Ten days - Ten highlights
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Published: September 27th 2012
I seriously can’t believe how time is playing tricks on my mind during this trip. Time is zooming by so fast, but I feel like I have been here forever. I feel like I have just blinked since my last post, and it’s already been over 10 days. I am about halfway through my time at Sanccob… When I think about how I have only 3 weeks left, I feel a sense of sadness that everything is coming to an end so soon. But, then I remind myself that I have only been there for 3 weeks – and it feels like soooo much longer than that. I know that leaving will feel bittersweet.
Going “day by day” during this post seems silly, since many of those days have been “work” days at Sanccob. I could surely write about each of those days, but one of the side-effects of volunteering there is that I can talk incessantly (for hours) about penguins with little awareness of how my conversation partner’s eyes are glazing over. Fortunately, all the volunteers and staff all like to talk about penguins just as much as I do. We have penguin
inside jokes, penguin puns, penguin innuendos, and penguin sympathy. I’m sure that to a non-sanccob person, we seem out of our minds. To spare anyone out there our obsession, I am going to just do 10 highlights of my last 10 days. Some our events, some are people, some are places, and they are not in any particular order. But, here’s what I have been up to since my last post.
#1: The Penguin Release
After having hundreds of penguins under our care for weeks, we released 14 penguins. Sanccob regularly has releases, and they generously try to make sure that the international volunteers get to go on at least one release. My friend Zak and I put our name on “the list” of people who want to go, and then we had to wait less than an hour before we got invited to go on one the following day. It was amazing. We loaded the penguins up in 6 boxes and we drove to Boulder’s Beach. One of the penguins was particularly excited, and he kept poking his head out of his box. We walked
through the tourists, who were very interested in what we were doing, and we climbed over the fence to the beach. We lined up the boxes and then slowly turned them over. Of the 14 penguins, 11 knew exactly what to do. They quickly toddled (as only penguins can do) to the waters edge and took the plunge. One penguin seemed totally confused, and he wandered around before he finally figured out what he was doing. My favorite part, though, came with the last two penguins. They were younger penguins (or “blues”), and they had been raised at Sanccob. So, they had never been out in the wild. And, these particular two penguins has spent their lives together – staff members told us that they were always beside each other. In any case, they were pretty freaked out at first, and they tried to run back into their boxes. After we prevented that by lifting up the boxes, they just stood there huddled together. One of the other staff members and I carried them down closer to the water, hoping that they would be inspired to swim… But, they just didn’t know what to do. Then, two adult penguins from
the colony came over to them. One of the adults nudged them into the water, and the other adult showed them how to navigate and dive into the waves. It was absolutely amazing. I am so glad that I got to go on a release, because you really get a sense of the impact of the work that you do everyday. Makes all the bites and flipper beatings worth it, for sure.
#2. The work at Sanccob
Seriously, once I get started with penguin talk, it’s really hard to stop. But, over these past couple of weeks I have loved my work at Sanccob more and more, and so it has to be a highlight. It’s so strange, because it’s seriously hard work. I have been sore in one way or another everyday for 3 weeks, and I get bone tired at the end of a workday. It’s physically demanding and outside my comfort level in multiple domains (including smell). But, I love it so much. And I feel really proud of myself for doing it. There is something so satisfying about
things like looking back at the end of a day knowing that you worked hard, mastering a new (and completely foreign) skill, or conquering a fear. Sanccob is also such a solid team, where it feels like people have your back and you have theirs. Everyone has a good attitude, a good work ethic, and a good sense of humor. It’s inspiring. I can feel myself growing in really tangible ways (like mastering tubing or feeding) and in some ways that are harder to articulate. I have also gotten to do some really cool things… Like I have been working a lot with the oiled birds, who are stressed and needy. I have also worked with an oiled gannet (which is trickier and more dangerous to work with than the penguin). It’s silly, maybe, but I am, like, so proud that I can handle working with a gannet now. I have also sweet-talked some of the staff members into letting me see some of the brand-new baby chicks. They are SO cute. So, I continue to love my volunteer project. I have had a few days off this week, and I have actually been a little disappointed that I am
not working. Even though it’s really hard. And, my hands really hurt.
