Om Namah Shivaya

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Bangsar Village Sunday Market

So, I went on an impromptu trip to Malaysia for a week. We had a school break coming up, and I knew I had to get away from the island (though it had only been two months since I arrived—that speaks volumes to how high stress things are around these parts). I knew I wanted to leave the island, and Ross was going to be visiting me, so I figured we could escape together and check out a tiny piece of another continent. So I did what any frugal person does, and I found the cheapest tickets to anywhere in Asia, which happened to be Kuala Lumpur—the capital city of Malaysia.

Perfect. After some hiccups with trying to buy tickets (because, you know, AsiaAir was apparently no longer going to be operating in Mauritius, and we somehow snagged up tickets before that all ended), we were ready to go. I knew absolutely nothing about Malaysia, but was excited for the food, the culture, and whatever ridiculous stories might develop.

The first few days were mostly walking around and exploring. Actually, most days included many, many miles put on our poor little feet. We explored a bunch of restaurants in the area, and eventually got to check out some amazing markets–namely Central Market, the China Town on Petaling Street, and Little India. Ross and I tried durian for the first (and last) time. At first, it tasted like a Swiss Miss roll, and then quickly changed to engine grease and farts and garlic. The latter taste never seemed to go away (especially when burping). And I do apologize if I’m being culturally insensitive. It’s just not my most favorite taste of all time.

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Details of one of the buildings at the Sri Mahamariamman Temple near Petaling Street

Malaysia has some BEAUTIFUL temples, so we got to check out some of those as well. Pictured here is one of the smaller temples near Petaling Street (China Town), called Sri Mahamariamman Temple–the oldest Buddhist temple in the city, built in 1873 and relocated + rebuilt in the 1900s. We didn’t know it existed, but we were walking around China Town, and two men stopped us to talk to Ross about his t-shirt and tattoos, a fairly regular occurrence everywhere we travel (Ross has this natural talent for inviting really strange encounters with other humans). But yeah, they invited us to the temple at 4:30 for the prayer, and so we went. BEAUTIFUL architecture. Beautiful traditional music. So many colors and such intricate work. Would ya just look at it????

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Of all the temples, my favorite was the Batu Caves, where a 140 ft statute of Lord Murugan (the Hindu god of war) stands outside the mountain. The main temple requires hiking up the staircase and going through a cave, up another staircase and into a second cave. The acoustics inside are pretty amazing. Also, some really gnarly stalactite and stalagmite formations. Outside, there are monkeys everywhere, and they are assholes. But the babies are so darn cute. We both got to interact quite a bit with them, which was exciting and awful (a bigger one jumped on me and wouldn’t let go as it climbed up my legs, up my waist, and eventually jumped off). Ross fed some baby monkeys water from his water bottle. Then I did it. Then they tried to unzip my purse. I guess that’s what it’s like having children. You care for them, and then they raid your wallet?

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The Man-Faced Bug

Oh yeah, then we checked out the Kuala Lumpur Butterfly Park, which I sort of thought might be kind of lame, but it was in my dorky tourist book under must-see places, so we went. And it was amazing! So beautiful inside—butterflies and bugs everywhere. Bridges and water and tons of greenery. Some of the butterflies became our buddies and landed on our hands and went for walks with us. After losing our minds over butterflies, we went into a bug gallery area with dead bugs and live bugs… tarantulas and giant walking sticks. We discovered what might be the most hilarious and amazing creation on earth… the Man-Faced (Stink) Bug. These bugs have faces on their… shells? Backs?Each one with a unique face. Giant eyes. Flared nostrils. Fat lips. An old man mouth. Squinty eyes. Whatever. But they all had the same hair—this badass bouffant on top with cool black-and-white striped sides. We watched them crawl around, laughing and wondering what the hell was going on. Could this be real? Why didn’t we know about these little guys before? For cute.

After that, we visited the National Mosque of Kuala Lumpur for a bit. For some reason, there was a row of massage chairs in the giant open space outside of the prayer hall. So we decided—though it felt so wrong—to get full body massages à la those massage chairs. And I don’t regret it. One, because it always feels good to get your back muscles ripped to shreds like that. And two, because I made some slow-motion videos of Ross that are both disturbing and comical. You can bet your boots that I’d upload the videos to this blog if the Wi-Fi weren’t so awful.

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Our $36 photograph on top of KL Tower

We also went to the top of the KL Tower, which is (according to my friend Wikipedia) “the 7th tallest freestanding tower in the world”… whatever that means. It’s pretty tall. There’s a sky deck, an observation deck, and a revolving restaurant. We walked quite a distance to get there (and up a giant hill). At the top, we were breathless but determined to try to eat dinner at the restaurant, only to be told that we needed reservations. We were also told (pretty bluntly) that it was a ‘black tie’ kind of place… and that perhaps our dirty outfits weren’t quite cut out for the atmosphere. Okay, the worker didn’t say that exactly, but he definitely made it clear that our outfits weren’t nice enough (since when is a stretched out cotton shirt with flying geese print not formal?). But if you know us, you know that we don’t own nice clothes… so yeah, we decided to go up to the sky deck instead. It was $18/person or so just to ride an elevator up there… and then stand around and take a few photos. They have these glass box things (pictured here) that you stand in to be photographed, but there were so many people wanting photos. They had a worker that stood there with a timer and gave everybody 2 minutes each to do their own photo shoot. Which is a really long time to stand there and pose with a bunch of strangers watching you. But soooo many people took the full 2 minutes, posing in every corner of the glass box, standing, squatting, sitting, looking over their shoulders. It was kind of funny. One thing I’ve noticed in other countries/cultures is that men really enjoy their photo shoots. When it got to our turn, we got into place, posed, and left. Max time, 6 seconds. Not entirely sure that it was worth the $40 but hey, not sure when we’ll get back to Malaysia. And it’s a good story, anyhow.

