Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Coach Ken McDonald

It's been a while since I posted an entry on this blog. A lot has happened, and I have many things to say. At the same time, I find it hard lately to be able to speak my thoughts or feelings out loud. In the past, writing has helped me think more clearly and make senses of my feelings. And now seems like the right time to try it again. Here goes.


I don't normally talk about the people in my life. I guess I'm kind of protective or private when it comes to family or friends. But there are a few people it seems like I should talk about, especially the ones whe have recently passed away.


The person who is in my heart this week was a soccer coach of mine. In 2009, he was the head coach for both the Men's AND Women's Soccer teams at Deaflympics. He believed in me and gave me a chance at a time when it felt like nobody else did, a time when I was even doubting myself. I wasn't the only person to have this experience. He did the same for hundreds, maybe thousands of other soccer players. His name was Ken McDonald, or as we affectionately called him, Coach Mac.




It's really hard for me to find the words to describe this great man who was so important to me and so many other people. When he was coaching the Deaflympics team, he always told me to believe in myself and I would do great things. I have so many memories of things he did to encourage me, but one stands out in my memory. It was halftime during the first game in the 2009 Deaflympics in Taiwan. Coach Mac pulled me out of the huddle and waved me over with a serious look on his face. I thought I had made a mistake in the first half and he was going to tell me that I had to do better. Instead he game a huge bear hug and smiled. "You did good," he said. It was just a simple sentence and gesture, but it got me pumped up. More than any lecture could, I wanted to prove him right. I wanted to do my best for the team, for Coach Mac, for myself. After the last game, when we were undefeated and had received our gold medals, I gave Coach Ken a huge hug and thanked him for seeing what I could do even when I couldn't see it for myself.


That's not the whole story. Coach Mac gave his all to our Deaflympics teams even though he was fighting for his life. He had a battle with cancer for 7 and half years. Even though he was sick, he kept on coaching soccer. I am amazed and humbled by his dedication and commitment to the players and teams he has coached during the last few years. He kept going because he had a deep love for the game, a powerful faith in the potential of his players and the support of his amazing wife, Terri. So many soccer players have benefited from Ken's immense knowledge of the game. So many young people have become better than they knew they could be because of his faith in them. So many of us have been inspired by his determination to make the most of his life despite his cancer.


Coach Mac died last weekend. It seemed important to me to put down in words the impact he had on my life. I am a better person because I knew him. His life made a difference, and he will be missed.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sala kahle Thanda


Three months... The time flew by WAY too fast. I do not know how to describe or explain these extraordinary months. I could say it was like a dream or I could say it was epic. Nothing really captures the intensity of my experience and my emotions. All I know for sure is that I truly do not want to leave this magical place. I know it is time to move on and start another chapter of my life. And I also know that I will return to Africa again and again and again for the rest of my life.




Thursday was my last night and the game drive was absolutely amazing. We came across two male giraffes fighting for dominance. They were swinging their long necks at each other, hitting each other with their skulls and horns. I had seen this before, but it’s a rare sight and very exciting to watch.


Just before the sun set, we met up with the rest of the volunteers and staff at one of the highest peaks. This was my sixth and last sundowner on this trip, and it was absolutely gorgeous. The sun was setting behind one of the mountains and the sky was constantly changing colors, from baby blue to pinkish to purplish. Finally the sky was dark blue with a few bright stars coming out and an amazingly pinkish moon rising on the other side. I was feeling emotional, enjoying the views and thinking about how much I love this place. I renewed my vow to return.

On my last morning drive, I got lucky and saw my favorite of all animal – the rhinos. For some reasons, I have always enjoyed seeing rhinos, both individuals and as a group or crash. Even when they were being boring, just eating or standing around staring at us, I felt overwhelmed by their powerful, prehistoric look. That morning, I couldn’t help wondering whether this would be the last time I would see a rhino. Poaching is still a great danger and these magnificent animals are in danger of becoming extinct. I hope we will win the war against poachers and that the rhinos will be in less danger the next time I come to Africa.


After the morning drive, I decided to do the elephant interaction. I did this on my first visit, and this time was even better. After observing elephants so often in the wild, it was incredibly awe-inspiring to see these animals up close and simply stand beside them. I got to touch the same elephants I touched last year and I could see that the calf had grown a little bigger. I took my time, soaking it all in, feeding them, petting them, touching their trunks, and even talking to them. Their strength and presence made me feel more grounded, and it was a wonderful way to end my time on the Thanda game reserve.

Leaving was almost impossible. It was very hard to pack up everything. This has been my home for three months and I have come to love it very much. It was especially hard to say good-bye to the kitchen and housekeeping staff. Every single day, we made small talk or jokes together. They heard about when I fell on my butt trying the Zulu dance and have always teases me about it. When I was saying goodbye to the staff, they started clapping and doing the Zulu dance. I joined them and this time I was actually pretty good at it! ( I have been practicing!) This made it even harder to say goodbye to some of the friendlies people I have ever gotten to know. 

Saying goodbye to the land itself was also very sad. As we were packing the van with our luggage, I took one last look around, and it hit me hard that I was really leaving this place. I have watched the land turn from green to golden, and I have loved every single thing about it. I may have lived here for only three months, but Thanda feels like home in the most powerful sense of the word.

