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.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

My Duties at Thanda Part 2

I promised to write more about what volunteers do at Thanda. The second part of what we do is conservation. There are many part of conservation – removing alien plants, picking up litter, removing wires, and water management. Let me try to explain a bit about each of these activities and why they are important.

1) Invasive and alien plants are considered one of the greatest threats to South Africa’s game reserves and open land, so African Impact created a program to eradicate these plants. This program is important because invasive, alien plants cause all kinds of problems.

Invasive species suffocate indigenous species causing mass extinction of indigenous plant and animal biodiversity. As a result, local people can’t harvest indigenous natural resources. The plant also encroach on potentially productive land, leading to the loss of crops and grazing land for livestock. 

Alien species also increase the problems associated with flooding and fires. They cause erosion, destruction of rivers and siltation of dams and estuaries. They reduce water quality and waste an estimated 7% of national water resources in a country where water is already scarce. 

Most of our efforts are focused on two plants – Chromolaena and Prickly Pear. Although there are biological and chemical ways to control these plants, we try our best to remove them manually. We pull out smaller plants or chop down bigger plants with a machette or a saw. 

2) We also clean up litter along the roads and paths. Thanda and Kingsland have poles and fences remaining from when this land was used for farming. These fences still have barbed wire on them which could cut and injure the animals. We are trying to return Thanda and Kingsland to as natural state as possible so these poles and wires must be removed. 

3) Removing snares is also a vitally important task in Thanda and Kingsland. Poachers use wire from fences surrounding the reserve to make snares to catch animals. The snares cause many animal deaths. In 2011, the largest male Lion was killed by a snare and a month later two of the endangered Wild Dogs were lost.

I haven’t done a snare sweep yet, but from what I learned, volunteers go into a designated area with the trackers and members of APU (Anti Poaching Unit). The volunteers form a line and sweep through the bush. Any wire found is removed and returned to the camp.

4) Water management is also a crucial part of conservation.  This region is very dry, so water is the most valuable resource in the reserve and needs to be protected. In the wild, animals move from one water source to the other. The game reserve, however, isn’t big enough for the animals to move from one water source to another. As a result, the waterholes don’t get a chance to fill up properly

Volunteers at Thanda work to repair existing waterholes and develop new ones. Work has already been done to repair damage at the water holes using bitumen. We can also create settings in which new water holes can develop.  At an area designated by Thanda, volunteers will remove trees, bushes, rocks etc to create a natural habitat. Once cleared, we will lay down plastic sheeting and seal it to allow water collection. Water can be pumped into these holes if necessary.

I haven’t done all of these types of work, but I know I will be ready and willing to do anything to help make the reserve more livable for the animals. I remember my first conservation morning from last year. When they gave me a big machete and pointed out the plants which didn’t belong in Thanda, I was hooked. I love taking down alien plants!  (It’s a great way to work off anger or frustration!)  I also find it very satisfying to clean the roads/paths. Every piece of trash we remove makes it less likely that an animal will get injured or sick.

Conservation work may not be as glamorous as photography, but it seems every bit as important. People created these problems in the natural world. I’m glad to play a small part in solving the problems, so the animals can have the habitat they deserve. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

My Duties at Thanda Part 1

I have had a few people asking me what the heck am I doing in Africa. To some people it looks like I am on vacation. This is as wonderful as any vacation I have ever taken, but there’s more to it that that. I am a volunteer, but I take the work as seriously as a job. There are three parts to my work here. I will explain one part in this post and the other two parts in future posts.

The program I signed up for is called the Photography and Conservation Project. The objective of this project is to build an unique database of wildlife and conservation images, taken by volunteers (that’s me!). The photos are used for education and research. We try to document the amazing biodiversity in Thanda and the surrounding area. The photos are also part of a marketing campaign to make people more aware of the need for conservation. We hope the photos will inspire people to give money to African Impact and other NGO’s to support the work they are trying to do.

During the first week as a volunteer here, everyone participates in a photography course given by a professional photographer. The course is a good mixture of theory and practice. We learn a little about the history of photography and advances made possible by new technology. We also have instruction on how to take good photos and how to use software to make them even better. The instructor critiques our photos and make sure we know what kind of photos are needed for the database.

After the photography course, we go on regular game drives. We get up very early in the morning because that’s when we are most likely to find animals. We have drivers/guides who are very knowledgeable about where the animals are likely to be. After a photo shot, I process and edit my photos according to a weekly schedule or in my free time. At the end of every month, I will be asked to add my best photos to the database of Thanda.

For someone like me, this is very satisfying work. I love studying the animals and trying to get the perfect shot that captures the beauty and grace of these creatures. It makes me feel good to know that the pictures I take help scientists understand African wildlife better. And I hope they will also inspire ordinary people to care about conservation of wildlife.

So that’s part of what I am doing during my three months at Thanda. I will fill you in on other activities when I get to post again.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Rocktail Bay Weekend

Last weekend, we went to Rocktail Bay. It's one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. The bay is located in the far north-eastern corner of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. We had a secluded camp nestled in the dune forest, a stone’s throw from the subtropical beaches of Maputaland. It's very remote and there was no running water or electricity at all.

Every time we walked over the dunes to the beach, it was completely empty and we had it all to ourselves. When we took our first dip in the ocean, it was like heaven. The water was deliciously cool.  The sun had already gone down, but the light was still beautiful.  

