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.