” and means “cool” or even just “yeah”). Everyone was so supportive and interested to hear about what JC and I were doing in South Africa. South Africans really seem to be touched when they find out that foreigners, especially Americans, have visited their country to try to lend a hand in development. A few of the group were doctors and nurses, and when I told them about the booklet I was working on, they were quite excited and encouraging, which was really nice to hear. It was a great night of meeting new people and having some really fulfilling conversation.

The next morning, we hit Market on Main, which is a Sunday food market that is part of Arts
Market on Main
on Main, an up-and-coming artsy “hipster area” in downtown Joburg that I had heard people raving about. And it was AWESOME. It reminded me so much of an indoor Smorgasburg (part of the Brooklyn Flea Market), with cute little signs everywhere and a lovely display at each stall with very appetizing food and drinks. After doing a few laps we settled on breakfast burritos, which were fantastic, and some delicious coffee. We took our breakfast to a little outdoor seating area and feasted in the warm sun.

World's smallest microbrewery?

Once fed, we wandered around the rest of Arts on Main, which had a little microbrewery (of course, what’s a hipster market without a microbrewery?) and a few art galleries with really cool work. There was also a great little clothing boutique, with not-so-great New York prices (like a $70 sweatshirt). We also walked around outside a bit, and the neighborhood continued to remind me of the Williamsburg waterfront – great little shops and restaurants everywhere you turned. We also saw a woman hosting a guitar class for little girls on the street, teaching them how to play “Diamonds” by Rihanna. It was adorable. And we passed this great chalkboard wall (which I’ve actually seen photos of elsewhere in the world) where people could write what they want to do before they die, and I was humbled to see that more than a few said “see New York City.” I guess I’m pretty lucky to be heading there on Thursday and calling it home.

Awesome painting of Soweto life
"Before I Die..." chalk wall
Impromptu guitar class
The next stop was the Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve, about an hour’s drive away. After getting fairly lost (thanks for nothing Google Maps), taking a few detours through the kid-filled unmarked streets of Soweto, and driving through the Cradle of Humankind (where some of the oldest human fossils in the world have been found), we finally made it to the
Oryx  and some black wildebeest
park. It’s a big reserve that does have some accommodation and game drives, but mostly people seem to come for the day and do self-drives through the reserve, like we did. We saw sable antelope, waterbucs, buffalo, hippos, oryx, black wildebeest, white lions, rhino and more than I’m sure I’m forgetting – all awesome, again!

We slowly made our way up to the end goal – the Animal Creche, where some endangered and baby animals are kept in enclosures and you can play with them! A little sad to know that they weren’t out in the wild with their parents, but at least it was better than an awful zoo with concrete floors and bars on their cages. Here they were just kept in large penned-in sections of the reserve. We saw lots of adorable baby animals, including a sleeping leopard (all of these cats are seriously lazy), cheetah, more lions and tigers (randomly – what are Bengal tigers doing in Africa?). And THEN it was time to play with the lions. For a mere $3 we spent about 10 minutes with four brown lion cubs and one white lion cub, and they were awesome. Seriously the cutest things ever, with humongous paws (and sharp claws, which I managed to avoid and JC did not) and big curious eyes. Their fur is very coarse and thick – I imagined it being softer, probably because they were acting like (fairly) domesticated animals. They played around with us just like puppies, we snapped as many photos as we could, and then sadly our time was up.

Sleeping baby leopard. Look at those paws!
Cheetah having a staring contest with me
SO HAPPY to be petting a lion cub
JC befriending the white lion cub
We then took a quick spin through the reptile area, wore a boa constrictor for a minute (insanely heavy snake), and made our way back to the car. We drove through the “predator area” and saw lions feeding on a buffalo or red hartebeest carcass (couldn’t tell which, it was mostly just flesh and bones...ew), and went looking for cheetah. Just as we were getting frustrated that we couldn’t find any, we noticed the car ahead of us had slowed down, and sure enough, a large cheetah walked right up to our car! It sniffed around the tires for a bit, stared at us, and walked away. Wild (literally!).

Slowly being strangled by the boa constrictor
Lion having lunch
Cheetah about to hop in the car
At that point it was time to say goodbye to the animals, and we got back on the road to Joburg where JC dropped me back at the Gautrain station. It was a most excellent way to spend my last weekend in this awesome country.

I can’t believe that my last week is officially here. I have 3 days of work this week, and then I'm visiting the Apartheid museum on Thursday before my evening flight (since I wasn’t able to get to it this weekend, and it’s supposed to be a must-see).

Today I’m working on finalizing my recommendation for the re-branding and signage overhaul at one of the local clinics here, as a pilot (just a quick side project that I was given last week), which the Dept of Health will then roll out to the other 48 clinics in the country if it works well. I’m crossing my fingers that I can be as productive as possible during these last days – although of course, as luck would have it, I won’t see the first draft of the booklet from the design agency until Wednesday afternoon. I knew things would start moving just as I’m getting ready to go!

More to come, likely from the plane home!