I will miss seeing the animals. This time, I got to know some of them as unique individuals with their own habits and temperaments. When I came last year, both lion prides were growing and had sub-adults cubs. This time, I got to see how much those cubs have grown. And now there are new cubs. It makes me sad to think I won't see them grow up. I have witnessed so much about how the lions and other animals live--mating, fighting, eating, drinking. As we drove away, I kept thinking about everything that has happened in the past three months, and I started to cry because I know I won't see this beautiful magical reserve for a long time.

In three months, I have met and gotten to know at least 30 volunteers from different countries as well as many local friends. I have shared laughs with many of them. Some of the people I've met have been incredibly inspiring, teaching me a lot about life and giving me ideas about what I can do when I return back to America. I'm truly lucky to have met so many extraordinary people. The experiences I've had here were more meaningful because they were shared with such wonderful people.

The African Impact team at Thanda has been absolutely incredible. On this trip, I have gotten to know them well, and every single member has made a huge impact on me and touched my heart. I am so proud of what they are doing and what they will be doing for the rest of the year. I feel truly humble and honored to have had them be part of my life for three months. Through them, I have learned so much more about myself, the type of person I am, the good and the bad. They have given me love and even tough love. I will always appreciate everything they have done for me.


I am genuinely sad to leave this amazing place which feels like my home, and the wonderful staff who have become my family. I will always have the last three months in my heart.

Sala kahle Thanda, South Africa, Africa
Thank you for allowing me to return and volunteer for three amazing months.
Thank you for the dedicated AI team members who taught me so much.
Thank you for all the fellow volunteers and the good times we have shared.
Thank you for many great experiences seeing the unique, wild animals that belong to this land.
Thank you for helping me learn so much more about who I am and what I want.
I shall return again and again and again.
This is not goodbye.
This is farewell. I WILL see you again.
With love from a heart that is overflowing.


Sunday, April 14, 2013

25th Birthday in Africa

I had the GREATEST birthday ever in my entire life in Africa. That's saying something because I've had some pretty great birthdays in the past. This year, my birthday was made incredibly special by all of the amazing people here at Thanda. I woke up to a very sweet birthday card and a small gift from my roommate. It seems like fate that we are roommates because she's deaf in one ear and we've gotten to be really great friends.

Even before the morning game drive at 6 AM, everybody came up to me and wished me happy birthday, so I had a feeling it was going to be a great day. Surte enought, as soon as we got into the reserve, we found the two cheetah brothers. They often take a morning walk along the fence, only this time, several lions from the North Pride were standing in their way. When the cheetahs saw the lions, they immediately froze with their ears tensed up. The lions froze too. We were also tense because a couple weeks ago, the lions had killed one of the female cheetahs. It was very sad, but death is part of life here at Thanda.


After a few heart-pounding moments, the cheetahs looked back to see if they had an escape route. As soon as the lions started moving, the cheetahs turned around and walked as fast as they could right past the Land Rover while staying very low. They disappeared behind the Land Rover, and two of the lions jogged down the road chasing them away. The lions were obviously protecting their territory. i had never seen a confrontation between two big cats so we were off to a very exciting start!


We continued our morning drive, hoping to see other animals such as rhinos, elephants, or the other pride of lions. No such luck. We saw a few impalas and some birds. Then suddenly, I could hear excitement from the back of the Land Rover. Our guide stopped the vehicle immediately. He was looking intently at the thick dense bush on his right. I was in the passenger seat beside him, so I couldn't see much but it looked as though there was no opening along the dirt road. The guide turned to me and said quietly, "Leopard."

He pointed, and I immediately saw an orange coat with rosette shaped spots. I couldn't get a photo because the bush was so dense. If you didn't keep your eyes focused on the leopard, you would lose him in the shadows. This was only my second leopard sighting on this trip! It was a great birthday present! Then the leopard started moving and disappeared from sight. Our guide drove back and forth along the dirt road, hoping to find him again. No luck. We were pretty sure he was nearby, but he was very quiet and still and well-hidden.

Just when we were about to give up and move on, a leopard appeared on the side of the road. "It's not the same one," said our guide in surprise. "It's a different leopard." The second leopard was running, but our guide wouldn't let him get away that easily. He drove off the dirt road and into the dense bush. We caught a glimpse of the leopard running toward cover near one of the trees. Such a beautiful sight! His bright white and orange coat was covered with rosette spots.

We pulled back onto the dirt road and found a small opening where we could get off the road more easily. Our guide parked right under a tree and pointed to the second leopard. His face was blocked by some tree branches, so I couldn't get a photograph of him. I had to squeeze myself between two seats so I get a better view. Then I saw his entire face and body just laying low under a tree. I couldn't believe it! He was magnificent, and I managed to get a few wonderful photographs of him. Oh how happy I was! I had seen all three big cats on one drive! I showed our guide some of the photographs I had just taken and he whispered, "Best birthday, right?" I had to agree. This ws the best birthdy present I have ever gotten!

Everyone else was excited too. On the driveway back to the lodge, our guide beeped his horn the whole way to announce our return from a very successful morning. It was a great way to end an incredible drive! When I walked into the lodge, two more friends wished me happy birthday and gave me a hug. I noticed some balloons hanging around and then I saw a chair with a sign saying "Happy Birthday, Jessie!" Just when I thought the morning was as good as it could be, it got even better.

After lunch, there was another unexpected surprise. The kitchen staff has made a cake! Often when it's somebody's birthday, they baked cake for dessert after dinner, so I wasn't expecting one after lunch! Everybody sang Happy Birthday and cheered as I made the first cut of the cake. After lunch and a big slice of cake, I was as happily stuffed as a lion after a good meal.