After dinner, when it was completely dark, the stars came out. I remembered the African night sky from my last visit, and all the time I was in the US, I longed to see the stars again. They were even brighter than I remembered. I saw at least 2 shooting stars that night. We started a bonfire and got a drum circle going. I can't always appreciate music but the drums spoke to all of us that night. Their rhythms were addicting.    

The next day... Oh!  What a magical day! (I hate to keep using that word but magic is the only way to describe this kind of perfection.) We went for a boat ride to snorkel at a nearby coral reef. The water is so clear and blue, and we were exploring, looking at all the colorful fish. Then, we got incredibly lucky and spotted wild dolphins. The first time I swam with them seven months ago, I really wished I had a waterproof camera. This time, I had a waterproof cover for a small digital camera. I hadn't really tested it yet so I wasn't sure how it worked. I'm glad to say it worked perfectly. I may not have gotten a master shot, but at least I now have proof that I actually swam with wild dolphins!

On our last day before heading back to Thanda, we spent all morning on the beach. I went for a long walk along the shore and around the rock cliffs. You can only get to them when the tide is out. It was one of most amazing places I have ever seen. The rocks were all ragged and sharp, so we had to wear flip-flops to protect our feet. The waves were crashing and creeping toward us. I was just losing my breath, overwhelmed by the beauty of the area. 

I don't know exactly why this happens, but going someplace new puts everything into perspective for me. Things that might ordinarily look like problems sort of fall away. I don't know if this happens for everyone, but being someplace different makes me appreciate being alive. I know I can't spend every day on Rocktail Beach, but I want to hold on to the feeling that I had there: Every day in this world is a gift! 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Stuck in Tree

Ok, here's the much-requested story about seeing the mother rhino and her one-month-old baby...

When we spotted this pair, they were at a distance, so our driver was trying to get us closer. The guides here are terrific and they are always trying to get us into position for the best possible photos. In this case, he tried to drive under a tree. Somehow he misjudged the height of one of the big branches. The branches cleared the first two rows in the Land Rover, but it got lodged in the last row of seats.

That's where I was sitting. I was the only one in the row, so I moved to the floor knowing that the guide would try to drive us out of this predicament. The branch wasn't going anywhere, so I stuck my head out the side of the Land Rover and I realized the baby rhino was only about 15 feet away. I just squeezed my camera out and snapped a couple photographs of the baby. Jackpot! Then, of course, I couldn't move at all because I was stuck on the floor with the branch right above my back and head.

Finally after few tries, the other passengers lifted the branch so that the Land Rover could get free. Yes, I was a bit uncomfortable, but I couldn't stop laughing the whole time. The rest of the volunteers thought it was the funniest thing ever. This is part of what I love about Thanda. You never quite know what will happen next. It's all part of the adventure!!!

Life at Thanda

Hello World!!! The first week in Thanda in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa had been amazing! Because this is my second visit here, the photography workshop was a great refresher. Like everyone else, I was anxious to get into the field. We've already seen so much. The best part of the week was seeing the mother rhino and her one-month-old baby. I was literally stuck under a tree, but more on that later...

In this post, I thought I’d share a little information about the basics of life in Thanda. There’s really not much water here. We collect rainwater to be used in the toilet tank. Some days we have water for showers, some days there just isn't any water so showers are out of the question. We do have bottled water for drinking and cooking, but we're careful with that too.  

There’s no Wi-Fi at the camp/lodge. Cellphone service isn't great either. And, of course, we don't have cable TV. That's OK because, once people get here, we really don't have an interest in online entertainment or keeping up with the rest of the world. This is a simpler place. Our entertainment is conversation or observing nature or simply enjoying the peace.

The weather here is very different from when I was here 7 months ago. It’s hotter and a lot more humid. It's often cloudy and it rains a lot more. As a result, the land is so much greener than last time I was here. The greener it gets, the more alive it becomes. Yes, there many different bugs, and a lot of them are much bigger than the last time I was here. 

I cannot believe it’s only Week Two and I have so many stories to share!!!  (Despite what I said about technology, I did get a USB modem so I'll be able to post a little more often than last time.)  For today, I just want to say that I'm having a blast!  I feel so lucky to have found Thanda.  I feel so lucky to be here again for a longer stay.  I'm living my dream, and I'm very happy.  To be continued!!!

Friday, February 1, 2013

On My Way...

It's been 222 days since I left South Africa. Tonight I am going to get on a plane for a return trip. I have wanted to go back to Africa ever since the day I left.

When I came back last summer, I tried to buckle down and get serious about a job, but all I could think about was Africa. When I finally found work, I decided that I would slash expenses and save, save, save. There were some sacrifices. I stopped shopping for anything, but the essentials. I socialized less and gave up sports. I worked overtime every chance I got.

By the end of the year, I realized that I had enough for the volunteering program at Thanda. My parents saw how much I wanted to go back so they gave me the plane ticket as a Christmas present. (Nice present! Nice present!) Tonight they will drive me to the airport. The departure is very different than last time. I remember saying goodbye to both of my brothers before going to the airport. This time my little brother is away at college and my big brother will be working when I leave. I won't see either of them for a long time.

I am very away that the future is unknown. I know that I want to make a difference in the world. I have some specific goals, but I am leaving here with a completely open mind. Anything is possible. There may be sacrifices or hard times, but I'm ready for that. Somehow Africa is part of what I am supposed to do with my life. I believe this might be the biggest challenge in my life and I am as ready as I can be. I want to make the most of every moment.