April 28, 2010

Post-dated Perspective

I haven’t touched this blog in over a year. I’ve experienced so much in the last 365 days that I’m not entirely sure I would’ve known how to process it all, even if I had had the time (which I definitely did not.) But this particular moment in my life is about reflection and renewal. It’s about thinking through everywhere I’ve been (both literally and figuratively), to better understand where I want to go (also literally and figuratively). So although I left South Africa three days ago and currently sit in New York writing these lines, the entries below dated past April 2009 are still about TD in SA, just with the help of some perspective.

May 28, 2009

Who are you?

In 2009, the organization I worked with – loveLife – turned it’s HIV prevention strategy towards addressing the social determinants of HIV – poverty; unemployment; lack of access to health care and education; low social solidarity; lack of self-worth, belonging and identity, etc. In truth, HIV is a symptom of society's much deeper problems.

This integrated (as opposed to simply medical) approach to HIV prevention really spoke to me – clearly if you don’t believe in yourself or your future life-chances, what’s the point in protecting yourself? Unprotected sex, drugs, alcohol – they’re all a means of escape from the very difficult life you live. As one young boy from rural SA once told me, “I don’t care if I die at 40 or if I die at 60 because everyday feels the same as the last.”

My task upon arrival was to figure out which of the social determinants to focus the media campaign around and then come up with a creative that made sense. Definitely one of the hardest and most complex projects I’ve ever done.

After much research and discussion, we chose self-worth and identity to focus the media campaign around – it was clear this was the root of the root. We came up with a creative campaign that provided young people with a secret formula to success – L2M3: loving life, making my move.

We then used all kinds of guerilla tactics to get that creative out – graffiti, projections on to malls, mobile teaser campaigns, underground t-shirts, unsponsored celebrity branding, etc etc…

Here are just a handful of the images:

Much harder than launching the campaign was trying to figure out how to create :60 television and radio commercials that could speak to such complex topics. I’m not sure we got it 100% right, but I do think it was an awesome creative effort to tackle something incredibly difficult.

Here’s the logic behind the commercials and their creative execution:

“Self-worth and identity are part of loveLife’s “Make Your Move” strategy, which addresses the social determinants of HIV. Despite high levels of awareness and knowledge about HIV and how to protect themselves from becoming infected, young people, especially those in marginalised communities, tend to tolerate risk more due to their perception of a lack of immediate possibilities. loveLife’s strategy aims to help young people develop initiative, better deal with day to day pressures and link them to opportunities – giving them a reason to protect themselves from HIV because they are working towards a better future.

Self worth and identity are key to this objective. To make a move, young people must first believe they can. And to know which moves to make, they must first know who they are. Research indicates that young people who know who they are and what they believe in are better able to negotiate difficult situations (i.e. people who know they will not have sex without a condom can better navigate that situation than people who aren’t sure how they feel about the issue). It is also clear that young people who believe in themselves and their ability to have a better future are more likely to protect themselves from HIV.

Each of the four PSAs form a strategic arc around self-worth and identity. The creative concept is to provide tough questions without providing answers, and each PSA presents the main character’s alter ego - as opposed to an adult or voice over telling them what to do. This keeps the pieces from being judgmental and shows young people having an internal dialogue around these issues, thus provoking other young people to have that dialogue with themselves. Additionally, identity and self-worth are a lifetime’s journey and there no right or wrong answers, and positive behavior change is more likely if it comes from within a young person his/herself.

The first PSA, “Who are you?” introduces the audience to the question of identity. It asks young people to think about who they are, without providing answers or placing judgment. The first PSA’s objective is to get young people to look within themselves.

The second PSA, “Do you disappear without your gear?” speaks directly to the role of materialism in defining self-worth. Many young people think that if they have the hottest clothes or latest “things,” people will “see” or notice them, seemingly reinforcing their self-esteem.

“Do you disappear without your gear?” aims to provoke young people to think about who they are beyond the fancy “things”, asking them that if all of those things didn’t exist, would that change who they are? The PSA also aims to show young people that what is most important is who you are, not what you have or don’t have – as each and every person is someone of worth.