Speaking of lions, we found the North Pride on our evening drive. They had been pigging out all day on a kill they got earlier in the day. By the time, we found them, they were stuffed and exhausted. It is always amazing to find a pride of lions after a big meal. It's like a family after a good Thanksgiving dinner. The animals are relaxed and there's always some interesting behavior. This time we saw a lioness licking and cleaning one of the cubs. The rest of the drive was uneventful except for the part where we almost ran over a snake! We got to see a brilliant red sunset which was a treat because we hadn't seen the sun at all for the last few days.

After the drive, I decided to treat myself a birthday beer or a few =) with dinner. Maybe it was the beer, but I started thinking about all the things that have happened in the past year. I couldn't believe how far I had come--all the way to Africa. Twice. I was feeling pretty humble about all the remarkable things that have fallen into my life because of being in Africa.

I had kind of assumed the celebration was over, but no! My roommate and few other volunteers surprised me with another special cake. This one was a plate of marshmallows smothered in chocolate. It was a British version of smores and it was delicious! They also gave me some more gifts and a card signed by everybody, all of the volunteers and the staff.

The greatest gift, of course, is spending my birthday in Africa with all these amazing people. I'm so lucky to have spent 2 months and 2 weeks here. I've gotten to know and appreciate the staff even more than I did on my first visit. I've gotten to meet and become friends with volunteers from all over the world. We've shared SO many laughs, a few good cries, amazing sightings of the animals, and memories that will last for the rest of my life. So, this is official. My 25th birthday was the greates and bestest birthday in my entire life!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Working Hard

The last few weeks, I have been picking up more projects and jobs around the lodge to help out the team here at African Impact. There's always something to do here in addition to the daily and weekly work assignments. The staff members are very busy and sometimes frustrated that they do not have the time to do what they need to get done, so I've been trying to help whenever I can. I may be overdoing it because I'm getting a reputation as a workaholic. The truth is that I would really like to work here long term, so I am trying to do everything I can to show that I can be a valuable team member.

Most people who know me know that I have a lot of energy when I'm motivated, so I have also been telling the team here that I'm willing to help with other projects, including the work nobody else feels like doing. Happily, they have taken my offer to help seriously. The office was unorganized so they asked me to help get it organized. It took two whole days to clean out everything. Once I got started, it became pretty obvious why the cleaning staff cleans the lodge every single day. This is Africa, so I had to deal with many bugs, lots of dirt, and even dead mice and birds. Once everything was clean, I put things back in drawers, bookcases, shelves, and even the storage room. I didn't mind doing the dirty works since I came here to volunteer. During unscheduled time, I would rather have something to do rather than sitting around. Everything I do here feels like it's for a good cause. After all, a clean office makes the staff happier =).

After cleaning out the office, I was sort of on a roll, so I also cleaned out and organized the equipment room. I have been the equipment manager ever since I first got here. Basically that job involves getting the tools we need for conservation projects together and ready to go. I also have to make sure none of the tools goes missing or gets lost while we are out on the land, so I take inventory before we leave the conservation area. As you can imagine, the equipment room was even dirtier than the office, full of dirt, spider webs, and gecko poop. Tools were unorganized, clustered together and falling all over the place. It was hard to get the tools out without tripping over anything. Now I'm pleased to say, the equipment room is very organized. There's plenty of space to walk into the room and grab the tools that are needed for specific projects.

Not all of the clean ups involves cobwebs. I have also been helping the photography team clean up their database. There are so many photos in the database, but there's no way to find the ones you want unless they have good keywords. Some of the volunteers don't understand this, so they don't bother keywording their photos. In other cases, keywords are misspelled or in different language. Sometimes keywords don't even match with the photos. Cleaning up the database is very time-consuming and frustrating, but connecting the right keywords with the photos means that staff will be able to use the photos taken by volunteers more effectively.

Now that I'm one of the more experienced volunteers, I've also started helping new volunteers. I can get their questions answered and show them how things are done around here. I try to make sure they are having good times and no trouble. It was especially satisfying to teach some of the photography volunteers to set up to take photos of star trails and seeing their reaction as they got their first results. I realized that I love teaching people what I've learned about photography.

I know some people thought I would get tired of being in Africa after three months. The reality is that I find myself wishing I could stay here and do this kind of work all year long. It's really hard for me to think about returning to America in 3 weeks. I feel a little bad about saying this, but I'm not really looking forward to going back to my old life and the job I had in the States. There's something about Africa that truly makes me happy and heal my spirit. I am glad to do any kind of work because even the dirty, nasty jobs feel meaningful. That may not make a lot of sense to people back home, but I feel like I finally understand why some people are willing to work harder than others. When you find what you truly love, work is satisfying and even joyful.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Zulu Wedding


This weekend, I was honored with a rare invitation. One of our guides was getting married. The wedding ceremony was on Easter Sunday. Many of the volunteers were leaving to return to home or go on to their next adventure somewhere. Only four volunteers were still here, so we were invited, along with the staff, to attend the wedding. The festivities began at our guide’s home where his pre-wedding ceremony was being performed.

As soon as we arrived and got out of the vans, we were surrounded by a crowd of people. The guide’s entire family came over and gave us greeting hugs. I couldn’t believe how friendly everyone was. They treated us like celebrities. I realized that we were the only white guests. People were talking videos or photos of us with their phones or cameras. I instantly fell in love with these people knew immediately that it was going to be a very special day!