#3. Camps Bay
We had a really beautiful, summery day last week. Zak, who is my partner in crime here in Cape Town, asked me what I wanted to do. I was exhausted after several days of working, so I told him that I didn’t want to do anything except lay by the pool or go to the beach (thinking our local beach in Table View). He is a “do-er”. He always wants to “do stuff”, so he talked me into taking a bus, a walk, and a cab ride to Camps Bay, which was SO worth it. It was a stunning beach and a beautiful day. My friend Miriam also came with us, and we had a blast. We even rode a few waves, despite the frigid water temperature. I hadn’t gone swimming in the ocean yet in 2011. So, this was a major highlight.
A general highlight of this trip will be
the people that I have met along the way, both South Africans and other international travelers. But, one of my favorites is my new friend, Betty, who is an 82-year-old woman. She is from Missouri, and she is totally a world traveler. She took a bike-riding trip around Europe when she was just out of college, and she never looked back. She has been everywhere, and she has lived in several different countries working as a teacher. This trip to South Africa is her 7th
trip to the continent of Africa. She came here to watch her friend, Nick, graduate with his Ph.D. Nick is from a slum in Kenya, and they met somewhere along her travels. They stayed in touch over the years. Because he came from very little, she helped him finance his education by selling African art back in the States. She has been helping him put himself through school for over a decade, and when he invited her here to see all his hard work come to fruition she knew she had to do it. She has a sparkling, sassy personality, and a million stories to tell. She is staying in the Aviva house, and we
have all kind of adopted her as a surrogate grandmother. Last night, she made us fried cinnamon apples while we all sat around the kitchen island telling stories and laughing. As I try to figure out what kind of life I want to have, it’s encouraging to interact with someone with a life so well lived.
#5. The “Cultural” tour
I finished the last of my 3 standard tours with the Cultural Tour, or the “township” tour. In South Africa, the term township refers to an, often underdeveloped, area where during the apartheid era were reserved for “non-whites”. There is a lot of variety in and among the townships, but there are definitely areas of extreme poverty. There are also areas of relative wealth, as there are people who did well for themselves after growing up in the townships. They can afford to live elsewhere, but they choose to stay in the place where they grew up. The Cultural Tour was meant to expose us to and educate us about the townships. It was interesting, but it was also very weird. I was with a local,
which is the only way to do it. We walked around in one of the townships, visiting several the homes of several people. We briefly met with a traditional healer, and we went to a local watering hole for some traditional African beer. We also went to the “district 6” museum. Often times, tourists have a hard time on the township tour, because they feel intrusive… People feel as they are going into a “living zoo” to look at people less fortunate than themselves. Our tour guide assured us that the people whose homes we are visiting welcome us as visitors, encouraged that we “want to learn”. I took that to heart, because I really do want to learn. So, my problem wasn’t that I felt intrusive. The reason that I didn’t like it more was because I wanted to learn more. They didn’t really put the township experience into the context of the history of South Africa, which was a bummer for me. But, I’ve been working hard to learn as much as I can about the cultural history of South Africa, so I may have had unrealistic expectations. The best part of the day for me, actually, was
after the official tour was over. My friends Jaki, Brandon, and I asked to be dropped off downtown so that we could grab a bite to eat and walk around. After lunch, we stumbled upon a group of young Black Africans singing and celebrating the upcoming South African Heritage day. It was beautiful and energizing and moving. I’m trying to attach a video that I took that day to this post (hopefully it will work… nope it didn’t. I’m trying to post it in facebook… nope that didn’t work either. I miss unlimited, fast internet. I’m trying youtube
). Shortly after I shot this video, a couple of the girls pulled me into their group and tried to teach me some dance moves. There is also a video of this, but it’s on my friend Brandon’s phone. After I see it, I’ll decide if it should be posted. It was so fun.