Friday, July 26, 2013

Right on Cue

On Wednesday night, I went out to dinner with a lovely woman named Catherine, who just so happens to be the sister of Philippa, the woman who founded TIE. And as I was sitting in the cozy, bustling restaurant in Brooklyn’s Design Square, eating a tasty rack of lamb, having an interesting conversation, I realized – I am actually really going to miss this place.

I knew, in the broad sense, that I would be sad to reach the end of this journey, but I had yet to really feel wistful or nostalgic as my last day approached. Until Wednesday night.

So, in an attempt to capture what I’ll miss most (and what I’m looking forward to coming home to), I’ve made - my favorite - a list:

What I’ll Miss About South Africa:
  • Experiencing something new every day – it could be as impactful as visiting a clinic in a poor township, trying a new kind of food (I ate springbok carpaccio last night…poor little springboks), or South African English quirks (“I’ll do it just now” apparently means “I’ll do it in a little while…maybe.”)
  • Meeting new people every day (and having them be interested in me) – everyone here seems to have a different story to tell, and represents a different part of South Africa’s colorful makeup. It was also, selfishly, kind of nice to have people actually get excited when I said I was from New York. Something tells me it won’t have the same effect at home.
  • Actively pushing myself at work every day – every day at work was, and still is, an exercise in self-motivation and self-promotion, as I tried to get people to get invested in what I was working on and help me move things along. Things here definitely didn't come as naturally to me as they do in my work at home, but I think this renewed motivation will prove to be quite helpful back in that environment.
  • Seeing things that still seem so classically “African” to me (and are seemingly leftover from village/tribal life) – I frequently see women here carrying their babies strapped to their backs with blankets, carrying huge things on their heads (like a sack of flour or a basket of oranges), and somehow there is always drumming and singing outside my window at work (in the Central Business District of Pretoria)
  • The almost embarrassingly amazing exchange rate (but not the ridiculous service fees on everything from Bank of America) - bye bye fancy dinners with wine for $35
  • The routine of pleasant greetings everywhere, from everyone – it is customary to smile and directly say “good morning, how are you?”/"have a nice evening” to everyone that you interact with (security guards, cashiers, people in an elevator, etc.)
  • Traveling every weekend – there are incredibly diverse things to see and do within driving distance (or a very short flight) of Pretoria, and I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface
  • Lovely dry weather during the day – I know I’ve complained about the cold, but it usually hits 65 during the day, and is always brilliantly sunny with barely a breeze (and zero humidity)
  • Being pen pals with everyone from home – I think I’ve kept in better touch with my friends and family while I was here, than when I’m in NYC! That is slightly depressing, actually. Must work on that.
  • Updating this blog – I actually have really enjoyed blogging, even if it was a bit embarrassing at first. Maybe I’ll find something else worth blogging about once I’m home.

What I’m Looking Forward to at Home (disclaimer - some of these are silly and superficial [but true]. Hopefully I am not disappointing anyone by not joining the Peace Corps immediately upon returning home and still being my same self in a lot of ways):
  • Being with my friends and boyfriend again, and being back in the same time zone as my family
  • Productive yet informal meetings at work – these seem to be few and far between here. I was in a “steering committee” meeting yesterday that included a formal review of the last meeting’s minutes to ‘accept them as correct,’ people raising hands, and starting sentences with “excuse me Mrs. Chairwoman, could I ask…” Often someone will ask a question and someone else will respond with something completely unrelated, and sometimes there isn’t a real outcome from the meeting at all.
  • Being surrounded by the creative people and work and resources at W+K - just having a trash can and access to a printer seems like a luxury now
  • Iced coffee – there are very few real coffee shops here, and since it’s winter, iced coffee is not a thing. And I miss it.
  • Summer in NYC – I know it’s been gross, and I’ve been lucky enough to miss the real heatwave, but I can’t wait to walk around the parks, get away for a few beach weekends, eat dinner outside, etc.
  • Being able to be independent again – I miss being able to use public transit and especially being able to walk around on my own (at night too).
  • Delivery food – call me lazy. I miss SeamlessWeb. It’s a good friend of mine.
  • Finding a new apartment – this one is both scary and exciting, but I’m looking forward to it!
  • Going back to yoga – the “sit at desk” followed by “sit at a dinner table” followed by “lie down in bed” routine is not the healthiest.
  • Streaming video and internet that actually works – I haven’t really been able to watch anything on YouTube here (which makes me realize how often I come across video links that I want to watch) and Netflix/HBO Go doesn't work here at all. 
  • The really superficial things – like having access to my full wardrobe again, getting a manicure and blowdrying & straightening my hair (although I’m sure my hair has appreciated the 5-week break from brutal heat and ceramic plates)

I’ll be back on the ground in NYC exactly one week from today.

Before that, I’m headed to Joburg this weekend to see a soccer match and explore what the city has to offer, and then hopefully making some final progress on my project in the few days that I have left next week. (A little bit) more to come!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Weekend 3: Madikwe Game Reserve

This past weekend was definitely the highlight of my (personal) experience here thusfar, and potentially a highlight of my life in general. We spent the weekend at the Mosetlha Bush Camp in the Madikwe Game Reserve (in the Northwest province of South Africa, right on the Botswana border) for a little safari getaway, and it was AWESOME.