I haven't been to a lot of weddings but this ceremony was very different from what people do in the US and, for all I know in Africa outside of South Africa. There was lots, lots, lots of dancing. It went on for hours! First, the women were dancing and leading the bride to one of the huts. The men led our guide to meet the bride in the hut to prepare for the ceremony. Our guide cut the center out some kind of skin and placed it over the bride’s head so the skin acted almost like a poncho. The hut was very hot because so many people were inside singing and dancing. When I left the hut to get ready to photograph people coming out, sweat was pouring off me!

Then the guide and his bride were led back to the open land with more dancing and singing. I don’t think the guests ever took a break from singing and dancing! The guide and his best men (I’m assuming) got front row seats so they could enjoy the dancing and singing the women did on the open land. The bride and bridesmen would dance toward to a group of people and throw their sticks or spears down into the ground in front of them.  Then they danced back to where the rest of the women were dancing. The bride got down on a mat on her knees and waited. The group with the sticks and spears in front of them picked up the sticks and spears and walked over to the bride to place money on the bride’s hat. This ritual was repeated over and over. There were many groups, so giving these gifts took hours.

With the permission of the people, I was taking many many many photographs of the ceremony. At one point, I was saying to one of the local women that watching the women dance was very addicting. It made me wants to join and dance with them. I tried to learn the traditional Zulu dance by paying close attention to their moves. One of the members of the team told me to try the dance. I noticed people watching me and I was a bit hesitant because I didn’t want to offend anybody. But the local woman and my friend kept encouraging me so I finally decided to do the Zulu dance for the first time. Whoops. It turned out to be the most embarrassing and funniest moment of my entire life.

 The traditional Zulu dance is very simple and yet very hard to do! You take steps every time there’s a beat. Then when there’s a loud beat coming up, you throw up one leg up in the air and slam it down at the same time as the loud beat. Some of the women dancing could throw their legs up so that their knees touched their shoulders. I tried to throw my leg up and bring it down as hard as I could to make a loud beat. As it turned out, I simply wasn't wearing the right clothes for Zulu dancing.  When I threw my leg up, I somehow lost my balance because my dress went up with my leg and pulled the other leg out from under me. I fell right on my ass and made a big boom. Everybody stopped and looked over at me. They were all laughing at me. I was so embarrassed, but I was also laughing so hard, I knew everybody would be telling this story for the rest of my time here. I got up, dusted off my dress, took a bow and waved at everybody who was watching. I figure about 300 people saw me fall on my ass while doing my first Zulu dance. 

Everything else about the ceremony was epic. Watching everybody dancing and having the time of their life was mesmerizing. I don't know this culture well but I felt its power and its pull. Later, one of my friends told me that she was watching me take photographs of the ceremony. She could tell that I was really into the moment and the dancing. Even though I was taking pictures, I didn't feel like an observer. I felt like I was being drawn into the lives of these vibrant, generous people. I feel very honored and humble to have been invited to the Zulu wedding ceremony. It's an experience I will never ever forget.

There’s still a lot I do not understand about the culture in South Africa, but I love the open-heartedness of the people. I may not understand what they are saying, but what I have seen with my eyes are people who are friendly, colorful, full of life and always smiling. Everywhere I go, people wave and give me a thumbs-up.  All of this goodwill has an effect on me. I find myself being more friendlier, waving or giving a thumbs-up to other people. It's like a chain reaction that generates good feelings, and I love being part of it.  

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Elephant Week


 Last week was amazing. I witnessed so many things. Most (but not all) involved elephants.   

Our guide for the week was an expert on elephants. I like to believe that he’s one of the elephant whisperers, although he doesn’t whisper to the elephants. He talks to them in booming voice. And he knows where to find them. Somehow on Monday he guided us to an entire herd of elephants that was marching toward one of the water holes. He parked the Land Rover right in the path of the herd, and they marched right by us. He did it again. And again. They were on a mission, and they didn't really care that we were there. Some completely ignored us, some glanced at us, some gave us a warning flair of their huge ears. They just kept marching and we kept clicking our cameras. It was an extraordinary experience. 

I had never seen elephants at a waterhole before, so this was another first for me. The elephants all stood at the edge of the water and sucked in water with their trunks. Then they tucked their trunks into their mouths and spurted water. Different elephants had different styles. Some were messy with water gushing all over; some were very elegant and didn't waste a drop of water. I noticed some youngsters were helping the littlest calves, guiding them to the water. The herd is extremely close. They all help each other and protect the little ones. It occurred to me that many human families could take a lesson or two from this herd.

On Tuesday evening, we found the herd again. This time, we witnessed many fights among the male elephants. From what I learned, the males fight to practice, to assert their power, to establish their position in the herd or simply to have fun. It's hard to explain how huge these animals are. The fights almost seem to be in slow motion because the combatants are so big. I could literally hear their tusks clashing with each other so you know the fight was intense and loud. Our guide had to move the Land Rover out of the way a few times to be sure we wouldn't get squashed by nearby elephant fights.


On Wednesday evening, our elephant whisperer tried his hardest to track down the herd once again, but the herd outsmarted us, walking into thicker bushes and trees. We tried to follow them, which was pretty rough on the tires of the Land Rover. Eventually, one of the tires got poked in the wrong place by a pointy branch. We had a flat tire right in the middle of the wild!  We knew there were elephants nearby in the thick bushes because the hearing people in the vehicle could hear them moving around. We just couldn’t see the elephants. That was pretty nerve-racking for me since I couldn’t really hear the elephants but I knew they were there!!! Fortunately, we managed to change tire before it got too dark.  Once again, the elephants were much less interested in us than we were in them and they gave us no trouble.  