IMG_7110 (1)The rest of the trip was filled with mostly walking around, playing drums at our AirBnB, eating $2 bean curd clay pots or talking to taxi drivers about their lives. Learning about Hinduism and seeing all of the temples was great. I loved watching the ceremonies as the gods or goddesses were showered in milk, honey, fruits, and other offerings. The music was beautiful, and everybody seemed to be at peace. The temples are so colorful, too. Certainly a stretch from my experiences in a Lutheran church in the Midwest. I can’t pretend that I remember all of the names or stories of the gods and goddesses of Hinduism. I don’t. Not at all. But reading about or listening to the stories was quite an experience. I’ve always loved Greek Mythology, and in a way, that might be why I enjoyed this part of the trip. So many awesome stories, so many epic battles. So many odd deaths or acts of treason or infidelity or sacrifice. If only I had the memory capacity to keep those stories with me. This is definitely an area that I wouldn’t mind learning more about in the future.

So that’s my trip to Malaysia in a nutshell. This is mostly a summary for my family and friends who I completely ignore or forget to respond to.

I’m sorry. Forgive me. And also forgive me for the fact that things probably won’t change.

XOXO.

In case you’re wondering

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OH HAYYYYYY.
I’d like to start this post off with a visual that I feel embodies my experiences thus far on the island of Mauritius.

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Think back to your younger years. You’re at your grandma’s house, and you’re bored AF. Okay, your grandma is the sweetest thing ever, but you’re young and you can’t yet appreciate her existence because you’re too busy thinking about how her house has no Playstation 2 and sort of smells bad and has too many dusty seashells decorating the bathroom.

vhsSuddenly, you remember that Grandma has a VCR, and you know she’s got Dumb and Dumber on VHS somewhere, so you skip into the living room and pop that sucker in before throwing yourself onto that La-Z-Boy. And that’s when it happens. Your heart begins to fragment into a hundred tiny pieces of adolescent desperation the moment your gaze meets the television screen… seeing the movie image distorted in such a way that Harry and Lloyd resemble Edvard Munch’s image from The Scream — parts of their faces streaking back and forth. Cue the glitchy static, moving its way up and down the screen (kind of like this Google Image here that may or may not be Michael Jackson’s face??). You drop to your scrawny little pre-adolescent knees in defeat. The only good VHS in this place is damaged, and you must now go sit at the kitchen table with Grandma as she chain smokes Newports and pounds coffee like no other–something you’ll appreciate and idolize only years later.

The only important visual from that entire vignette is the television screen: the distortion, the static, the incomprehensible faces. And then maybe the falling-to-the-knees-in-defeat bit, too.

So for those of you who are wondering how it’s been these last few weeks in Mauritius, there’s your answer.

For a number of reasons, really. First and foremost, it’s 90 degrees every day, coming from -15 the day I left Wisconsin. I left on a Friday morning and arrived on a Sunday afternoon after stops in New York and Dubai with some significant layovers. I keep telling myself that I’m done with these disgustingly long flights, but here I am…. still doing it. Jet-lag, lack of eating good foods (and eating often enough), general confusion about just about everything, meeting way too many new people all at once, and a constant pull between being a good team member but also wanting to pretend I have no job and just sit on a beach all day… those things have all resulted in a mushier-brained, blurrier-visioned, overly tired version of my usual self.

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Werkin’ it with the Pool House crew (thanks for the pic, Rita!)

I had a week of “onboarding” which immersed us new hires in things like the working culture, the institution’s values, the platforms that we use here, our job descriptions, and so forth. The new hires were all put into what is known as the Pool House. Side note: houses here don’t have house numbers??? They have NAMES. So I live at Pool House, Whateverwhatever Road, Grand Bay, Mauritius. I don’t get it at all. Maybe I’m totally wrong about that, but this seems to be the case. It’s been nice living together as a little “new hire” family. Our evenings have been a lot of debrief sessions and trips to local hole-in-the-wall restaurants and/or half-assed attempts to run on the beach. Not so bad.

The week after onboarding finished, we had our Seminal Readings week. Basically, all of the students are broken up into small groups of about 8 or so. Every day, the students had assigned readings to finish before class. Then, a two hour class would allow students to reflect on the reading, debate it, question it, and apply it to their own lives. Some of the featured pieces included authors such as Plato, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Malcolm Gladwell, Zadie Smith, and Carol Dweck. The overall theme was identity, and the class discussions were absolutely amazing! I geeked out hard the entire week. Each night, the students had to submit a reflection on Google Classroom, and I really enjoyed giving feedback and getting to know the students through their reflections.

img_5544This week has been a week of “normal” classes. The school year is broken into trimesters where two are spent in Mauritius taking courses, and the third is spent at an internship (in different African countries as well as others outside of Africa). This is the second semester, much like back home in the States. The students are pretty hilarious and insightful. The facilitators are awesome to watch. The learning model (which is heavily based on self and peer learning) is engaging as well as very different from home. So far, so good.