#6. Braai at Sanccob
Speaking of South African Heritage day, we celebrated it with a braai (bbq) at Sanccob. For many South Africans, South African Heritage day is also known
as National Braai Day. And, for many South Africans, braai-ing is serious business. (Side note: At least 3 different people have actively tried to get me to eat meat after learning about my vegetarianism. One person told me that her version of heaven would be biltong, a kind of South Arfrican jerky, and beer. Since I have beer well covered, there is a campaign to get me to try biltong at least once before I leave. I’m on the fence.) So, we decided to have a braai at Sanccob after we were finished with work, and it was loads of fun. I have had plenty of time to bond with the other international volunteers living at Aviva, but I have had less opportunity to hang out with the non-Aviva Sanccob volunteers. And, since they are the ones with whom I can discuss all things penguin, any time to socialize with them feels like a treat. I’m grateful that we all get along really well, and that we can have just as much fun kicking back as working together. I’m curious how, and in what ways, we do or don’t stay in touch after this experience. Surely, I will lose touch
with most of the people that I have met on this trip. So, I’m trying to make the most of the time that we are all together.
#7. A pizza-eating contest
Along the same lines, we recently had a pizza eating competition. One of the Sanccob staff members is a total shit-starter (in a good way). As an example, I was complaining about how long it takes to make fish formula (which involves making a smoothie out of chopped up fish, dog food, and vitamins, then straining it twice to remove all the scales, bones, and other things that might be difficult to digest… the whole process takes forever), and she challenged me to a race to see who could strain the fastest. She kicked my ass, and I ended up sloshing formula all over myself, but it was totally fun. At lunch time last week, I was talking about how I discovered an all you can eat pizza place and how it made my day. She said that previous Sanccob volunteers had challenged each other to a pizza-eating contest – a contest that ended in
a draw at 22 pieces. For two of the guys I work with (Zak and Craig), that was a challenged received and accepted. A group of about 13 of us all went out to watch Zak and Craig try to break the record. It was a mix of Sanccob volunteers, Sanccob staff, and Aviva (non-sanccob) volunteers. As you might imagine, Zak and Craig both beat the record and they agreed to a draw at 23 pieces. This night was a highlight for two reasons. First, it’s fun and funny to watch people try to eat ridiculous quantity of foods, under any circumstances. In this instance, by the end they were sweating, their faces were turning colors, and they had looks of intense concentration (whereas all of the non-competitors were laughing like crazy). Second, I know that this is cheesy (haha), but it feels really good for me to just enjoy the simple pleasures of a group of people who don’t know each other well bonding over pizza. As I have often articulated, over the past 14-months, I have experienced a massive shift in my social life. For the first several months after Emma died, I didn’t want to be in
big crowds, get to know new people, or “put myself out there” as I have in the past. As a textbook extravert, this has been both foreign and uncomfortable – like my grief had turned me into a person that I didn’t recognize but couldn’t shed. During this trip, I have not only enjoyed socializing again, but also I have welcomed it – often planning activities and pulling people together. I feel like some important synapses are reconnecting and reactivating, and for that I am profoundly grateful. Also, pizza is delicious.
#8. Shark Cage Diving.
Yep, I went shark cage diving, and it was as exhilarating as it sounds. While there are many places throughout the world for cage diving with great white sharks, South Africa is known as one of the best. Plus, we have shark alley, where virtually all of the major eco-entertainment entities have come to film great white sharks. Before I left, this was definitely something on my radar, and once I talked to someone who had done it, I was sure that I wanted to do it… And I did! It
was so cool. The best place for shark-cage diving is about 2.5 hours from where I stay in Table View. So, my trip started with a 5:30 am pick up. We arrived at the place at about 8am, and we ate some delicious breakfast that was included for us. Then we watched a short video about what to expect, the dos and don’ts of cage diving, etc. Well informed, we headed out to the boat. There were about 30 tourists for cage diving, as well as a large crew. This company also does research and conservation work with the great whites, and so we had a marine biologist on board with us. Plus, my friend Zak had done a 3-week volunteer project with this agency before coming to do the penguins. This was good because he was a total expert, walking me through what to expect, AND because he knew everyone on the crew. He insured that we got to dive first, that we had the best spot, and that people treated me really well. So, we all load onto the boat and head out to prime shark area. Along the way, we saw some whales right up close (bonus!).