Thursday evening, we found the male elephants in a more accessible area. Let me tell you, this was probably one of the best drives I have ever had because we had front row seats for a very dramatic elephant fight. A youngster named Sawubona is one of my favorite elephants. He is different from the other elephants because he is very curious about the Land Rover. On Thursday, I was sitting in the passenger seat beside the driver.  Sawubona was walking on my side of the vehicle. He was walking closer and closer so that he could almost touch the Land Rover with the end of his stretched trunk. He even sniffed me out and I really wondered if he was going to try and touch me or grab me! I had never seen a wild elephant in an extreme close-up, and it was awe-inspiring.


Sawubona also loves to to pick fights with other bigger males. On Thursday, he was having a bad day. He was trying so hard to win a fight against any of the big males. He fought with two of the larger males and eventually admitted defeat by falling to the ground in frustration. We watched all of this from what was literally the best seat in the world. Then Sawubona did something that shocked all of us. I guess he figured that if he couldn't beat one of the elephants, he would take on the Land Rover. Suddenly, he was on his feet and charging straight at us!   Luckily our elephant whisperer started the engine. The noise scared Sawubona, and our guide moved the vehicle forward a bit to show him that we were ready to fight. Of course, we were in an open vehicle, so we were pretty vulnerable, but Sawubona didn’t know that. He stopped and walked away from us.  


All of these elephant encounters made this a pretty amazing week but there was more to come. Friday early morning, I finally got to see a leopard! Leopards are in one of the most elusive animals in Thanda. They don't like attention, and they are extremely good at camouflage. After seven weeks of being here, I was so happy to finally see a beautiful big cat with its amazingly clean coat and its rosette spots. We first caught sight of the leopard walking down the road. As soon as it heard the engine of the Land Rover, it moved quickly went into the thick bushes and crouched down low. Luckily our guide was able to see where it went. He parked right beside the bushes and turned off the engine.

Leopards blend in so well with the landscape that we couldn't see him even though we knew he was there. We had to wait patiently for the leopard to make a movement so we could find him. After a while, our guide decided to move off the road and closer the bushes. Suddenly, I saw the leopard moving off to another area of bush. We waited and waited. I was in the back of the Land Rover, so I was keeping a very keen eye out to make sure we didn’t miss him crossing the road behind us. Sure enough, the leopard tried to slip across the road and into the bushes on the other side. I told the guide where he was going and kept an eye on the leopard while the guide backed up so we could see him more clearly. It was almost impossible to get a good photo of him because he was moving and hiding in the thick bushes. It made me realizes that we probably pass leopards all the time and don't see them because they are so good at hiding or simply laying low in the tall grass. Seeing a leopard is always an incredible experience, even if you get nothing more than a glimpse. All together in my life, I've seen leopards three times and it is always a thrill.  


I could go on and on about last week. We got lucky with a rare sighting of two honey badgers. I held a blind snake. I had another reunion with a familiar face from my first trip. I always feel that every day at Thanda is an adventure, but last week was over the top. I've said it before, but I'll say it again. This is an amazing place, and I am so grateful to be here!!!




Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Dream: Big Cats

I found out that my last blog post upset a few of my family members and friends. So sorry! Maybe I should have explained that it was a dream at the beginning of the post. I was trying to make the blog exciting but maybe that was a little too exciting. So let me make it clear right now. This is another dream. I'm writing it down because it was just as vivid as the dream about the crocodile. I don't dream this way when I'm at home and I'm trying to figure out what it means.    


This time the animal in the dream is a big cat--not a leopard, cheetah or lion. This cat wasn't like anything I have actually seen but it was big. At the beginning of the dream, I was with a group of volunteers and staff members. We were having a little party outside by the pool, just standing around and talking about life as we so often do. Suddenly I noticed two big cats running on the far side of the pool. They disappeared behind a wall of the lodge. Nobody else saw the cats, so I quickly grabbed one of our guides and pointed out where the big cats were hiding. He didn’t see them at first. But then they moved out from behind the wall  and closer to a tree. The guide saw them this time and announced to everybody that we had to move inside slowly and quietly.

We all went upstairs in the lodge, thinking we would be safe on the second floor. But the cats followed us. Everybody slowly backed up and spread out. I was standing beside the railing of the stairs when one of the cats took an interest in me. He slowly walked up to me. I was standing totally still, terrified but also amazed by being so close to this beautiful animal. I hoped that if I stood still enough, he wouldn’t think I was a living thing. He sniffed me as he walked in a circle close enough so I could feel his tail brushing against my legs. When the cat was behind me, I could see everyone else watching the two of us and I realized that two of the guides were walking slowly to another room, probably to get something to defend us from the cat.   

Then I felt sharp pain in my right arm. For some reason, I didn’t move or scream in pain. One of the cats had bitten me on my arm and wouldn't let go. A staff member grabbed the cat's neck, pulled him off my arm and  threw the cat away from me. I was staring at my arm. There was a large bite mark and it was starting to bleed. Another staff member grabbed me and moved me away from the cats. “I need to sit down," I said. "I think I’m going to pass out.” I guess I was in shock. Fortunately, they helped me get to the wall and I sat down on the floor with my back against the wall. 