I am part of a faculty training program that basically makes sure that faculty members here are teaching in a manner that is aligned with the values of the institution. Being a faculty member (facilitator/teacher) doesn’t require a degree in education, so this program just catches people up and prepares them for the classroom through the use of best pedagogy practice. We’ve got weekly readings, meetings, group work, and “deliverables” for this, too. So I feel like I’m back in college… WHICH IS FUN BECAUSE I LOVE LEARNING.

fullsizerenderI’ve been observing in classes, too. And having five hundred thousand million meetings a week for all sorts of things. But this week, I’ve finally felt things slow down a bit, and I’m finding a little more time to settle in, read, work out, cook food, and all of the other things that are important to mental/emotional/physical health (see photo on left), but that I’d been deprived of until now.

I’ve barely kept contact with anybody since I got here. This is in part due to being so busy, so tired, and also because I can really only talk to people through Whatsapp or Facebook. Oh, and my Wi-Fi at The Pool House hasn’t been the greatest. Oh, and because I forgot to tell people that I have an African number now. But it’s cool, I don’t mind disappearing off the face of the Earth sometimes. It’s nice to unplug a bit.

But it’s actually impossible to unplug BECAUSE this institution is in an extremely unhealthy, addictive relationship with Google Calendar + Google Drive. And by that, I just mean that everybody’s lives revolve around an electronic calendar, which isn’t my style at all, but which is absolutely essential to embrace. I tried doing the old skool paper calendar thing. It doesn’t work. Not here.

So yeah, this chick is learning how to send calendar invites! Still have no idea what Google Hangouts is, though. But I can color code my calendar, look at it ON MY PHONE AS WELL AS ON MY COMPUTER. I can even be signed into two e-mail accounts at once on my phone…. What is this technology?!?!?! Small steps, my friends.

img_5247Taking it day by day. Haven’t explored much of the island, but I should be getting a car pretty soon as well as moving into a cool two-bedroom apartment with a super cool colleague from Tanzania, next to what might be the sweetest Mauritian landlords ever.

I haven’t taken many photos of anything. It’s really just been back and forth, back and forth. Work, home. Home, work. But that will change soon. I’ve only got a few months to explore before the big move….. to Rwanda….

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Our unofficial #teamrwanda logo

 

–Cheers!

 

Sorry to keep you waiting

I have sort of known this for a few weeks. But I guess I was afraid that if I told anybody, I might jinx my opportunity. Now that I am finally going through the process of submitting passport copies, diploma copies, birth certificate copies, and so forth for a work visa, I can finally announce to anybody who actually reads my blog that I did, in fact, find myself a job.

The same job that some of you knew about a few months ago… the one that seemed way too exciting to be real. But also the one that every single one of you (mostly my Nuke/Racy’s crew!) confidently told me that I would get (and I didn’t really believe it until now).

I haven’t started yet. I’m in Scotland right abouts now. I thought about coming home for the holidays” or something, but decided against it because, well… mostly just the cost of a ticket. But Scotland is nice. I still haven’t adjusted to the weather (coming from 80 degree, sunshine-kissing-your-shoulders, never-wanna-leave days in Cape Town). Not only is it chilly here, but the sun is just gone. Like there’s a warrant out for its arrest and it doesn’t dare show its face in Scotland. And today I realized that this country (at least in the fall) is always wet. You know when you’re drying your clothes in the dryer but you’re in a hurry so you grab your pants anyway and they feel kinda warm and the buttons and zipper are hot AF but you know once they cool off, they’re actually still wet, especially around the waist… and your inner thighs are totally going to chafe, but you don’t have time so you just put ’em on and go.. and then you’re slightly wet and a little cold for hours? That’s Scotland. But for eternity. Just a pair of damp denim jeans. 

I’m kidding. I’m sure it’s amazing in the summer. 

Luckily for me, there are some pretty badass thrift shops here with some awesome (WARM) sweaters that will hold me over until I escape the European cold and venture back to the land of Africa.

Oh yeah, about the job. 

I accepted a faculty position in the Communication for Impact department at the African Leadership University (African Leadership College) in Kigali, Rwanda. I will be “facilitating” (not lecturing!) first-year students in Kigali as part of its inaugural undergraduate degree program (the campus already exists, but has only been offering post-graduate degree programs). The original campus is in Mauritius (that beautiful little island that I’ve been showing everyone) and ALU plans to launch many other locations across Africa in the years to come. But for now, they exist in Mauritius and Rwanda. 

So the first week of January, I will be flying to Mauritius (the island on the left here.. it’s east of Madagascar) where I will meet the team and work with the existing Communicating for Impact team there… to sort of see how things are done. I’ll be there for a few months before relocating to Rwanda (city on mountains pictured below) in/around May when undergraduate classes there begin for the very first time. So yeah, new university, lots of gears to grease and adjust before the machine can run smoothly. I think that this is going to be an incredibly challenging and rewarding work experience for me, and I am really looking forward to it!