I had done a fair amount of research to find a lodge/camp that was affordable (you wouldn’t believe how expensive these safaris can get) and close enough to drive to for a weekend, and after weighing a few options, we settled for the “true bush camp experience” at Mosetlha – no fence, no running water and no electricity; just hanging out under the stars with some animals.

Hartebeest Tent - our home for the weekend!
Inside our tent
Pablo and I left on Friday morning and made the 4-hour drive to Madikwe, parked our car in the designated lot, and were picked up by a nice man named Justice (who would be our guide for the weekend) in a sweet Land Rover safari vehicle, who drove us into the camp. The camp itself was amazing. It only holds 16 people at once, in 9 “tents” (which are more like very comfortable little cabins on stilts, with tented windows). The tents are situated around the dining area (everyone eats together at a long table), the lounge area (which also has the “bar” – basically wine, beer and liquor that you can take as you please, and you just mark down what you take in a ledger under your name, and pay cash at the end of your stay), and the campfire (where all of the food is cooked, and where everyone hangs out at night). The camp really had all of the anmenities that you could want – I honestly didn’t even notice that I was without power or running water all weekend. It was so comfortable and cozy and familial. Every time a new guest arrived, everyone was excited to introduce themselves and learn about what you were doing, what brought you to South Africa, etc. While we were there, an Afrikaans family of 10 was also in camp celebrating the dad’s 60th, as well as two different French couples and a guy from Reno, Nevada all came and went during our 2.5 days there. Everyone, including staff and guides, was so sweet and friendly.

Communal dining area
"Bar" area of the lounge
Lounge area
So we dropped our stuff in our little home for the weekend and joined everyone for lunch (burgers) at the table. After lunch, we were told to bundle up and take the blankets from our tent for our evening game drive. Before we set out, we were also told to take what we wanted for “sundowners” (again with the cocktails at sunset) on the drive. Justice put them in his little cooler, we hopped in the truck (me, Pablo, and the French couple – the big family took the other truck), and headed out into the bush!

Heading off for our afternoon game drive
The game drives were amazing. Basically you drive around, off-roading like crazy through all of these unmarked rocky trails through the 185,000 acres of the game reserve, looking for animals, birds, anything interesting and noteworthy. The guides are expertly trained in tracking animals, and they would watch tracks on the ground as we drive by, or see how bushes were trampled/eaten, and would know if a certain animal is nearby. Once we found something, they’d usually drive quite close to the animal (depending on the animal, usually 20-30 feet away), turn off the engine, and we’d just sit and observe/take pictures for a bit. It was incredible to watch these huge beasts feeding and interacting with other animals or their babies in the wild. Breathtaking, really. You definitely got the sense that we were quietly infringing on their turf, not the other way around (like at a zoo).

Here’s the full list of what we saw this weekend: baboon, wild dog, African elephant, giraffe, scrub hare, red hartebeest, brown hyena, impala, black-backed jackal, lion, kudu, sable antelope, springbok, steenbok, warthog, blue wildebeest, white rhino and zebra. They were all incredible, honestly, but I think my favorite were the zebra and giraffe (their markings are really spectacular in person, and the giraffe are insanely tall and so graceful to watch) and of course, the lions.

African elephant, and baby feeding
Zebra - one on the left is (very) pregnant
Impala - these were everywhere
Giraffe - so tall!
Blue wildebeest - probably the creepiest-looking animal ever
Kudu - also everywhere

Our first sundowners stop
So, back to the story. On our Friday evening game drive, we saw most of what I listed above, minus the lions. It was awesome! And our stop for sundowners was incredible – on this vast open plain, with a huge group of springboks feeding a few hundred yards away, and a perfect sunset. I enjoyed a delicious Savannah Dry, which is a type of hard cider here that South Africans love (and I see why). We hopped back in the truck, bundled up (the temperature drops a good 20 degrees after dark) and I was surprised to realize that the drive was going to continue for another hour or in the dark. The Land Rover had some pretty powerful
Epic sunset
headlights, and our guide also used a hand-held spotlight that he swung back and forth across the brush and trees as we drove past. And somehow, he still spotted animals! I think he was looking for their eyes to light up as the spot passed over them. So in the darkness, we found a breeding herd of elephants (all females and babies) and a white rhino and her baby at the same watering hole. It was amazing! The baby rhino was only about 4 months old – it couldn’t even really use its feet properly yet, it kept stumbling around trying to keep up with its mother. Unbearably cute.