That's when the other cat decided to come after me. Suddenly the shock wore off and adrenalin kicked in. I jumped up off the floor and faced the cat. The second cat sniffed me. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the two guides who had gone to get snatchers, long sticks with loops on the end that let them grab the cats by their necks. They couldn’t get in position to get the cat by me and, just as he was about to open his mouth to take a bite, I grabbed the back of his neck. By now, my arm was bleeding like crazy from the first bite. The smell of blood was making the second cat wild and he was trying to bite me anywhere he could. It took all my strength to hold onto the back of his neck and keep his teeth away from me. “Somebody get him!” I shouted.

Finally one of the guides got the snatcher around the cat's neck. He led the cat outside where one of the anti-poaching units was preparing a dart to put him out. The first cat was still walking around and the other guide was trying to corner him to catch him with the snatcher. But the first cat was smarter than the second cat. I knew he was eyeing me as I started to make my way to out of the room to take care of my arm. Suddenly, I heard everybody yelling. I looked back and saw the cat in the air coming straight at me. As he knocked me to the floor, I grabbed his mouth just like I did with the crocodile in the other dream. I have no idea how but I was struggling to keep his mouth and sharp teeth away from me. Just as I thought my strength would fail me, the guide snatched him and led him away. 

I woke from this dream looking for the bite mark on my arms. I couldn’t believe that I had another dream that felt so real.  Every detail was sharp in my memory. I’m still not sure what these dreams mean. When I described the new dream to one of the staff, she suggested maybe I am struggling or fighting with something in life that takes the form of these animals in my dreams. I thought that was an interesting theory since in both dreams, I was fighting to survive. On the other hand, I can't figure out what I am fighting in real life.

There’s one thing I do know. Africa is a very spiritual place. People here believe that dreams have meaning. So, dear readers, I have two questions for you. What do these dreams mean to you? And which blog post did you like reading better?   


Saturday, March 16, 2013

Crocodile

So I have this story that will probably blow your mind away. You know it ends well because I’m writing this, so please just hold your questions, comments, exclamations, or freak-outs until you’ve read the whole thing.

Two staff members, seven other volunteers and I decided to visit a wetland park full of crocodiles. We were supposed to meet our guides with their boats at a dock so we were driving in a Land Rover, trying to find the dock. We couldn’t seem to find it and the person driving the vehicle was getting frustrated because we were going to be late so she started speeding a little bit. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, the staff member sitting in the passenger seat, pointed at something in front of her and shouted, “There it is. STOP!” The driver tried to slow down, but there wasn’t enough time so she slammed down the brakes.

The Land Rover stopped before driving into the water, but I didn’t. I went flying out of the vehicle and landed in the river. The water was pretty cold. I went under and then came up as quickly as I could to get some air. I brushed the water grass off my face and rubbed the water out of my eyes. Then I looked back at the Land Rover. Everybody was yelling and pointing at something to my left. My hearing aids weren’t working because of the water, so I couldn’t make out what they were yelling or saying. I looked over to my left and realized why they were so upset. A crocodile was swimming straight for me.

I knew if I turned toward shore, I wouldn’t get out of the water in time and the crocodile would snatch me from behind. I also knew that I wouldn’t go down without fighting. In a flash, I realized that I wasn’t done living my life. The crocodile disappeared underwater. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the people on shore yelling and waving their arms like crazy, trying to get me to come out of the water. Instead I dove underwater to face the crocodile. The water was muddy, but I could see a dark figure coming straight for me. I held my breath and waited for him to get closer.

When the crocodile was about two feet away, he opened his huge jaws. His intentions were clear. Somehow I grabbed his nose and lower jaw to keep his mouth away from me. His powerful jaws were able to snap even though I was still holding on to him. I don’t know how, but I knew I had to keep my fingers away from his teeth. We thrashed around until I felt the river bottom under my feet. I’m not sure where I got the strength—maybe the crocodile was getting tired—but somehow I threw the crocodile’s mouth in the other direction so I could scramble out to dry land. I looked back and saw the crocodile swimming away from me.

I was soaking wet, but there wasn’t a single scratch on me. Everybody in the Land Rover was staring at me, dumb-founded and near tears. Nobody said anything, so I just laughed and said, “I’m okay, folks.” After a moment or two, one staff member broke the silence, “I thought you were dead.” “Yea, me too,” another person said quietly. Then suddenly everyone was talking at once. Our guides were right there so they saw the whole thing. One of the guides came up to me and said, “You are one lucky bitch, you could’ve been croc food in there.” He laughed and patted me on my shoulder. All I could do was laugh about it and then we went on the boat drive to learn all about crocodiles.

After the boat drive, the guides wanted me to come back to the office with them and tell the rest of their team about what happened in the water. I tried my best to tell the story though it was difficult to explain how the hell I had survived without any knowledge or experience with crocodiles. All I could say was that it must have been some kind of survival instinct. I had a clear memory of an inner voice telling me not to touch the teeth when I grabbed the mouth so I wouldn’t lose any fingers or limbs. All the guides were acting like my experiences was some kind of a miracle and I was a crocodile whisperer or something.

At the end of the day, the staff decided we should go out for drinks since everyone had been really scared when I was in the water. All evening, I kept thinking, “Whoa, I could’ve died back there! How did I escape from that crocodile? No way I’m telling my family about this!” Everyone told their own version of the story. “I cannot believe how far you went flying out of the vehicle into the water!” “That crocodile must have been so pissed that you got away!” “You could’ve died!” It was getting harder for me to remember what really happened, but as the evening faded, I felt relief that the day was over—and that I had survived it.