The third PSA, “Who are you without your crew?” looks at the issue of peer pressure. We know many young people identify themselves by their friends; we also know that friends are an important aspect of a young person’s life. The PSA does not judge this. Rather, it asks young people who they are beyond their friends, further asking them that if their friends are involved in negative things, what does that mean for who they are?

The final PSA, “I am somebody,” is a conclusion to the questions in the first three. Here we address the concept of relational self-worth - we know that worth is defined not only by what you think of yourself, but also by what other people say to you. In the “I am somebody” PSA, our heroine projects all of the negative messaging she’s heard throughout her life. As she hears this negative messaging, which is structured around key issues – social polarisation, economic polarisation and gender inequity – she begins to find her own resolve to move beyond the negativity. At the end of the PSA, she perseveres beyond the negative messaging and realises that she does have worth; she is “somebody” and she makes her move."

Overall, reactions to the campaign were positive. Much work still needs to be done to explain to the public why self-worth and identity are important issues around HIV prevention. But the questions themselves and the creative around them really hit home with SA youth.

April 20, 2009

South Africa's Jay-Z

For my second trip to South Africa it’s been less about the new & fascinating aspects of an adventure but more about the nuance of day-to-day life as an expat. I now know my way around (as much as someone with no sense of direction can =)); I’ve figured out that a robot is a traffic light; and I’ve somewhat deciphered the nuances between just now, right now, and now now. There has, however, been one big difference I’ve come back to – it’s election time and literally every street pole, radio ad and TV spot is about the election on Wednesday April 22nd.

The primary party in SA is the African National Congress (ANC). At the end of apartheid, Nelson Mandela called for all of the anti-apartheid parties to come together under the ANC umbrella in the name of unity. That lasted for about a decade, but quickly (and perhaps rightly) divisions began to form from within. It all came to a head in 2008 when then President Thabo Mbeki was asked to step down under allegations that he politically influenced fraud charges brought against party head (and likely soon to be president) Jacob Zuma AKA South Africa’s Jay-Z.

Although the truth is still quite murky, my guess is that all their hands are dirty. Mbeki probably did influence the fraud charge, but Zuma also probably committed the fraud. Lucky for Zuma, now that his faction of the ANC is in control, the charges against him seem to have been dropped due to technical and “process” issues.

The good news is that former members of the ANC have left to create an opposition party: the Congress of the People, or COPE. Whether or not COPE will do a good job or not, I'm not entirely sure. But what feels more important to me is that there is at least some choice for the people. Otherwise one-party rule continues under the guise of “a history of liberation” without necessarily the governing ability behind it.

The bad news, and clearly I’m biased, is that the ANC will probably still win. They have been documented to be giving people in the poorest areas “food for votes,” claiming that only the ruling party can continue to bring them food. They’re also telling people in government-provided housing that it is the ANC that brought them their homes. And although many of these people are still waiting for proper water & electricity in these “homes,” food and shelter are pretty strong heartstrings and many are likely to continue to vote for the ANC.

Why is this bad news? Well primarily because of Jacob Zuma himself. A self-proclaimed polygamist (as part of Zulu culture), no one is exactly sure the exact number of his wives, but he does have twenty-two children by six women. He has also previously been accused (and acquitted) of raping an HIV positive woman. When accused, he claimed that the woman was wearing a mini-skirt and thus as a proper Zulu man he was obliged to fulfill what she was asking for. Knowing that she was HIV positive, he had unprotected sex with her and claimed he took a shower afterwards and thus should be fine. As you can imagine, gender equity under his rule is a primary concern of mine.

The flip side of Jay-Z is that he is an incredibly charming and charismatic leader that people can relate to. Sound familiar? I constantly find myself telling people that if we could get through eight years of George Bush, surely South Africa can get through a few years of Zuma... But the fear here is that Jay-Z will try to make the South African constitution more authoritarian and specifically lean more towards Zulus – in a nation made up of a minimum of 11 other tribes. Whites, specifically, seem to fear that Zuma will be the next Mugabe, bringing down a great nation. Personally, I don’t actually think that’s going to happen. Seeing as how Zuma allowed the Chinese government (who funds the ANC) to push his governmnet into not providing a visa to the Dalai Lama (yes, they said no to the Dalai Lama!), I think his love of money, and in turn need for foreign direct investment, will keep him in check. In the end, I suppose only time will tell… To be cheeky - soon South Africa’s Jay-Z is going to have 99 problems, but I’m guessing his wives won’t be one.