The African Leadership University is a topic all on its own and is definitely worth a little looking into. I first heard of it only through the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa, where an old high school classmate has been employed for a while. I posted about ALA in a previous blog, in case you care to learn more. So ALA is the two year prep school for motivated, hard-working high school students. The African Leadership University is a college founded by the same man, Fred Swaniker, with the same principles–a heavy focus on entrepreneurship and student-led learning. The school has its own learning model, which really puts the students first, encourages self and peer teaching, and then allows faculty members (me) to bolster that learning. No lectures allowed!

So I am looking forward to the opportunity. I finally got more details about what my schedule would look like, etc. As it stands, I should have three classes of about 30 first-year students, meeting three times a week (about 9 hours of in-class facilitating per week). And a few hours a week set aside for advisor duties (I will have a small group of students assigned to me to follow up on). Plus weekly meetings with my department to further develop curriculum and ensure that the school’s vision is being achieved. Plus marking papers, lesson planning, and all other fun and time-consuming things that go along with being an educator. I dunno, sounds like a lot of fun to me. I think some of it is still up in the air as everything is still being shifted around and smoothed over. But it’ll be something along these lines. And I think I’ve slowly mastered the art of flying by the seat of my pants over the last few years. So, Mauritius and Rwanda… Bring. It. On. 

I’m so excited to meet the team and to meet the students! I love teaching! But I’m also excited to explore other parts of Africa. And from everything I’ve read, it looks like I might have to buy myself a second-hand motorcycle to rip around Kigali on. Which I am PUMPED about. Because I love driving. And I’ve always wanted a reason to own a crappy motorcycle. Also, since Mauritius and Rwanda are both French speaking, I get to impress people with the 10-15 sentences that I can still remember from high school. Now is my time to shine, I guess.

In the meantime, I will be hanging out in and around Europe. It sounds wild, but it’s actually cheaper to stay here and rent a place for a few weeks than it is to fly home. Plus, I have no job at home anyway. Or a car. Or a purpose in life. Kidding, sorta. But yeah, I think I’ll just stay put for a while.

/ɪɡˈzɔːstɪd/

Today marked the final day of my CELTA program. I write to you from the relaxation that is a beautiful restaurant patio–sunshine and slight breeze and no more homework. 

But before I allow my life to slowly go back to normal (meaning > 5 hours of sleep a night, no more nail biting, balanced nutrition, etc), I need to do a bit of public personal reflection on the last four weeks.

So to begin, I’ve been doing a full-time, 4 week TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification course created by Cambridge English and offered in major cities throughout the globe. This specific program is called the CELTA and is the most internationally recognized TEFL certification out there–AND it is required at a lot of the more established foreign language schools. So why the heck am I in Africa for it? Because I’m a frugal person… and paying for flight + accommodation + program fees here was cheaper than it would have been to do anywhere in the United States or Europe. Thank you, Failing South African Economy and Jacob Zuma…?

My days looked a little like this: Get up way too early, ride a bus to school, teach and/or watch other “Teaching Practice students” teaching all morning, then sit and critique the lessons until our faces turn blue, then maybe 35 minutes for lunch, then afternoon sessions based on pedagogy in the field… and of course, staying up the entire night working on lesson plans and assignments. Monday through Friday. Also spent a minimum of 6 hours every Saturday and Sunday at the school… some days I was there 13-17 hours straight… losing my mind and biting off my nails and distracting myself with presidential debate highlights… which only stresssed me more. Luckily, that’s all over now (the CELTA, not the presidential debate stress).

So yes, in my program, I had to teach every other day. My first two weeks were spent teaching an intermediate class. The second two weeks were spent teaching an elementary class. All adult learners. Most were refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Republic of the Congo (yes, they’re diffferent countries, google it) with just a couple coming from Rwanda and Somalia (and even one from Bloemfontein!). Each class was about 10-15 students on a given day. The students didn’t pay anything to attend the classes because…well… they were being subjected to lessons taught by inexperienced and super confused teachers (us). They were our guinea pigs. By offering free classes (as well as reimbursement for their daily transportation!), we were able to have students show up. And most of these students are in situations where they are unemployed and low-income, often directly related to their lack of English language skills. Imagine how difficult it is to move as a refugee into a country that speaks a slew of languages, but not yours… and then trying to function in society, apply for a job, find housing, shop at a grocery store, talk to a doctor, etc. Not easy. So anyway, I was so excited about this program knowing that my student demographic would be almost entirely refugees–a population that I am honored to serve (sorry to all of my Trump supporting friends! JK, none of my friends actually support Trump.. gross!).

The TP students–the ones studying for their CELTA like me–also came from all over the place and with all sorts of different experiences. A few had been TEFL teachers abroad for years… in Korea, Japan, the Middle East. Some were just young and interested in traveling.  And others were…. well… just sort of there, I guess… hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Regardless, we all scratched and clawed our way through to the bitter end. 