The next morning, I woke up feeling even more confused about what had happened. At breakfast, I sat with the staff member and some of the volunteers. They were acting like it was any other day. Finally, I had to ask: “Did we visit a wetland park yesterday?”

They all looked at me like I had lost my mind. Finally someone said, “Noooo,” really slowly, like they were trying to figure out what I was talking about.

I asked again “Are you sure we didn’t go anywhere near water or crocodiles?”

They were very sure. “No, we didn’t leave the game preserve yesterday.”

“So I never really fell in the water and had to fight off a crocodile?”

“What?!?!”

That’s when I realized…it must have been a dream, the most vivid dream I’ve ever had.

When I told everybody about my dream, they all thought it was crazy that I had remembered so many details. For me, the crazy part was that it felt so real.

Later on, somebody told me that, when a crocodile appears in a dream, it’s a sign of healing. That’s interesting, considering that, in my dream, the crocodile was trying to eat me!

I’m not sure why I had this dream or what the heck it means. All I know is that being in Africa is changing me. My experiences here are seeping into my dreams. Yes, there are dangers, but in my dreams at least, I know what I need to do it survive!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Reflection


I have been in Africa for more than a month. That’s longer than my first trip last year, and it seemed like a good time to reflect on what I’ve experienced in the past weeks and what I hope for in the weeks to come. That’s why I decided to stay in at Thanda last weekend. It’s always tempting to go back to Rocktail Bay or even to a hotel for a night of unlimited water and Wifi, but I wanted to get the experience of being completely alone at the lodge. Actually, I wasn’t completely alone. Some staff members work on the weekend—housekeepers, kitchen helpers, and a security team—but all the other volunteers were away so I pretty much had the place to myself. It was a very windy, stormy day with occasional sprinkles from the sky. Some people might be disappointed in that kind of day, but I love it when it’s really windy. The wind made me remember one of my last nights in the US when I stood outside my parents’ house, looking up at a clear sky full of stars and feeling the wind on my face. I used my windy day to recharge for another 7 weeks of adventures in South Africa. I’ve picked up a little yoga, so I did that for a while. And then I did some Tai Chi that I learned from my mother who’s on her way becoming a Tai Chi instructor. Both of those activities make you think about breathing and the wind made it feel like the world was breathing with me. All day it was windy and cloudy, and I loved every single minute of it. Even without company, I didn’t feel lonely. Actually, I should say that I didn’t have human company. This is a nature preserve so I had a number of visitors during the day—a pair of warthogs, some impalas, a stick insect, frogs and toads, and plenty of praying mantises.


For me, it was a great day of peace and quiet. Maybe it wouldn’t be so quiet for hearing people because I’m pretty sure there were frogs croaking, crickets chirping and maybe even lions roaring in the distance. I haven’t exactly been able to hear the sounds made by wildlife, but that doesn’t really matter to me. I am getting better at understanding what is communicated through action—body language, facial expression, even eye contact. On game drives or even in camp, I’ve had so many experiences where I’ve made eye contact with an animal. Once, one of our guides parked the Land-Rover right in the middle of a herd of buffalo. Some buffalo completely ignored us knowing we weren’t danger. Some started at us wondering what the heck were we doing. Some accepted us and strolled past as if having a Land-Rover in their midst was perfectly normal. One buffalo was right beside the Land-Rover. I was in the passenger seat which is a lot closer to the ground than the rest of the seats in the back. This buffalo locked eyes with me and I felt like I was under some kind of a spell. It almost seemed as if he was trying to communicate with me, warning me not to hit any of his friends and family members with the Land-Rover.

 During this first month in Thanda, I have made eye contact with elephants, lions, zebras, and even warthogs, and I always come away feeling deeply connected to the animal. I don’t know what is it about this place, but it makes me feel closer to the wildlife, not just in body but in spirit. I think this love for animals has always been inside me. I remember that, when I was a kid, I never truly enjoyed going to the zoo. I always felt bad for the animals because they were confined in small areas and dependent on humans for food. I don’t ever remember making eye contact with an animal in the zoo. Maybe here animals look you in the eye because they are living on their own terms. Yes, they need people to protect their habitat, but within that habitat, they have grace and dignity. When an animal locks eyes with me, I realize that it has every right to live free from human interference and violence. 

Even after a weekend on my own, it’s hard to summarize the experiences and feelings I’ve had during these first weeks at Thanda. I just know that I deeply love being here, and I can’t wait to see what the coming weeks will bring.

Monday, March 4, 2013

My Duties at Thanda Part 3

In my last two posts about my duties at Thanda, I wrote about the photography and conservation work that volunteers do at Thanda. We spend most of our time on those duties, but we also get to be part of the community outreach. African Impact is involved in many educational projects, and volunteers help out in those programs too.


Some days we visit the local crèches and help out with the lesson plans. The kids at the crèches are from newborn to 4 years. It is so much fun being around them. The lesson plans help them prepare for school. We help them learn English words including ABC’s, days of the week, names of animals and so on. We have fun with them during play time. They love hugs and cuddles and even blowing bubbles!


Volunteers also work with two schools in the local rural communities around Thanda. The first school is Mafa School about 25 minutes away from the game reserve. From this school we collect the sixth graders and drive them to our education centre at Ulwazi. With volunteer help, the children learn about the special wildlife on Thanda and the importance of conservation. These outings are rounded off by lunch and a drive home often accompanied by singing.