November 5, 2008

To Believe Again

I had become so jaded. After working in politics and large NGOs, I had seen so much crap. Experienced so much pain. Slammed my head against so many walls. I had given up and lost my faith. So I left. I left America and came to South Africa in search of renewal. I wanted to believe again. I wanted to believe that doing service could in fact lead to change.

Today – the day Americans have elected President Barack Obama – my faith is renewed. I remember now why I began in public service. I remember now why my parents left everything they knew behind to immigrate to the United States. I remember now that in America change is in fact possible. I remember now that in America, unlike many places in the world, everyone has a chance - black, white, purple or green – rich, poor or in between – in the United States you really can move beyond societal castes. Today I learned that anyone can be President of the United States. And today, I believe again.

October 7, 2008

Psychology of an Epidemic

Five people have died in South Africa recently due to an unknown viral disease. One woman came back from Zambia and died. The paramedic that flew with her died. Her nurse died. Two hospital cleaners have died. And her doctor is ill, exhibiting her symptoms.

What everyone is dying of is unclear, but the media is quite clear – don’t panic.

Don’t panic!? Um… that’s exactly what my mind wants to do! Do I still drink the water? Should I steer clear of certain areas? If I get sick, should I even go into a hospital? Is my sinus headache (that I have daily) now a sign of something else? I think my finger is turning blue!!! (oh wait, that’s ink…)

The truth is that although the actual nature of the disease is unknown, the likelihood of me personally coming anywhere near it is quite low. Hopefully the doctors and scientists will figure out the details soon so the public can take precautions, but freaking out actually results in nothing productive.

Just going through this exercise in my head, however, has given me a whole new perspective on the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic. In “And The Band Played On,” Randy Shilts goes into great detail through personal narratives of how early AIDS patients were ostracized, how nurses would no longer treat them, how people wouldn’t touch affected persons, etc etc. When I read those lines, I was mortified – how could someone be so cruel! I work with people living with HIV and then work to create programs to end the awful stigma attached to their communities. I think these thoughts and do these things because I am well informed. I know exactly what causes HIV and what doesn’t, so there is no reason for ill-placed fear.

But suddenly I have a whole new empathy for lack of information, not to mention misinformation. When you don’t know, you don’t know what to think. Your mind plays games with you. The news seems to take new meaning. Even the office water cooler becomes its own cesspool – "Did you know that so and so’s sister’s grandmother’s cousin was once in the same room as the woman who died? "

And so the cultural and psychological virus begins, forgetting any facts around the physical one. But how do you stop it? How do we learn to think rationally and not allow the mob mentality to take us over? How do we defeat the depths of fear and anxiety around the unknown? And how do we learn (the eternal lesson) to simply accept what is, while still taking precautions?

I don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions. But I do know that the biggest reason people don’t get tested for HIV is because they don’t know they should, or they don’t want to know the result - “It won’t happen to me.” Or equally damning, “ If it does happen to me, I will suffer a social death, and I’d rather physically die.” I spend my days trying to figure out how to combat these mentalities, but where I thought there had been progress, I am again completely lost - reminded that I don't have the answers, but also learning that there are so many more questions (including why the blueness of my finger won’t go away…)

September 29, 2008

I’m a bad, bad blogger (who doesn’t understand Christmas in the summertime)

A good blogger posts regularly at consistent intervals, usually at least once a week. I haven’t posted in months….

A lot has happened since my last post in July, including a whirlwind tour of North America, lessons in global citizenship – most notably the hell of work permits and visas, and a large lesson in patience, because as an ex-pat things rarely work the way you’d like but the experience in the end is always worth it.

Aside from all of that and the fun political and financial madness of both the US and SA, there has one fairly benign thing that I can’t stop thinking about: the concept of Christmas in summertime!

Logically, I know that in California its hot during Christmas. Hell, growing up in Louisiana I didn’t even see snow until I was 17. But I was talking to my boyfriend the other day, who does store design for a major clothing retailer here, and he tells me that they’ve just finished implementing their summer store design and now they have to get busy on Christmas.