Then, they unload the cage and the “chum” which is a fragrant concoction of fishoil and other things designed to act as bait for sharks. Then, we wait. We waited for about 40 minutes for the sharks to come, which when I learned that I am vulnerable to seasickness. I was ok when we were moving, but when we were anchored I had trouble. Thank goodness a generous other tourist shared a Dramamine with me, which helped a lot. As soon as the sharks came, Zak and I were first into the cage. It was totally awesome. Within the first 15 seconds into the cage, a huge shark swam right at me, turning at the last second to swim by so closely that I could have touched it. A perfect experience – after that it seemed like everything else was a bonus. I was in the cage for plenty of time – Marine Dynamics (the company we used) makes sure that everyone has a good experience rather than regulating everyone’s time in the cage. Then, I came out, I enjoyed the rest of the trip from the boat. I’m glad that I went into the cage, so that I can
say that I did it, but honestly I preferred watching the action from the boat. The boat was so low that the sharks were actually still thrillingly close, but you could see what was happening better. So, after swimming with great white sharks, I got to spend a couple more hours watching them from a few feet away… in South Africa. What?!
I love books. I can’t help it. I just do. And, being in South Africa, I challenged myself to read Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom”, and finishing it was a major highlight of these past several days. It’s a great, detailed account of his experience of apartheid and the fight to end it. It was very long – and at times more detailed than I could really track. I read it on my kindle, and I would pop it out whenever I had a few minutes to spare. Zak took to asking me what percentage I was on, congratulating me when I made progress. I’m so glad that I stuck with it, because I learned so much. And, I feel like
I can ground much of what I have seen and experienced in South Africa in historical context. Now, I can schedule my trip to Robbin Island, which will be so cool now that I have read the person account of Mandela’s time there. I have also picked up and started a book called “Spud”, which is a coming of age story of a Afrikaan boy in boarding school. It’s hilarious so far, allowing a different approach for me to learn about some South African culture. Another “book highlight” has been the bits and pieces of information coming over the wire about “Tomorrow comes”. My mom has regularly been keeping me updated about who has read it, what they have said about it, and next steps planned or taken. I’ve also taken out my copy several times to read a chapter (or even a few lines). I always cry, reading it or hearing about it… It’s so good. And, it’s so good for me to be able spend time in “Emma’s world” while I’m a world away from home.
#10. The School Feeding Program
Today I had the day
off of work, and I decided to check out another of the volunteer projects that some of the Aviva people are doing: the School Feeding Program. Several people who come to volunteer with Aviva do the School Feeding Program. Basically, each school day, volunteers go to a local school and make lunch for underprivileged children. This is a really nice program, especially for people who are only in Cape Town for a short time. The minimum is only a week (whereas Sanccob’s minimum was 6 weeks), and it’s only a couple of hours in the morning so you have plenty of time to experience Cape Town in the afternoons and evenings. But, for some of the children, the meal that the Aviva people prepare is the only food that they eat all day. Because I was interested, I decided to help on my off day. I had a good experience. It was my friend Brandon’s last day with the program, and he decided to go off menu and make the kids cheeseburgers and fries. They were SO excited about that – also it was the kids’ last day of their term. They are about to have a week vacation, so
they were all in high spirits. They were so cute and polite and happy (especially about the cheeseburgers). It was cool that I got to help and experience another project. It also confirmed that I made the right choice with the penguins. For me, Sanccob is a great fit… Even though the work is harder, the commitment more hardcore, and the hours longer, I feel like I am really getting a lot more out of it than other options.
Oh crap… I just remembered another highlight!
#11. The Wildflower Tour
Zak, Eri, and I went on the most amazing tour – it was my favorite, probably, of all the tours. South Africa has some amazing wildflowers, but they only bloom for a few weeks. Apparently, some people fly in during this time, just to see the wildflowers. In order to see the wildflowers, we went up the West Coast, ending at the West Coast National Park. This coast is must less touristy and more “rugged”, but it is no less beautiful than anything else that we have seen. We went with these two
tour guides, Louise and Lisa, who we had already spent a lot of time with (and we love them!). The day was completely relaxed, totally chill, and breathtakingly beautiful. I took a ton of pictures, and I have tried to pick out the best ones (below). I love it here.
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