The second school is Mdletshe, where our work is also supported by the Happy Africa Foundation. The school has three classrooms and, depending on the number of volunteers, we prepare lessons for one or two groups. These are elementary age kids, so they love crafts and coloring.


Last but not least, volunteers are expected to take care of small duties at the lodge. One week I was equipment manager, so I had to make sure all equipment was accounted for and nothing went missing or get lost on our expeditions. Another week, I was the environmentalist, so I had to make sure water was properly recycled and the electricity was not being overused. I also had to see to it that the lodge was organized and clean – no trash or dirty dishes! I’m looking forward to other assignments such as gardener for watering the garden and reporter for posting news on our Facebook page.

Since I came here as a photographer, I try to take photographs of everything that happens – animals, conservation work, community projects, and people. You never really know what kind of photography the Thanda team will need as they try to tell the story of all the important work that’s going on here. They may want to spotlight a particular project or praise the accomplishments of a particular volunteer. For me, photography ties everything together.

So now you know what it means to be a volunteer at Thanda. Every day is different. Every day is full. Every day seems meaningful.


Thursday, February 28, 2013

Dealing with Death on the other side of the World

I left America knowing two family members were facing serious health problems. I knew I might not see them again, but of course, I was hopeful that they would be alive when I returned to the US. Maybe I was too hopeful. My uncle died on Friday from brain cancer. I found out Saturday morning when I received a message from my mother.


At the time, I was on another weekend trip with a group of six Thanda volunteers and two guides. We were visiting the Drakensberg Mountains. On Friday night, we visited a very beautiful waterfall to take photographs and enjoy a dip in the pool beside the waterfall. Back in camp, I was standing outside of the cabin I was sharing with three other volunteers, waiting for my turn at the shower. The view was amazing. I could see mountains of all shapes and sizes – pointy, round, and flat on top. Below, I could see trees and bushes. Above, I saw rays of sunshine streaming out from behinds the mountains.

Scenery like that usually makes me feel very peaceful, but that day I had an uneasy feeling. Something felt wrong. I thought maybe I was emotional because I’ve been in Africa almost a month and maybe I’m a little homesick. Then, out of nowhere, a bushbuck appeared along the tree-line. A bushbuck is a graceful African antelope with a caramel colored coat and white markings. I’m not sure how to explain it, but I felt that the bushbuck was there for me, reassuring me that everything would be okay.

I couldn’t sleep much at all that night. Even after seeing the bushbuck, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. At dawn, when it was time to wake up and get ready for the day, I got the message about my uncle. At first, I thought I was still dreaming. It was hard to believe that he was gone. I went back outside where the view was as beautiful as it had been the night before. The sun hadn’t risen yet, so the mountains were shadowy and there were still a few stars out. Gradually, the grief washed over me. I had lost another family member to cancer.

I had to make a choice – stay in camp feeling sad and missing the activities we had planned for the weekend or be with my new family and live my life. I was pretty sure I knew the best way to honor my uncle, a man who seized every opportunity to live his own life. I found myself a rock and a pen. I wrote RIP on it. Our morning plan was to hike up one of the mountains to a tunnel where we would have photographic opportunities. We started out slowly and the pace was giving me too much time to think. I told everyone I’d meet them at the tunnel and hiked as fast as I could. It was a great way for me to release the grief and anger that I felt. I finished the trail in two hours and about thirty minutes later the rest of the group showed up.

I tried to focus on taking photographs of the tunnel and the surrounding scenery, but my heart wasn’t in it. My mind was on my uncle and the other relatives who died in the past two years. When everybody was starting the head back, I took the RIP rock I had carried up the mountain and placed it on top of another rock in the water in front of the entrance of the tunnel. I had a moment of silence and then I threw the rock over the waterfall. It was an emotional moment. It would have been good to share it with my cousins and other family members, but they were halfway around the world.

I took my time going down the mountain. At one of the waterfalls, the guides and some of the volunteers were cliff-jumping. I was still feeling emotional so I just sat and watched. One by one, they went hurtling over the cliff, each of them looking joyous and free. I realized that this was the kind of thing my uncle would have urged me to do. I used to swim in the ocean with my cousins every summer and he would always encourage us to swim even when the waves were big and rough.

I took off my shoes. Without saying anything, I climbed up the boulders. I looked down over the waterfall. It was a little scary and high. But in my mind, I could see my uncle plunging into the waves and it seemed like something I had to do. “This is for you,” I said out loud before I jumped. The water was shockingly cold and refreshing. It felt as if the water washed away all my problems. I decided to jump again. And this time I thought of all the people who died too soon because of cancer.

One of my guides decided to climb to an even higher cliff. We watched as he stepped to the edge of the ledge and jumped. Nobody else would do it, but my adrenalin was going. I scrambled up to the higher cliff. From on top, the jumped looked even longer than it did from down below. It was pretty scary and I had a moment of hesitation. And then I launched myself into the air. This jump was for myself. After my aunt died, I promised myself that I would live my life and make the most out of it. Now I was keeping that promise by jumping into a cold, clean waterfall on the other side of the world.

It is never easy to lose someone you care about. And it’s even harder when you are too far away to share your grief with friends and family. The one thing that makes it just a little bit easier is knowing that the people who are gone lived full and meaningful lives while they were here. To me, it seems like the best way to honor my uncles and my aunt is to learn this lesson from them. Their memory makes me want to live – truly live, boldly and without fear – every single day that I am given.