It feels like Christmas in July and I can’t wrap my head around it. So over the course of two weeks I asked everyone lots of incredibly ignorant questions that led to some pretty hysterical conversations. Here’s some of the color commentary:

* Do you have Santas running around in winter suits in the dead of summer?

Yes. Why is that odd?

* What about reindeer?

No we don’t have those. Impala probably carry Santa’s sleigh here.

* Where do you get your Christmas trees?

Out of a box.

* Do you put lights up on your house?

What’s the point – there’s a 14 foot wall outside my house, so no one is going to see the lights.

* Have you ever heard of Kwanza?


* It’s derived from African traditions. Are there any African traditions similar to Christmas?

No, we do what the white people tell us to.

* How do you feel about Christmas carols that directly relate to winter, ie. “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas”?

That one was great during apartheid.

July 14, 2008

In Search of “My People”

I’m five days away from being in SA exactly six months. I’m also five days away from getting on a plane and returning to the States. And although I’ll be back in SA for another four months, it’s certainly an interesting moment of reflection. One thing I haven’t written about yet is one of the big reasons I chose this particular country when I could have gone anywhere in the world – South Africa has the largest Indian population outside of India. And as a first generation South Asian American, I have to admit that I came looking for answers amongst an Indian population hundreds of years deep.

At first blush, one immediately notices the physical distinctions of South African Indians. The majority are of South Indian decent, thus generally darker in pigment, at least than me. At second blush, one notices the class distinctions. In the 1800s the British East India Company brought 300 indentured servants from India to South Africa as labor for the sugar cane fields. History tells us that what begins as an immigration pattern based on labor doesn’t easily break from that role in the future. But third blush shows the nuances within that class structure – a business class within the laborers. Like good colonists, the British used the Indians to “manage” the African laborers, thus creating strife between the two groups that is still very real today.

Layered on top of traditional colonial and immigration issues is the role of apartheid on the South African Indian community. Traditional Indian food & dress are still very prevalent in the community, as are many traditional values. Language, on the other hand, was essentially lost by what is the equivalent of my parent’s generation. In my opinion, this has much to do with the forced homogenous living situations of apartheid, while English and Afrikaans were the pre-determined medium for schooling.

The heart of the Indian community in South Africa is on the southeast coast of the country in the city of Durban, the third largest city in SA. This is where the original laborers were brought, where the community grew, and where still today the largest Indian community lives. So recently, I dragged my boyfriend (who happens to be South African Indian) to Durban. I told him I needed to find “my people.” He told me I was crazy. To him, Durbs (as they call it here) is just Durbs. Nothing particularly exciting besides the beaches. But I insisted and so he agreed. I told him I wanted to go to Chatsworth, the Indian township. I wanted to visit a neighborhood temple. And I wanted to go to the Gandhi Settlement, where Gandhi honed his philosophy of “satyagraha.”

Convincing Quinton to take me into Chatsworth was a task and a half. And only when we got there did I really understand his apprehension. Chatsworth and Phoenix, SA’s two largest Indian townships, are not fun places to be. Riddled with crime perpetuated by a serious drug problem in the community, poverty is only the beginning of a very sad story. For me, I must admit that it was tough to see. I’ve been to some of the most rural parts of India and witnessed the most extreme of impoverished situations there, but somehow I didn’t expect it when visiting Indians in another country…. it’s as if my lens for the diasporic experience is that of the South Asian American one (largely of a professional class), even though I know that’s wrong….

Finding a neighborhood temple proved to be more difficult than we originally thought. Partly because our GPS, although aware of all the local churches, wasn’t particularly helpful with addresses for temples – even though the massive Indian community has been here for hundreds of years. When we did find one, the most striking thing for me was the dates. Pieces of the building and parts of altars were donated as far back as 1939. 1939! In my head, I’m rationally aware that the community has been in SA for that long, but to see it and feel it right in front of me was a completely other thing. My family’s neighborhood temple in the suburbs of New Orleans was created in 1996… And really it’s just a converted house with a trailer in the back where we learned Bengali and scripture… So to know that previous Indian communities began that process in another land so many years ago was both awe-inspiring and incredibly intense.