To say that I learned a lot is a complete understatement. The amount of ESL jargon I’ve been taught in four weeks is pretty impressive. And the pedagogical methods used in the CELTA program are so applicable in any teaching position–ESL, general education… I bet I could even use some of these methods while babysitting my adorable and naughty little nephews. The program covers an array of things, including how to create effective lesson plans, how to grade language to fit your learners’ skill level, how to create activities that are student-centered, and how to basically shut up and sit down and watch students build their own knowledge. Really, though, we learned how to talk minimally and to allow students to figure things out on their own without us having to tell them. And it REALLY WORKS. A little bit of scaffolding with some clear instructions go a long way. Plus, the students don’t get bored and sit on their phones and ignore you. And on that subject, have you ever tried taking a phone away from an adult student? It’s not a thing. It can’t happen. Teaching adults is a completely different world. Because they cannot be disciplined or even manipulated as younger students can be. I can’t threaten them with detention. I can’t guilt trip them and tell them that they’re really hurting my feelings. If they’re texting and I hold out my hand to take their phone, they look at me with this yeah…so what? expression.. or keep texting and never look up. So yeah, different world.

The kinds of things taught in an ESL classroom are fascinating. As a teacher, you get these unbelievably raw and deconstructed puzzle pieces of sounds, words and meaning that you then put back together while teaching. Difficult to describe. But have you ever just stared at a word and realized how weird that word is?  I mean really decontextualized a word, stared into its little soul and wondered where the hell it came from? Or why the letters are shaped like that? Or what an alien race from across the galaxy would think if they heard it spoken? Well that’s what this course was like for me. A 28 day, out-of-body linguistic experience… but without any cool, mind-altering drugs.

I shouldn’t romanticize the program, though. It was fun, but so demanding. Even for a dorky English major who has been–on more occasions than I can count–compared to well-known American intellect and scholar Lisa Simpson. The end of the program was bitter-sweet, and now we wait for provisional results.

Besides the program, I haven’t had much time to do anything else. Though I did get to go watch one of my students perform at a fancy jazz club. He’s an amazing drummer, and his Congolese band (Afro Fiesta) plays anything from reggae to blues to soul to jazz. I went with two CELTA colleagues, had myself three glasses of wine (…wait for it…), and danced all over the restaurant since there was no dance floor. I led a very impressive Congo line. Bumped into a lot of innocent restaurant patrons. Then got on stage at the end of the night and played drums as if I actuallly knew how to play drums. Actions which are very typical when I have more than… well, two drinks, usually (and Emma, if you’re reading this, I STILL laugh out loud every time I picture myself singing, “They say it’s your birthday… it’s my birthday, too” on your birthday… to my own tune.. stuck on repeat for who knows how long). Whatever.

I also went to a soccer game here at Cape Town Stadium. It wasn’t anything big, and the stadium seemed so empty. But it’s a 5 minute walk from where I’ve been staying, and I love soccer, so I went with a group of people staying at my AirBnB. We were approached by two men on our walk there, asking if we wanted tickets… so we rudely shrugged them off, thinking they were just trying to get money out of us or scam us or whatever, until one says, “No, they’re free. We have extra!” And all of a sudden, our ears perked up and we turned on our heels… Free, you say? Yeah, we got legitimate free tickets from two strangers that were just trying to be nice. But you can bet we felt like asshats for ignoring them the first time. The game was fun, popcorn was salty. All in all, a nice escape from the intensity of the classroom.

This weekend has been the only weekend I’ve had to relax. So far, I haven’t done anything. Besides sleeping, sitting in the sun on the beach, drinking coffee, reading books and listening to podcasts and audiobooks (again, Lisa Simpson). I did go see a film yesterday with one of my fellow CELTA colleagues. And the film was amazing. About a trial during Apartheid in South Africa… a man who shot and killed 7 innocent people. I won’t say any more about it except that everybody should watch it.. if you’re interested in psychology, world history, race relations, capital punishment (i.e. all of my friends!). It’s called Shepherds and Butchers. Here is a link to a YouTube movie trailer that I haven’t actually watched since my internet is… well.. African internet, but I assume it’s a good intro to the film. I still don’t know whether the film is based on true events or not (again, internet isn’t cooperating), but regardless, I highly recommend.

Now I’m off to enjoy the rest of my weekend and square away some travel admin. I’m also nearing the end of a 3-month employment recruitment process. Hopefully I’ll have more details within the next three days and then finally actually tell people what on earth I plan to do with my life. 

Oh yeah, and if you’re wondering what the title of this blog post means, it’s just the word “exhausted” spelled phonetically. Because it looks cool. And I love linguistics. And I’m trying to show off.

Til next time.

Odysseus and God.

I wrote a paper once. On a Western canon classic. The classic of all Western canon classics–The Odyssey.

I’ve always enjoyed Greek mythology. It’s plot-driven and scandalous and raw. In all honesty, The Odyssey is nothing short of badass.

For my paper, I was to critique the book with a focused lens… race theory, LGBTQ, Freudian, whatever I wanted. The only problem was… I hadn’t actually read it.

I was busy, ok? And it isn’t the easiest text to get through. You don’t just get through it… you sort of wade through it. For for some of us, you have to forcefully drag yourself through it. Army crawl. Page by agonizing page. 

You see, The Odyssey (circa 2000BC?) isn’t your average book. It’s a bajillion page epic. And most translations aren’t modern-day English, either. Trying to read The Odyssey is like trying to read anything Shakespeare. Except worse. Because character names are impossible to pronounce or remember. Telemachus? Nausicaa? Tiresias? Eurypylus? Don’t pretend you didn’t just skip over those names yourself. But yeah, you get the idea. 

