Sunday, January 12, 2014

Cape Town

Harbor area of Cape Town.  Good food to be had here.
I've been meaning to tell you all about the last part of our South Africa journey for a while now.  (You can read parts 1 and 2 here and here.)  I'm finally sitting down to talk about it, and well, Cape Town was pretty much the charming, exciting, cuisine-filled, developed-world experience that I had craved since moving to Madagascar.  In summary, I loved Cape Town.

The hubby buying biltong (South African beef jerky) from one of the markets at the harbor.

Gorgeous coastal views along the highway around the Cape of Good Hope.

Cape Town and the surrounding areas give the best of many landscapes: big city, quaint beach town, rugged mountain, and marina seafood.  Oh, that last one isn't a landscape?  It is in my world.  In fact, while in Cape Town, I indulged in seafood and sushi every chance I got.  Paired with light South African vins, it was basically heaven on earth.

One of the many charming beach towns along the coast.  

One thing to note when planning a trip to Cape Town, a rental car is key.  Cape Town proper is cool and all, but the vistas you take in while driving in and around the Cape of Good Hope area are superb.  The cutest Seaside, FL-esque beach towns dot the coastal highway, and when I go back (and I will because I didn't even make it to the vineyards!), I will stay in one of these darling beachy towns.  I could spend weeks there doing nothing except going to play with the penguins everyday.  Oh yes, there were penguins.  Friendly, curious, Disney-like penguins that contemplate stealing your purse.

Sneaky penguins.  Look at him.  He's clearly up to no good.

Beautiful, clear ocean water.

Between the excellent food, wine, and scenery, Cape Town has quickly joined the list of my Top 5 Favorite Cities of all time, right up there with New York City, Atlanta, Antigua (Guatemala), and Boston.  I suspect this list will have some serious revisions in 2014, though, as we have Prague, Istanbul, Paris, and possibly northern California on the agenda for this year.  Stay tuned.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Robben Island

The entrance to Robben Island, South Africa
There have been only a handful of days as a teacher where I've felt compelled to set aside a lesson plan to discuss something greater, something more significant to my students' lives than the lesson plan.  Today was one of those days.  When my 5th graders arrived to school this morning, many of them raced to tell me that Nelson Mandela had died.  Clearly they had seen/heard the news, but I wondered if any of them understood why it was such important news.

We started by talking about what they knew about his life.  Some knew a lot, others very little.  I then shared some pictures from my recent visit to Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela so famously sacrificed 27 years of his life.

View from the inside.
We took the ferry over to the island from Cape Town and were instantly greeted by the giant blue banner chronicling Mandela's journey from freedom fighter to inmate to president.  When you look at that timeline, at those three milestones next to each other with no dates in between, the significance and awesomeness of his transition really hits you.  Nothing, however, hits harder than when you see his jail cell.  There are no words, just goosebumps.

Nelson Mandela's prison cell.
Our tour guide was himself a former inmate, spending more than a decade inside those famed walls with Mandela.  He told many heart-wrenching stories while we were with him, but one thing he said really made me think.  He said, "Mandela was one of many fighters."  This is not to diminish Mr. Mandela's role or his significance as the leader of the movement, but it is important to remember that so many lives were put in those walls with him.  I tried to make this point with my students today, as well.  It takes a leader to organize the voice of the movement, but it takes followers to make it a movement.  My trip to Robben Island was one of the more sobering and impactful experiences of my life, and I will never forget it.

Our tour guide and former Robben Island inmate showing us their sleeping mats.
We ended class today with a discussion of this quote from Mr. Mandela, "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."  The class pondered its meaning for a while, and I would now like to leave you with a quote from one of my fifth graders interpreting it, "Being educated means you know when something is wrong.  If no one teaches you that there is another way, how do you know you're being wronged?"  I teach 10 year olds, folks.  Let's hope their generation gets it right.  RIP, Mr. Mandela.  You were remarkable.

Sunday, December 1, 2013


It’s not something I’m afflicted with often.  For 4 years now I’ve lived overseas, and I have loved almost every minute of it.  I wouldn’t trade our life for anything.  Nevertheless, here I am, struggling with an extreme bout of homesickness for the first time in my life.