The final stop on our Durban tour was the Gandhi Settlement, which turned out to be even more difficult to find than the temple. Lauded in all the tourist guides as a “must see,” no website, pamphlet, or tourist bureau could provide us with the exact address. It turns out that the Gandhi Settlement is located within what is today an African township and the Trustees that manage the Settlement and the local municipal government seem to have some serious issues to sort out, beginning with proper publicity and signage. Apparently the Black vs. Indian struggle finds itself permeating in local government and the end result is no signage at all.

Also striking was the lack of electricity and running water at what should be a World Heritage Site. One could think that the bare bones system is a throwback to Gandhi’s way of living, but it’s not. It’s more fighting between the Trustees of the Settlement and the local community.

Even worst than all of that was the need to “rebuild” Gandhi’s home. Up until 1985, nearly one hundreds years after it was created, the home was still in perfect condition. Yet one day, randomly & viciously, the entire settlement was burned to the ground by apartheid sympathizers. The Settlement had helped many who fought against apartheid and this was the opposition’s way of getting back. Completely unnecessary and such a shame.

After we returned from Durban I got to thinking about not just the Indian tourist sites, but also all of the little things that demonstrate a long-standing Indian community here in SA. There are Indian TV shows and targeted radio stations (with names like Eastern Mosiac and Lotus fm), bhangra parties, and speciality stores. There is the “Oriental Plaza” full of Indian spices and goods, government mandated halal labeling, and a consistent availability of frozen samosas.

I also got to thinking about my many South African Indian friends in Jo’burg. Each of them once came from a township during the era of apartheid but have since come out of it to prosper. In some, there exists the twinge of continued racism, which we see consistently in our Indian community, yet they are all very aware that they face very real racism themselves. They sit in literal terms, based on the apartheid racial hierarchy, where I normally feel in the States – smack in the middle of the Black/White paradigm. And quite frankly, if SA is any indication, I don’t think that’s ever going to change.

As for the overall South African Indian community, they didn’t just create “Little Indias” for themselves. There are pockets that feel like Calcutta, but for the most part SA’s Indian community has created a unique space with unique customs and unique attitudes. I suppose time will only tell if America’s Indian community will produce our own unique version of the diasporic story.

June 20, 2008

MYMsta launches!!

It’s been a LONG six months, but today the product I’ve been working on has launched! We had a press conference yesterday, and I was so crazy nervous that the press would be bad, but so far, pretty good. (knock on wood!) The product is designed for young South Africans, but if you’re curious and want to check it out, go to www.mymsta.mobi on the web browser on your cell phone. It’s a social network designed for your phone, but more importantly, its designed to give South African youth access to knowledge, skills, opportunities and each other – which will hopefully give them a million reasons to protect themselves from HIV.

But rather than me going on and on, much easier to post the press release. =) Here it is:

MYMsta is making his Move – Make YOUR Move!

This week, loveLife - South Africa’s national HIV prevention programme for young people, launches an international first: MYMsta - the world’s first mobile-based social network dedicated to the empowerment of young people and the prevention of HIV.

MYMsta goes far beyond text-messaging, providing functionality typically found on Internet-based social networks. Young people will be able to maintain their own profiles, join chat groups, access information about bursaries and scholarships, and much more.

MYMsta stems from loveLife’s belief that it is the circumstances of young people – and not their disregard for the message of HIV prevention - that continues to drive the epidemic. Many young people who leave school face an uncertain future and feel excluded from opportunity. Not surprisingly, half the lifetime risk of HIV infection among young women is crammed into just five years after leaving school.

loveLife’s call to young people to “Make Your Move” seeks to build their personal initiative, strengthen their ability to negotiate day-to-day pressures and expectations and find new links to opportunity. Given the extensive ownership of cell phones by South African youth (75% of 15-24 year olds have one), cell phone-based technology opens up new possibilities for HIV prevention.

“Young people are much more likely to protect themselves if they have a strong sense of identity, belonging and purpose in life,” says Dr. David Harrison, CEO of loveLife. “A mobile social network will never replace face-to-face interaction, but it offers young people a new way of defining themselves and connecting to each other. It also gives them instant links to information which makes them feel that they can go places in life.”