Anyway, that isn’t the point. The point is that I hadn’t read the book, and now I had to frantically write a fairly lengthy paper on it. So what did I do? Well obviously, as any English major would, I used Sparknotes to get participation points in class. And then what did I do? I wrote a very well-crafted paper, as required by my course syllabus… but on a completely different topic. 

I didn’t analyze the book through a queer theory lens or anything cool like that. In fact, I didn’t talk about the book at all. I only talked about the author. 

Obviously this was due in part to the fact that I simply could not analyze a book that I hadn’t read. But it was also partially because I had developed an interest in Homer himself. Before beginning my paper, I decided to use the ol’ Googler and see what this “blind bard” dude was all about. The problem I ran into was that there wasn’t much information at all; in fact, I found more information arguing against his existence than information giving any biographic/historic substance. And from there, my paper topic was born.

So we don’t really know whether or not Homer was a person at all. Why does this matter? Because The Odyssey (and of course The Iliad) is perhaps the oldest piece of European literature ever, ever ever. And its impact on literature and culture is, well… immeasurable. So to many people, there is this need for Homer to exist. Because believing in Homer as a real, live man of the past gives us a concrete answer when asking where the epics come from. Believing in this completely eliminates our need (or likelihood) to ask more, and sometimes deeper, questions. Some people are uncomfortable with the possibility that Homer was actually a cultural manifestation. Whatever, so that was what my paper was about.
I got the highest grade in the entire class. A 77%. Okay, the professor made it clear that our course wouldn’t be easy. And he did allow unlimited resubmissions. In the end, I ended up working hard to earn an A. But yeah, not bad for a paper that didn’t follow requirements. 

Why did I just tell you all of that? Because I was reminded of it the other day while at lunch with one of my South African colleagues. He is Muslim, and he promised me that “by the time lunch was over, he would have convinced me that God exists.” He did not succeed. But the conversation was stimulating and interesting. And I thought there were some parallels. Or at least one.

People who don’t give a rip about The Iliad or The Odyssey (or literature in general) probably don’t really care about the “Homeric Question,” as it has been coined by literary scholars. They also would have stopped reading this blog post by now. Regardless, I think you’d find it hard to truly “convince” one of these people of his existence or a lack of. They just wouldn’t care. Their heart wouldn’t be in it. 

I felt this way as I listened to my friend discuss Allah and Mohammed. I don’t even remember the analogy he tried using as his foolproof strategy. It obviously didn’t work. And it’s not that I do not respect his views or that I am uninterested; I’m very interested, and I respect all sorts of religious views. I just do not have a need to have a finite (definite?) answer to the question of divine existence. Or at least not right now.

But I think some people do. Some people just want answers. And easy answers at that. Traveling has really helped to recognize this. In times and places of need and hardship, it seems there is more of a need for a definite answer. It is easier to call the death of a parent “God’s will” than it is to perhaps link it to environmental factors, lifestyle choices, etc. And it is MUCH easier to write something off as “God’s plan” than it is to accept a degree of responsibility for it. Or in some situations, recognize that you are a victim of a large and terrible system.

An illustration: High poverty (in Africa, Asia, USA… doesn’t matter where). Some people see it as “the way the world was created” and/or as an opportunity for some friendly indoctrination, often paying little to no attention to the big systems and institutions that may have created it (colonialism, skewed global markets, government corruption, different privileges, unequal access to resources). Even those who exist within these situations can seem oblivious and accept their struggle as “God’s test” rather than the bastard love child of capitalism and colonialism. 

How are all of these concepts related? How does a literary scholar’s need for an answer to the Homeric Question link to a sick child’s need for the existence of God? I think I’m becoming unfocused, but surely somebody out there has some half-intelligent way to connect all of my thoughts. I am thinking about domains and mathematics and patterns to apply to my thought process here. And it’s not happening.

Does any of this matter? Well, yeah–I would like to think so. Does this blog post make any sense or come to any sort of conclusion? No, not really. It’s mostly disorienting. But surely there is some connection. Surely these ideas can somehow converge into some scholarly sounding something-or-another. What am I missing or forgetting? Are my queries one-dimensional? Oblivious? Am I wrong?

…I guess I just want answers.

Death with a side of Death

My week in Bloem was a whirlwind of emotions. So many highs and so, so many lows. Let us start with a few lows.
First, one of the sweetest staff members lost her husband to long-term illness. May he rest in power.

Then, an emotionally draining visit to a sick student with a serious illness. A mystery illness. Nobody has answers.  My (western) mind is all like, “What’d the doctor say? Did they run any blood tests? Is she getting enough iron?” while my students are like, “It’s the calling, ma’am. The ancestors are angry,” and the teachers are like, “Yeah, it’s something about the songoma; she is one of the learners chosen to become a traditional healer. She must just go to the mountains to learn the ways and appease the ancestors.” Again, it’s a different world over here sometimes.  

Two days later, in the middle of the CBD (central business district… the hectic, busy, and perhaps more dangerous part of town), a car pulls up to me and tells me that I need to get the hell out of the CBD because “I’m being followed.” Whatever that means… to hijack my car, steal my things, or whatever. No idea if it was true or not. Wasn’t willing to doubt the stranger that warned me. I got the heck out of there. Quick.