White rhino and baby that we found at night!
Breeding herd of elephants, drinking
Finally, we headed back to camp. And as we drove in, I saw all these little lights twinkling – the entire camp was lit by lanterns at night! Not to be cheesy, but it was pretty magical. Everyone crowded around the fire to warm up, and shortly after we
Dinner by lantern light
sat down to a latern-lit dinner (of bobotie, which is a traditional South African dish of ground beef topped with a cooked egg mixture; quite delicious). After dinner, everyone grabbed a glass of wine and moved to the fire to keep warm and keep chatting. Around 9PM, staff from the camp brought lovely hot water bottles to everyone, which we then tucked into our beds to keep them warm, old-school style. And shortly after that, we headed to bed to snuggle up with our hot water bottles and get some sleep before our early game drive on Saturday!

The next day, I woke up (freezing cold) to the lantern outside our tent being re-lit around 6AM. We got up, got bundled, had some tea and rusks, and hopped back into our truck for our morning game drive. This time, the French couple had requested a bush walk instead of a game drive (which piqued my interest, but more on that later), so we got a little private drive from Justice. And it turned out to be the best one of the weekend – after driving around in the freezing cold, not seeing much, we plowed straight through some bushes and, boom – lions! A whole family! A male, two females and three cubs were snoozing in the sun. They were absolutely incredible looking, especially the male, whose mane was spectacular. Lions sleep about 18 hours a day (sweet life when you don’t need to worry about predators), so the mom(s) and dad literally just opened one eye at us when we drove up and went back to sleep. But one of the little cubs was a curious fellow and slowly walked right up to us! He sat down, stared for a bit, apparently got bored, and went back to paw at his parents faces and bite his siblings for awhile. It was probably the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. The cubs were playing and falling all over each other while their parents just swatted them away. I could have watched them all day, but sadly we drove away after about a half hour and stopped somewhere scenic for more tea, rusks and fruit. But, good news, after that we drove right to some more lions (another female and cubs from the same male we saw earlier – what a player) in a different part of the reserve! These cubs were less friendly, they just eyed us from the far side of their mother. Still, a beautiful sight. You can tell just by watching them how incredibly fierce and powerful they are. We saw some more awesome animals on that drive, but the lions really stuck in my head as the highlight.

Curious lion cub, coming to check us out
King of the Jungle, taking a snooze
Annoying Dad as he tries to sleep
Second group of lions that we found - hello little one!
We arrived back at camp around 11AM, and sat down for brunch (eggs, toast and boerwurst – a traditional South African “farmers sausage” which is very tasty) with the full group to chat and compare what we saw on our drives. Then we had a few hours of downtime, which I filled by reading a book in the warm sun by the firepit. A pretty perfect way to spend the
My sunny spot on Saturday afternoon
afternoon, if you ask me. Around 3PM we sat down for lunch (small sandwiches and tomato 
soup) before filling the cooler for sundowners and heading out on our afternoon game drives.We saw some great elephants on this drive – a bunch of males hanging out by a watering hole, slowly shoving each other around to get the best trunk space. And then we saw the female half of the pack (apparently they hang out separately), which was comprised of about 20 females and babies of all sizes.

We then stopped for our sundowners in another beautiful clearing, but as soon as we had opened our drinks, Justice asked us to “please get back in the vehicle right now,” as a white rhino and her baby had appeared about a hundred feet away. We climbed in, and he managed to drive us a bit farther away – without spilling the drinks out on the front of the hood! She went on her way to a watering hole nearby, and we quickly finished our drinks to go find her again. We did, and we watched her and her cute little baby drink for a bit – and saw a jackal (which is much nicer than I imagined, sort of like a large fox) in the process. We finished the rest of our drive, seeing more awesome game in the process, and headed back to camp for dinner (steak, chicken and boerwurst – I told you they love meat here) and repeated the enjoyable wine/fire/hot water bottle process from the night before.

Male elephants at the watering hole
Breeding herd of elephants on the move
Sundowners spot on Saturday
The white rhino and her baby that almost chased us away!
Earlier on Saturday, we had asked Bart, the camp leader, if he might be able to take us on a bush walk the next morning, as we saw the French couple do on their last morning. He agreed, and so on Sunday morning, we left good ol’ Justice and drove out with Bart. We parked on the top of a valley in a different part of the reserve, he loaded his rifle (which he’s required to carry when setting out on foot), and off we went. In total, we hiked about 3.5 miles, down into the valley and up the far side, so high that we could see the entire reserve, which was absolutely
View from the highest point on our hike
beautiful. Along the way, Bart educated us on animal tracks/droppings, trees, birds, and other things we saw along the way.

We stopped at the highest point of the far side of the hill for some dried fruit and water, and while we were up there, Bart spotted two white rhinos in the valley below (actually, he heard the call of the birds that stay with rhinos, eating the bugs on them). So we decided to track them. We hiked back down into the valley, and he told us to be as quiet as possible and stay directly behind him as we walked. We got about 100 feet away from them, and paused (we also noticed there was a kudu standing nearby). He then asked us to step silently (avoid any leaves or branches underfoot), and not even let our arms brush the sides of our jackets. And so we crept another 50 feet closer to them, and crouched down to watch them from the small thicket we were standing in. The sun was facing the rhinos, who were lying down, and the wind was
Bart, in his short safari shorts, watching for game
blowing toward us, so the rhinos had yet to notice we were there. Bart asked us “how brave we were feeling,” and I short of gave a panicked shrug, and so we stood to get even closer. Let me now pause to tell you how scary/awesome it is to be standing, on foot, in front of two ENORMOUS white rhinos, in a huge valley, knowing that if something goes wrong, there is literally nothing I can do. I can’t beat them up, I can’t outrun them, Bart can’t even shoot both of them with the one bullet in the rifle (if it came to that).