In partnership with CellSmart Technologies (a mobile marketing agency and Wireless Application Service Provider), loveLife has built an inexpensive and easily accessible mobile platform called MYMsta (Make Your Move – social network). Strategically this WAP site was not only the answer to accessibility, but also the most effective use of technology for two key reasons:

1) Over 75% of all South African youth own mobile phones (71% of youth in informal settlements and 67% in rural areas), and although Internet access via computers is very low at 6%, mobile internet usage via WAP in South Africa is one of the highest in the world.

2) Social networking behaviour plays directly into the three key triggers to behavior change – sense of identity, belonging, and purpose. Users define their identity by creating personal profiles with photos, video, and text. They develop belonging & community by connecting to like-minded individuals through forums, groups, and messaging. And MYMsta is designed with a sense of purpose.

By combining these two factors, MYMsta will empower individuals, build solidarity amongst South African youth, serve as an organizing tool amongst and for young people, and facilitate content distribution and data collection.

Integrated into loveLife’s already extensive on-the-ground and media programmes, MYMsta will bring together South Africa’s youth; encourage self-expression and dialogue; connect young people to each other and with key leaders; and will share important information on opportunities, jobs, skills development, advice, and motivational success stories for only a few cents in airtime. Data rates for the WAP site have been minimized such that MYMsta is only 2-5c per page on average, and less than 25c for downloading specific information about educational and other opportunities.

MYMsta will serve as a platform to enable the loveLife generation to work together for a better collective future for themselves and for South Africa. It will be live on 20 June and will be available at www.mymsta.mobi on WAP-enabled phones.

June 2, 2008

The Month of May: Xenophobia

The closer I get to the launch of the loveLife Mobile product, the worse I get about blogging…. Time and sleep also seem to be running away from me. But many thanks to everyone who has been checking in. The big issue that happened in the month of May was the xenophobic attacks. They’ve certainly given me a lot to think about….

Many of you saw the headline “Foreigners Attacked in Johannesburg” and sent me very kind & concerned notes. To all I had to reply some derivation of: “Don’t worry. I’m fine. Technically I’m not a foreigner in South Africa. See I’m not Black nor from another African country. So I’m actually welcome here.”

The more I wrote those lines (or tried to explain the phenomenon to my very concerned mother), the more frustrated I became. For one, in my day-to-day existence, living & working in Sandton, the horrific violence could have just as easily have been happening on the other side of the world, even though it was actually happening only a few miles away. Second, everyone knows that the root cause of the violence isn’t hatred of immigrants. The root cause is the lack of opportunity and the festering of unfulfilled post-apartheid promises. Yet in my opinion, no one in the SA government wants to directly address it or do something about it.

On the first point, everyday I read in the paper or heard on the radio about another gross & inhumane act (including the lighting of a man on fire), I became more and more uncomfortable with my “suburban” bubble. I know from a safety perspective, I need to be where I am. But suddenly it became abundantly clear to me how so many White people were able to feign ignorance during apartheid. The way the apartheid government set it up privileged members of society can go about their daily life completely unaffected, while 10 minutes away angry mobs veer towards genocide.

The question of why this is happening in South Africa is a bigger issue with a very simple answer but seemingly no concrete solution for the foreseeable future.

“White people hire the foreigners because they work hard and they do it for less money,” Mr. Booysen said. “A South African demands his rights and will go on strike. Foreigners are afraid.” NYT

I could easily replace the word foreigners with Mexican and South African with American and it would seem like the same tired immigration story. But here in South Africa, that’s actually not the case – simply the only way the media can wrap its head around such a complicated situation. In truth, Zimbabweans and Nigerians have been living side-by-side with South Africans for decades. The issue now is not fear of immigration and unemployment (which already stands at nearly 40%); the real issue is misdirected anger. Deep-seated anger very directly related to the aftermath of apartheid. And in turn, the oppressed are trying to overpower the further oppressed…

According to the media, the violence has begun to subside. Actors have come on TV denouncing xenophobia. The government declares South Africans must love all Africans. And magically, angry mobs have supposedly disappeared. I’m not so convinced the violence is gone. Given ever so slight an excuse (perhaps the pending water crisis in Jo’burg…), I think we’ll see it again. It won’t be until the South African government makes a real commitment to education, skills development, and broad-based economic growth that this country will see true post-apartheid change.