The next day, I am driving to school to visit the students one last time. Giant bag of fruit and cookies on my passenger seat next to me. Some Simon and Garfunkle soothing my mind… I pull up to a stoplight and immediately realize that something bad is about to happen. Two men flank my car while one tries to bust in my window. They call this a “smash and grab” where they (whoever) bust in your window(s)and steal whatever. Or perhaps get you to flee your car altogether… a bonus, a free car. By some divine intervention, my window didn’t break. I flinched like a baby and assumed I was about to die or something, but the guys just stared at me and backed off in defeat. Did they see my tattoos and realize that I am a force to be reckoned with? A potty-mouthed feminist junkyard kid who ain’t got time for that? I’d like to think so… But in reality, they probably realized I had those special windows in my rental car that are difficult to break. Plus my doors were locked. Plus it was daylight. Plus they were clearly rookies. I had half a mind to roll my window down, peel out, scream some profanities, flip them the bird and feel like I had won something… some sort of street smarts instant challenge. But instead, I nearly killed the car in the intersection, frazzled and desperate to get out of there, legs like jello, hands shaking. Whatever, I guess.

Two hours later, I was pulled over by a cop. I had too many students in my car. SUE ME! Really, though. A valid point brought up was this: how can trucks with the beds full of small children and domestic workers just cruise around freely every single day, everywhere, but I get pulled over for having one extra kid in my back seat? Who is safer… the children riding in my car or those riding in the back of a rusty truck with no topper or tailgate? Debatable, maybe. Again, whatever. 

And then the next day, I learned that a previous educator from the school passed on. May she, too, rest in power.

My students jokingly told me that all of the negative energy I felt in Bloem was actually my ancestors showing their anger with me. They said I needed to do a sacrifice, which is actually what some cultures do here. A sheep or a cow, depending on the situation. Except my students were adement on me sacrificing a cake, which I was instructed that only they could eat, and not me. I never sacrificed a cake. But maybe the girls know something I don’t. 

Those were some of my lows. A few of my highs:
I got to visit with people that I really missed. My old roommate hosted me. It felt like I had never left. I got to see most of my learners that I was very close with, even though the students were writing exams (aka most were not actually showing up to school unless they had an exam scheduled that day). I visited a few students at their homes and reconnected with their mothers. Got a TON of fresh spinach. Played a few games and made some hilarious slo-mo videos.

One of my favorite moments was simply driving around with the girls, just like we used to. Singing songs together–songs by The Soil, a beautiful acapella group from South Africa. All of our voices at different pitches, with different accents, an informal car choir chorus exploding from the windows:

 “…We are family, I know it, I know it, I know it. We are family!”

Then my voice would disappear as the girls took over the parts of the songs in Xhosa and other tongues. I would whistle along and try not to hit stray dogs or children in the road, dissolving in the moment, really, and knowing how special it was for all of us.
I got to meet the current Fulbrighters posted at the school and hear all about the great things they’ve been working on, the struggles of the school, and the accomplishments of the learners. I spent time with old friends and co-workers. I got some pre-birthday surprises… including gifts, cards and poetry from my students, and later a surprise hangout session with old colleagues and some SoCo + lemonade. I even found time to visit my old landlords, to meet their adorable baby granddaughter, and to watch their daughter at her awards ceremony for academic honors. My very last morning in Bloem, I was lucky enough to get dragged out of bed to run a 5k with an old buddy…… at 7am! I was honestly dreading the run, but I finished and felt refreshed and energized and so lucky to have a friend to do such things with.

Overall, my time in Bloem was difficult but just what I needed. Familiar faces, lots of hugs, great conversations, and the opportunity to work on student poetry (yes!).

As of now, I am in Cape Town… a totally different experience from Bloem, and one that I will write more about as I find time.  I’ve started my CELTA program as of yesterday, and it has kept me busier than anticipated. Oh yeah, for those who have asked, I DID enjoy my birthday. I spent it walking around for hours on the Sea Point Promenade, window shopping, laying in the sun, reading a book, listening to podcasts, eating apples and pasta. I didn’t get much time to wind down and process while in Bloem, so I’ve been spending every available moment here in Cape Town catching up on my much-needed alone time.
Turns out, this is the perfect place to do so.

(Un?)Ethical Tourism

Blogging again so soon. Might be annoying. Not sure. But this is a topic that I need to spend more time writing and reflecting on. Plus, I know a few of my Eau Claire pals would love to have discussions on this (wish we could!).

So the day I was checking out of the hostel–just as I was setting my bags down at the front desk to pay and go, one of the tour guides and workers there shouted, “Hey! I think I know you!” I laughed awkwardly, thinking it was just some ploy to get me to pay to join his tour… Until I realized that it was CHIKKO! A Joburg man that I met over a year ago at a completely different place. Chikko is a man of many talents, including joke-telling, dancing, tour-guiding, bike riding, t-shirt making, photo-taking, and much more. Chikko is cool, Chikko is fun. And apparently Chikko goes everywhere that I go..?