So, we crept closer. And after we had taken about 3 steps, the following series of events occured, seemingly simultaneously: the little
The two white rhinos we spotted from high above
rhino bird starts chirping, the kudu starts barking, and Bart suddenly crouches down and ducks, so we (obviously) do the same – the rhinos had stood up! And they turned and went running into the brush (and you can imagine how thunderously loud that was). And then it sounded like they were running back toward us, but we couldn’t see them. Thankfully their steps eventually faded away. I was about to fall over, and even Bart turned around and said “now that really gets the blood flowing, doesn’t it?” so at least I knew I wasn’t a total wuss for being mildly terrified. It turns out that the little bird apparently had alerted the rhinos to a predator nearby, so they jumped up and ran away, but the bird doesn’t exactly tell them where to go, so they just ran around spastically for awhile until they thankfully decided to run in the opposite direction from us.

The freakiest part to me was actually that the kudu kept barking for a few seconds after the rhinos left (apparently to alert other kudu to a predator in the area), and Bart said, “now, I really want to know what that kudu was barking at. Because I don’t see anything.” So we stood still for a few more minutes, trying and failing to hear anything in the deafening silence. Bart decided that it was safe to continue, but of course for the rest of the hike, any sort of lurking shadow in the dense brush looked to me like a lion waiting to chomp on my limbs. And to cap it all off, as we reached the truck, Bart noticed that there was a leopard print covering one of my sneaker prints from that morning – so a leopard had followed us into the valley from the truck, but we never saw it. So I guess we weren’t the only people tracking something that morning. Slightly scary, but mostly amazing.

Thoroughly starving and exhausted, we headed back to camp for our last meal, and amazing breakfast scramble of sorts. We sadly packed up, said goodbye to our new friends and our lovely home for the weekend, were driven back to our car, and headed back to Pretoria
Baboon crossing
(seeing some baboons on our way out of the reserve!). It was absolutely the highlight of my time in South Africa to date, and like I said, probably a life highlight as well. I honestly hope that everyone (who likes animals, anyway) has the chance to do that in their lifetime. It was fantastic.

Oh – and we managed to squeeze in a quick cultural tour of Pretoria when we got back, including the Voortrekker monument (memorializing farmers who left the Cape Colony around 1830 to move into what is now the interior of South Africa in what was called the “Great Trek”), Church Square (where the Justice Building is located, where Nelson Mandela was tried and sentenced to Robben Island) and the US Embassy (just for fun – and it’s HUGE). Check, check, check.

Less than two weeks left, and only one more weekend (which I’ll be spending in Joburg)! Time is really flying by now. More to come…

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Halfway, Mandela Day, and a Work Update

Sorry – I couldn’t find something work-related that rhymed with “way” and “day.”

Today is Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday, which is celebrated every year (since it was declared an international holiday by the UN in 2009) as “Mandela Day” or “Madiba Day” (which is sort of like an endearing nickname for him that people use here). People recognize this day by doing 67 minutes of community service – representing the 67 years of his public service, starting with his campaign for human rights for every South African that began in 1942. As far as I know, there’s unfortunately no organized service project for the Dept. of Health today, but I will sort of be giving back (belatedly) this weekend by going without electricity for 2 whole days! More on that later.

Mandela is still in the hospital in Pretoria, which we actually drive past on the way to work every day. I’ve only caught a quick glimpse of the side street where well-wishers leave candles, flowers, notes, etc. but it looked very impressive. Choirs often gather there to sing up to his room, as well. President Zuma and the Mandela family released a statement today to say that his health is improving and they hope to have him back home soon, which everyone is very excited to hear. I get the feeling that there’s a bit of unease surrounding his death (whenever that may be, hopefully not soon), since he’s really still seen as the cornerstone of the change that has been brought to South Africa, so people seem to be somewhat nervous and questioning what post-Apartheid life will be like post-Mandela.

In other milestone news, yesterday was technically the halfway point through my time here, so I am officially more than halfway through my TIE experience. I can already tell that it’s going to fly by much more quickly than the first half did – the work days are going by more quickly and I already have my next/final 2 weekends planned out. I can’t believe that I’m going to be back in the States two weeks from tomorrow! I will admit that a good portion of me is genuinely excited for that, as I do still miss my family & friends quite a bit, but I’m sure as soon as I get to the airport I’m going to want to say – wait! There’s so much I didn’t get to do! I’m not ready to leave just yet! So I’m really trying to focus on making the most of every day left here, both at work and outside of it.