Maybe it’s just the sheer distance away that I am this time.  (Have you looked at where Madagascar is on a map?  Yea.)  Maybe it’s the fact that I like big, clean cities with modern transportation systems and that is a far-fetched fantasy at best here.  It could be that once again I find myself living somewhere that makes it extremely difficult for me to do things on my own because I’m terribly intimidated by the traffic and constant potential for being pulled over.  And then there’s the fact that for 6 months now, we’ve been trying desperately to get our beloved dog here, and Air France hates Boxers, apparently.  That last one has definitely been part of it.

Today marks 7 years since my dad lost his battle with kidney cancer.  I miss him terribly every day of every year, but this weekend it feels like it’s hit me harder than the past few years.  The past few weeks have been a perfect storm of frustration with systems and red tape and missing friends and family terribly.

Of course, this too, shall pass.  My wonderful husband seems to always know what to say on days like this.  For that, I am always thankful.  I wanted to post this in an effort to keep it real, if you will.  There are wonderful, amazing things about living overseas that make it worth it, and I post those things frequently, but I’d be lying if I never admitted to myself or anyone else that there are hard times, too.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Hippo Yawns & Teenage Angst from a Giraffe: Safaris are Awesome

Sleepy hippo.

Oops...I'm back a week later than promised.  Apologies.  Anyways, I am sitting today in the sweltering heat of Antananarivo, wishing I could be back in the cool, crisp air of South Africa.  (I know it gets hot there, but it wasn't when we there, so I'm going with that.)

South Africa was incredible.  Simply put, it is one of the most interesting places I've ever visited.  I'm not sure where the disconnect happened, but somewhere along the way, I gained an impression of South Africa that let me to be shocked at its modernity.  Intricate, beautifully smooth highway systems, stores packed with all the lovely treats I miss living in Madagascar, and shiny high-rises dot the cityscapes of Johannesburg and Cape Town.

My recap of the trip will have to come one piece at a time, but let's start at the beginning:  Kruger National Park.

The elephants were one of my favorites.

I imagine I'm not alone when I say that an African safari has been on the obligatory bucket list for ages.  I'm a bit of an animal rights person, and the site of an enormously beautiful elephant in a caged area at a zoo makes me sad.  I was so excited to see animals roaming freely, out in the open of an African savanna.

Sleepy leopard.  

Here's what I learned about safaris...they take patience.  A lot of patience.  Now, this is not a virtue that others extol of me.  (I claim the "nature" argument on this one.  I blame growing up in the United States, where one rarely has to truly wait for anything.  Except a driver's license.  I digress.)  It took 2 nearly 14-hour days to see the Big 5 animals (elephant, buffalo, lion, rhino, and leopard), but we did it.

The drive-your-own-vehicle safari through the park was a great option.  It allowed us the freedom to stop when we wanted, turn down any road that looked promising, and I didn't have to awkwardly ask other tourists if they minded moving a little to the left so they weren't in my coveted leopard shot.

White rhino.

I couldn't pick a favorite animal from the trip, but I can tell you my favorite moment.  Any time that I was close enough to an animal to really see their faces as they quizzically looked back at us, that, I loved.  There was one giraffe in particular that seemed to be dramatically batting its long eyelashes in such a prolonged and drawn out manner, that I swear it must have been a teenage giraffe because I get that same exasperated look from my students all the time.

A giraffe throwing some shade our way.

To sum up the part of the trip that I could write 4 separate posts about, an African safari is an amazing thing.  I chose to ignore the warning signs about keeping an eye out for poachers and instead, chose to believe that these amazing and magnificent animals roam freely and happily all the time.

Safari sunset.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Hiatus time!

To all those who read my blog every Monday...thank you!  Also, I apologize for not posting last week and feel it is only fair to warn you that I am taking a little blogging hiatus for two weeks, as we jet off to South Africa for a much-needed vacation.

But don't fret, I will be back October 28th with all kinds of delightful, safari-filled updates.