So I instantly felt fabulous and famous and badass as the entire tour group stared at me like I was important or something. I’m not. I think the only reason Chikko remembers me is because we are buddies on Facebook, I bought a cool shirt from him once, and I think we took some funny photos together. Anyway, I had a couple of hours to burn and felt like I owed it to my old friend to go on a tour with him… A tour of Soweto. A tour on a bike.

Usually, I wouldn’t be a huge fan of a township tour. And in fact, I had avoided these tours while at the hostel in Joburg because I didn’t feel like being another foreign (white?) chick on a bike, witnessing streets of poverty through Ray-Ban lenses while reaching into my Michael Kors bag for my iPhone to take photos of small children. 

Okay, so I don’t own Ray-Bans. But I found a pair on the ground once, let them sit in my room for six months, then gave them to a friend. And I don’t own a Michael Kors purse. In fact, I had to Google “purses that rich girls have” because I couldn’t think of a brand to put in that sentence. My purse was free–given to me by a friend. It’s beaten up, but the zipper still works, and it didn’t cost me anything. Tangent, sorry. I’m just acknowledging that yeah, maybe I could never be THAT kind of tourist, but I’ve always had a problem with these kinds of tours, nonetheless.  

But Chikko is cool, so I threw on a pair of pants, hopped on a bike, and started my tour of Soweto. 

If you read my last post, I explained that Soweto is the largest township in South Africa, famous for all sorts of amazing and upsetting things. It’s famous here, but not so much in a positive way. Many companies offer Soweto tours by bus, where they drive you around in air-conditioned comfort, showing you the areas of poverty, the major landmarks, and then eventually letting you out near the previous homes of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu–an area that is now bustling with nice restaurants and shops due to high foreigner traffic, of course. This kind of tourism is “safe” in that you see things from a distance, can feel a little less guilt with every snapshot you take, plus your feet don’t get dusty. It’s a win-win-win. Except really, it’s a lose-lose-lose. IMO.

The issue with these sorts of tours is… Well… Sort of obvious to me. First, the buses can barely fit through these dirt streets of Soweto. They do not belong. The giant tour bus itself is a foreign object to the location. A sort of sick, phallic reminder of colonialism and exploitation. You’ll see these buses see-sawing back and forth as they attempt to turn sharp corners, foreign faces pressed against tinted windows, gawking at the children or shacks or burning piles of garbage. Beyond that, these tourists never once have an interaction with any of the people they are videotaping, photographing, or consciously/subconsciously praying for. In my humble opinion, the entire charade reinforces the idea of separateness (kan jy sê… apartheid?) , or this entitlement to safety while in the locations that can only be given to visitors. Sure, the bus tour might give you some good facts, and you certainly leave the tour knowing more about Soweto and South African history than you did when you arrived, but it’s not giving much of an experience.. Is it?

Back to the bike. I had some sort of Huffy mountain bike, all rusty and chipped, crooked handlebars so I was always steering slightly to the left. Wheels were pumped up just fine, and the seat wasn’t terribly uncomfortable. My back brakes worked just enough to stop me from flying into traffic at the bottom of hills. I had the essentials. It was time to ride.

So Chikko took the group of us all around Soweto, teaching us the proper greetings for a primarily Zulu-speaking population, (sow-BOE-nuh! Holahola, sharp-sharp!). We stopped off to visit what was once a women’s hostel when the apartheid government had separated men and women in the locations (of course, as a way to control, to curb procreation of the underclass, etc). We got to bike around, talk to the locals and the children, and even visit one women in her home. This particular women sells snacks out of her kitchen. $0.08 for a bag of off-brand Cheetos. Or $0.40 for an ice cream cone. Chikko explained that nobody had to buy anything, but he likes the idea of supporting “local businesses” such as hers. And I couldn’t agree more. A tour bus can drive by and take photos of the hostels, but the people that live inside do not benefit. Why not prop your bike against Mamma’s clothesline, go have a chat, listen to her tell her stories, and buy a sweet treat so that she can use that money to pay for her two grand-children’s school fees? Why the heck not, right? 

We biked across the train tracks. Learned about how significant the light posts originally were in establishing control over the blacks in the townships (they aren’t just there to make a dark place safer, no pun intended). We talked about the Soweto Derby (when the two best soccer teams of Soweto duke it out) and visited the area that Chikko lives in. Everybody knew him. Everybody loved him. Saw some pretty cool homes and shops. I also got a pretty nice sun burn and some really dirty feet. I actually spent time in Soweto–I didn’t just pass through it. 

All of this causes some degree of cognitive dissonance for me. I like to think that I am making ethical decisions most of the time. It’s hard to know, though. It’s much easier (especially when you’ve got that $$$$$) to make decisions that make you feel safer, or that give you a “bigger bang for your buck.” Or to make decisions that do not make you uncomfortable (avoiding situations where you’re a racial minority, for example). These are all privileges–a buzz word as of lately. And a word that I like to think about a lot. 

I didn’t take many photos on the bike ride. I try not to photograph people unless I feel that it’s appropriate. Plus my phone is always dying, my screen doesn’t work well, and it’s impossible to turn off the shutter sound on my phone, which is sort of embarrassing to me. Hehe. But anyhow… Would love to have a conversation with anyone and everyone on the topic of ethical tourism.

Until next time.