Living and working in another culture so different from my own, away from all of the people who I love, has not been easy, but it certainly has been refreshing and so educational. Like I’ve said before, at the very least it has made me incredibly grateful (and feeling almost guilty) for what I get to return to – the people, the work, and the city. I also really feel lucky that my situation here ended up working out the way it did. I think I’d be feeling quite differently today if I hadn’t had the opportunity to move into the guest house and make some friends (with a car!) to hang and travel with on the weekends.

And now, I finally have an update on work that's worth sharing. The past 2-ish weeks have been at times slow, and at times very frustrating, but it seems like I’ve finally figured out exactly what I’m going to work on for the rest of my time here. Better late than never, I guess!

I had been told that TIE objectives often shift (sometimes slightly, sometimes greatly) when you actually arrive on-site and get a lay of the land and the workplace – understanding just how quickly (or slowly) things move, how many stakeholders are really involved, and what they actually want you to be doing. Keeping this in mind has definitely helped me to keep myself motivated and optimistic (most days!), because as I said, there have definitely been some tough ones in there. So once I got here, I realized that my original objective was really too lofty and broad to tackle effectively in 4 weeks. I had no idea how nuanced the department is, with so many people working on so many different initiatives, all part of larger groups with other people overseeing them. And it doesn’t help that it’s a very siloed organization as well – very few people actually communicate with each other, which doesn’t make things easy, either. And to top it off, people are rarely physically in the office. They work from home, or they’re traveling around the country (for weeks at a time) performing quality checks in clinics or having meetings with hospital personnel. And I’d say the last major hurdle is that people are so busy and involved in their own work, they aren’t particularly keen to take an hour to talk to me and really invest in what I’m doing here. And some are just plain skeptical that I can accomplish anything at all in this short time, but I’m hoping to prove them wrong!

Taking all of this into account, it was agreed that I would focus mainly on maternal health, pregnant women, and the PMTCT (Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission) program, so I spent the past few weeks mostly listening and gathering information about these women and their experience within the healthcare system. After speaking to many different people at the DOH, their partner organizations (mostly CHAI and UNICEF), and actually interviewing a few nurses at these clinics, I realized that while there is a wealth of information available to the healthcare workers and community home workers (“laypeople” who are trained at a basic level and visit pregnant women in their homes, often in very poor/rural areas), there is really nothing that’s actually given to the patients themselves. 

These women come into the antenatal clinics for their first pregnancy check-up, and are just bombarded with information about healthy eating, birthing options, the number of times they need to come back to the clinic, the tests they need to take – and double that information if they’re HIV positive (or become infected while they’re pregnant, which sadly happens often). So I decided to create a week-by-week “pregnancy guide” for these women; something that they would be given on their first visit and that they can keep by their side throughout their pregnancy. It would also cover the first 6 months of life for their child. This way, they can see when they need to schedule their visits, what will happen at those visits (so they can ask for certain vaccinations/tests if they aren’t being offered it, for example), tips for a healthy pregnancy, danger signs, and then the schedule of postnatal visits once their child has been born (HIV and TB testing for the child, breastfeeding tips, etc.).

I’ve gotten a pretty positive response from everyone that I’ve run this by, which is reassuring. It seems like there was just a major gap here (with the actual patients themselves), in terms of the information that is being delivered routinely by the NDOH, so I’m hoping to fill that gap with this information. I think it will take the shape of a simple little booklet, mainly with illustrations, since literacy levels vary greatly in this country (and there are 11 national languages).

I’ve spent the past few days putting together the copy for the booklet, which is currently in the format of a week-by-week timeline, and meeting with all of the “experts” in the departments who can tell me if I’ve missed key information for anything like antiretroviral treatment, family planning counseling, etc., all of which needs to be included on this timeline. I then wrote a creative brief yesterday, which has been sent out to a few different design agencies, one of whom will hopefully be affordable and quick enough to help me design the actual booklet. For those of you who donated – it looks like this is where the funds will be going!

Now I’m just hoping that if I can’t actually finish this before I leave (I’m a bit nervous about the number of stakeholders who will need to review it), I’ll at least be able to make enough progress so that someone can pick it up in my absence and finish it out. We will likely pilot the booklet in the district that the DOH is in, called Tshwane, and if it’s well-received here, they’ll roll it out to clinics, hospitals and private practices across the country, since the goal is to start to standardize healthcare information across the board in South Africa.

So that’s the update! Oh, and getting back to this weekend – tomorrow I’m going on a little safari weekend, staying in a traditional “bush camp”/eco lodge in the Madikwe Game Reserve, in the Northwest province of South Africa, right near the Botswana border. This means we’ll be staying in raised platform tents with no running water or electricity, and having all of our meals cooked over an open fire. And did I mention that it’s an unfenced camp, so you can’t walk around by yourself at night? Hopefully I don’t wake up with a cheetah in my bed. Or, more realistically, a monkey destroying my things. We’ll be going on 4 game drives in total (in those very safari-esque 4x4s) before heading back to Pretoria on Sunday afternoon. The goal (for me, at least) is to see the “big 5” of Africa – lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhino!