'Til next time,


Monday, September 30, 2013

Giving Back with TOMS

I was reminded of how fun it is to jump rope...which also reminded me of my current age as my knee hurt later.
I regret not doing more to give back to the community while I was living in Guatemala.  There. I said it.  It wasn't for lack of opportunity, either.  I think it was part laziness and part fearfulness.  I tend to be an emotional person, and I think that I just knew that it would be very hard for me to see what life was really like for people (especially the children) in some parts of the city and country.  I do realize the incredible selfishness of that position.  Instead, I always opted to donate money to a worthy organization, in lieu of actually jumping in and getting directly involved.

Last week, I decided that it was time to put my own feelings of uneasiness aside and take the time to partake in a meaningful community-building activity here in Madagascar, and it was an incredible experience.  There is a neighborhood right around the corner from us where volunteers go every Saturday morning to bring some fun into the lives of kids who are very much in need.

Such a sweet little boy.
We played soccer and jumped rope, colored pictures and played with my camera.  To see these kids laughing and playing, all waiting to hold your hand or give you a hug, made me realize what I had been missing out on.  Donating money is a wonderful thing, but sometimes people need things money can't buy, like a smile, a laugh, or just some attention and affection.

The kids love to be in pictures - and then immediately run to my side to see their snapshot.  Once a year, I believe at Christmastime, a very kind volunteer takes a picture of the kids and then prints out a copy for them.  He said, "It's so when they are older, they will have this memory of being a kid."  I had never really though about that.  The luxury of happy memories.

That smile!
Next week, a delivery of TOMS shoes will arrive for these kids in the neighborhood.  They all had their feet measured last week and can't wait to get their new kicks.  That's right folks, TOMS really does give a pair to someone in need.  I'm a witness to it.

I'm also now a witness to the power of kindness.  I don't speak the language, but all the kids understood a smile.  I'm so glad that I put my own uncomfortableness to the side in order to have this meaningful experience.  Don't get me wrong, there were some tears when I got home.  Just thinking of how the kids begged for drinking water or raced for the last crumb of food at snack time.  That's still tough to see.  There's an orphanage near by that needs volunteers to come hold the babies.  Just hold them.  They don't have enough people working there to give the babies the physical contact they all need.  I think it will take me some time to work up to that task.  At the moment, I can't imagine being able to walk in there and not completely lose all my composure at the sight of all these babies, just needing to be held.  Maybe one day.

This woman was so happy to watch the kids playing.  She asked me to take this photo.  I think I will print her a copy.
Here's to setting aside feelings of fear, guilt, uneasiness, or anything else holding us back.  Pay it forward this week.  Or take a moment to appreciate your TOMS.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Antemoro Paper Making

A worker delicately hand stitches "Merci" and adds flower petals to the wet paper.

I used to love field trips.  I mean, as a kid, I would count down the days until our trip away from school.  Now, as a teacher, I have a newfound respect for how much my teachers must have dreaded those days.  Kids everywhere, lugging food & beverages, trying to keep a head count at all times, endless questions, and an endless amount of energy required.  I'm beyond exhausted at the end of field trip days.  Thankfully, our trip to the Antemoro paper makers last week was well worth the exhaustion and logistics juggling.

Near-ready paper drying in the sunshine.

Antemoro is hidden among the houses and rice paddies in an area of Antananarivo near the US Embassy.  We walked down steep hills, past barking Coton de Tulears (Jane Fonda had one of those, remember that story?), and tiptoed along a narrow land bridge that separated a housing unit from a rice paddy, until we finally found the little doorway with the little sign marked "Antemoro."

A worker pours water over a wooden slate before adding the pulp to create the paper.

It was really interesting to watch the ancient Malagasy tradition unfold before us.  We watched first and then took our own turn soaking the bark, creating the pulp, mixing the pulp with water, and finally, carving and decorating our own piece of Malagasy paper.

Our own Malagasy souvenir.  1st wedding anniversary is paper.  Perfect.

I'm always happy when I see traditions that carry on without modern machines or technology,  I find it to be a little reassuring.  A reassurance that some traditions do stand the test of time, and that there are still people in the world who value the handmade product.