May 8, 2008

Touring Southern Africa

My sincere apologies. I unfortunately haven’t been able to post in some time because I’ve been on a whirlwind tour of southern Africa with my family. The journey was amazing and breathtaking and simultaneously surreal. So many moments of being taken by the beauty of the world; equal number of moments of gratitude for being able to experience that beauty first hand.

Some notes and pics from the road:

April 21st – 24th
South African Safari: Kruger National Park, Timbavati Reserve

I must say that before arriving on safari I had my reservations. For all who know me, I’m not exactly a “camping” kind of girl, much less one trying to hang out in the bush. But after my first safari experience, I would definitely recommend it to anyone and everyone – even the most city of the city girls.

The truth is being so close to some of Earth’s most magnificent creatures is an unbelievably beautiful and humbling experience. For me, it was a consistent reminder that this place does not belong to us; as humans we’re simply borrowing parts of it for a bit of time.

There really is no effective way I can put the experience into words. In an attempt to capture each amazing moment my family and I took nearly 1200 pictures. Here are some of the best:

April 24th – 28th
The Path to India: Cape of Good Hope, Cape Town

This trip to Cape Town marked my fourth, so I thought I had seen it all. Turns out I hadn’t actually seen anything yet. ☺ The highlight of the four days was the Cape Peninsula tour. To simply drive around the peninsula doesn’t take more than an hour or two, but we spent the entire day leisurely stopping at each beautifully scenic point. (We also took a slight detour to an ostrich farm and penguin colony along the way. The more time I spend with animals lately, the more I see humanity in them and animals in us… sounds strange, but let’s just say having a diva ostrich snap at me when I tried to touch him taught me a lesson or two. =))

The Cape of Good Hope was a particularly interesting stop on the tour. It is perhaps the most tourist-visited site in Cape Town, as it is known to be the southern most point of Africa (although technically that point is Cape Agulhas). The area is crawling with buses and trinkets and retirees – signs of tourist hell. But upon arrival near the lighthouse, where one can get the best views of the actual “southern point,” all of that tourist-related anxiety melts away. The scene is stunning and you can actually feel yourself within the space of history.

For my father, the Cape of Good Hope had a whole other level of meaning. As a small boy studying in rural India he learned of Vasco da Gama and the explorer’s adventures to find the ocean route to India. Never in his dreams did he think he’d be standing at that very point one day – the point that in many ways linked east & west; the point that combined where he grew up and where he is today.

April 28th – 30th
The Smoke That Thunders: Victoria Falls, Zambia

At the moment I’m sitting in Livingstone, Zambia, “working” on my laptop literally ten feet from the Zambezi River flowing slowly before me. It is a gorgeous, nearly cloudless day, temperature at a near perfect 76 degrees, and every time I look up from the screen at the vision around me, I have to look again to make sure my eyes haven’t deceived me. It’s as if my mind can’t comprehend being in such a beautiful place while still getting “work” done. (I suppose it helps that our hotel is on the river. ☺)

My eyes have felt tricked many times over these past two weeks of tours, guides, hotels and airports. Earlier today I experienced the Victoria Falls. Standing in the thundering mist of the falls is incredibly invigorating. It feels like a wonderful shower in nature’s water, with the slight (ok more than slight) twinge that you might die as the water’s power pulls you in.

At one particular moment, we were crossing a very wet & slippery bridge to see more of the falls. This walking bridge is directly parallel to the car bridge that links Zambia and Zimbabwe. With everything happening in the region right now, it’s hard to simply be present without thinking about what Zim’s people are going through. But I did have a selfish moment, where I looked over the bridge at the gorge, water, and rainbow beside me. And in that moment, I felt completely at peace.

It has been such a privilege to see these sights and be in these places. As a spiritual person, I am aware of a divine presence all around me, but there have been many moments, like the one on the bridge, where that presence has felt incredibly intense. Perhaps it’s because I’m sitting before that which is unadulterated, relatively untouched by human interference. Perhaps it’s just the beauty of the places themselves. Not sure. I just know that I’m really grateful for all of it.