More to come…

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Weekend 2: Cape Town

For weekend 2 of my trip, I headed to Cape Town! People here seem to LOVE Cape Town, and talk about it almost reverently, so I was very excited to see what all the fuss was about. I set off on Friday evening after work with Pablo and Raghav, another volunteer who lives in the guest house with us.

We took the Gautrain to the airport, which is the lovely suburban train system in Gauteng (the province that Pretoria and Johannesburg are in) to catch our 9PM flight. The train itself was yet another jarring example of the first/third world dichotomy here – it reminded me of a combination of the DC Metro (huge platforms that are airy and clean) and the London Tube (blue patterned carpeting on the seats & floor and cheerful yellow poles to hold onto). Just as I was wishing that we had public transit that nice in NYC, we zipped past one of South Africa’s many “townships” (the accepted name for the sprawling shantytowns) and I was reminded once again that despite the progress that’s been made here, there’s still so much left to be done.

We caught our flight with time to spare, and we were served a full dinner on the 1 hour and 45 minute domestic flight! Oh, domestic US airlines, how lame you've gotten. Also, I feel that it’s important to note that I packed significantly less than the 2 guys I was travelling with for this weekend. Go me.

View from our home for the weekend
We arrived in Cape Town around 11PM, got our rental car, and made the 30-minute drive down to Kalk Bay, which is a small fishing village along the coast of False Bay, just outside of the city center of Cape Town. The reason we weren’t staying right in town was that my supervisor (of sorts) here, Hasina, had kindly offered her holiday home there to us for the weekend, and we happily took her up on the offer! Her apartment was in a complex set just off of the ocean, and you could hear the waves crashing from the bedrooms and see the ocean from the back deck. It was a great place to stay for the weekend. We all had plans to get up early, and by this time it was after 1AM, so we called it a night.

The next morning, Pablo headed off to scuba dive (which apparently was still freezing despite 2 wetsuits), and Raghav and I made the 40-minute drive down the coast to see the sunrise Cape Point, which is where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. After a short hike up to the lighthouse at the top of the point, we tried to stay warm and awaited the sun. It was a pretty spectacular sunrise, despite a few clouds. And you can literally see where the two oceans meet! There was like a frothy white line in the water where the two currents move against each other.

Cape Point - see that little wine line in front?
Sunrise at Cape Point
So far from home!
Back side of the Cape of Good Hope,
as seen from the Western part of Cape Point
After a few hundred photos, we headed back down to the car to warm up and make the short drive to the Cape of Good Hope – the most southwestern point in all of Africa. This was a less spectacular view, as it just looked like a rocky shoreline with some intimidatingly large waves, but was still cool to know that I was standing on the very edge of a continent. The Cape of Good Hope is in the same nature reserve as Cape Point, and on the drive back out we saw quite a few ostriches and a rare Bontebok antelope! My first real “game” sightings in Africa.

Straight chillin' on the Cape of Good Hope
Hello, Bontebok antelope
Ostrich crossing
Harbor at Simon's Town
By now we were in need of breakfast, so we drove back up the coast to Simon's Town, another absolutely adorable fishing village (there are quite a few that dot the cost back up to Cape Town proper), for breakfast, coffee, and some bargaining with vendors in a little pop-up market in the square. Next stop on the self-tour was Boulder Beach in Simon's Town, famous for their African penguins! Despite the fact that some very cold rain started coming down, I was absolutely loving watching these little guys hang out with their friends and waddle back and forth from the water to the beach. Penguins are just amazing. While I have seen pictures of people actually playing with these little dudes, we were relegated to a boardwalk that was built on the beach for viewing them. Which is probably a good thing, as I was starting to contemplate what Delta and US Customs might say if I came back with an African penguin in my carry-on luggage.

One room of many in the Pan African Market
Penguin craving satisfied, we headed up to the city of Cape Town, about a 30-minute drive. We parked near Long Street, a popular shopping/restaurant/bar area, and walked into Greenmarket Square, where an interesting-but-touristy market was going on, though the rain continued. We each picked up a few trinkets for friends and family back home, and then checked out the Pan African market, which was essentially a 3-story house with one vendor set up in each room. The offerings were overwhelming but seemed to be a bit more authentic, so we spent a good hour exploring.

Artisinal food market at the Waterfront
Seafood extravaganza
From there, we drove to the V&A Waterfront, which reminded me a bit of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco – very touristy but still fun to wander around. Unfortunately the rain wasn’t letting up (apparently Cape Town is notorious for crappy weekend weather in the winter), so we wandered outside briefly before ducking into yet another market. This one was the most touristy yet, but led us to a fun surprise – an artisanal food market! It reminded me so much of Chelsea Market and Smorgasburg in NYC. Vendors with artsy little signs and clever names, delicious smells and live music from a piano player upstairs. We wandered around tasting everything (including biltong, a South African staple, which essentially tastes like fresher beef jerky to me), before settling on some gourmet samosas and a huge plate of seafood.

Once we were properly full, we drove back down to meet Pablo at the apartment in Kalk Bay. We relaxed for a bit, freshened up for dinner, and hopped back in the car, ready for Saturday night in Cape Town. Happy hour doesn’t seem to be as popular here as it is in the States, but we did manage to find one place offering it (which meant we were drinking nice mojitos for the equivalent of about $1.75). We then went for dinner at a restaurant called Carne, which had been recommended to me by a friend, and was delicious (the type of steak restaurant where you actually get to pick your cut of beef before they cook it). And we spent the rest of the evening bar hopping up and down Long Street, which reminded me a lot of the big squares in Amsterdam – tons of backpacker hostels sandwiched between all different types of bars and clubs. As you might be realizing, Cape Town is like no other part of South Africa. It’s very Western European, and therefore felt much more familiar to me than anywhere else I’ve visited since I’ve been here.

Choosing prime rib at Carne
Long Street
The next morning, Pablo had planned to go cage diving with the Great Whites, and Raghav and I were scheduled to go paragliding off of Lion’s Head (another mountain adjacent to the famous Table Mountain), but unfortunately both activities were cancelled due to weather. To me, it was cool, sunny and generally lovely outside, but I guess the seas were a bit rough and it was pretty windy on the mountains. So as a backup, we wanted to take the popular rotating cable car up to the top of Table Mountain (since so many people had told me it was a “must-see”), but even that was closed – on both days of the weekend! Lesson learned – if you want to do adventure activities in Cape Town, stay for a week so you can be flexible about when you go, or just go in the summer when the weather is more reliable.

The good news is that I got to have an amazing breakfast instead, at a popular (and packed) little café in Kalk Bay called Olympia. It was warm and bustling and cozy, and I thoroughly enjoyed my ham and cheese baked croissant while watching the colorful fishing boats come in and out of their docks. After breakfast we wandered into the little shops and markets on Main Road, and met the driver for our wine tour outside of the apartment at 12:30. And we set off for the Stellenbosch wine region!

Driving to Stellenbosch
It was about a 30-minute drive around the top of False Bay (seemingly endless beaches and huge pounding waves) to “wine country,” which looked similar to Napa Valley, plus huge dramatic mountains all around. Pretty spectacular views, and it’s a huge region – over 600 wine estates in 200 square km of land. On the way, we also passed Khayelitsha, the second-largest township in South Africa, which was overwhelmingly huge. The rows of little one-room tin-walled houses seemed to go on forever - it stretches over about 17 square miles. Again, a sobering sight while doing something like traveling (with a driver) to a wine tour.

Lunch at Neethlingshof
We started our tour at Neethlingshof, one of the oldest wineries in Stellenbosch (the oldest is over 300 years old). It was peaceful and very Dutch-looking. We had a nice lunch and then did a tasting, where I tried an amazing red called Owl Post that sadly is not for sale in the US and would have cost me approximately a million dollars to ship. It’s a Pinotage, which is an exclusively South African varietal that’s a cross between Pinot noir and Cinsaut/Hermitage.

View from the entrance to Delaire Graff
Our second stop was the Delaire Graff Estate, one of the newer vineyards and tasting centers in the area. The view was absolutely breathtaking, and the hotel/restaurant/tasting room itself was also amazing – modern but inviting, seemed like an awesome place for a wedding or vacation. They’re known for their rose and “Coastal Cuvee” Sauvignon blanc, both of which were great. Unfortunately most wineries close early on Sunday, so the next few we tried to visit were already closed, and we just ended up heading back to Kalk Bay, but it was fun afternoon exploring the area nonetheless.

“Sundowners” are hugely popular in South Africa, and to my understanding this is basically just the act of having cocktails at sundown, so we stopped in a funky little beach bar near the apartment called Cape to Cuba (again with the dirt-cheap drinks) for "sundowners" around a little fire pit. By this point we were in need of food again, and hadn’t quite reached our seafood quota, so we walked to a restaurant called the Harbour House right by where the fishing boats dock. Harbour House looked nice (very Hamptons-esque), but we were more intrigued by a little tapas restaurant underneath it called Polana. This was mainly due to the front windows – the restaurant is built almost in the ocean, and at night there are spotlights down on the waves that break on the rocks just a few feet in front of the windows. So from the inside, you basically spend the entire meal watching these HUGE waves crash and spray (seemingly) almost on your table. It was pretty incredible.

Waves crashing outside of Polana during dinner
From there, we made the surprisingly responsible decision to just call it a night, since we were getting  up at 3:30AM on Monday to catch a very early flight back to Joburg. All in all, a great weekend exploring a great city. I’d love to go back again – I feel like there was so much that I didn’t get to do!

Sidenote: last night, I got to experience my very first South African braai (which I think is basically just a barbecue) in honor of Pablo’s 28th birthday. We had a bunch of CHAI people over to the guest house and grilled up some delicious sausages, steak and “veg,” despite the near-freezing temperatures. And his parents sent a pretty epic cake from Mexico. Solid way to kick off my third week here!

Trying to stay warm on the guest house deck

Pablo and his cake