Thursday, September 29, 2011

Try-Umph Travels: South Africa

I spent six lovely days in the amazing city of Cape Town, South Africa. Cape Town is ridiculously beautiful with its ocean and mountain views. Even as we sailed away I remained in awe.

On the first day I took a sunset hike to the top of Lion’s Head Mountain. I had no hiking experience and didn’t know what to expect. The hike up was tiring for me and made me nervous. When we reached solid rock I noticed how close I was to the edge. If I tripped or misjudged a step I thought for sure I would end up being a headline in the newspaper. It was a long way down! I had to tell myself to stop looking over the edge several times. As exhausted as I was, I am so glad I did it. The view was incredible and I am very proud to say that I hiked up 900 feet. That feeling of amazement and accomplishment will remain with me for many years to come.

After seeing one of the most beautiful sunsets, the next day a group of us took a cable car to the top of Table Mountain. The view of the city from there was as stunning as the sunset I’d experienced the previous night. I remember feeling extremely grateful to take in that scene and all the feelings that came with it.
I didn’t spend all of my time with my head in clouds. There was lots of food involved as well. When I saw a Thai restaurant I was so excited! I hadn’t eaten Thai food in over a month and for me, that is unusual. After getting one of my comfort cuisines I decided to try new dishes. I’ve eaten Cape salmon, an ostrich steak, and grilled crocodile. I wasn’t disappointed. Which one would I eat again? Probably all of them. What I didn't want to try was warthog. Yes, that was an option. Each time I looked at it on the menu I kept thinking about Pumbaa from The Lion King. I just couldn't eat Pumbaa!

One of my favorite mornings came when a group of us visited the University of Cape Town. I love being on a college campus because of the energy and willingness to learn. We spent quite a bit of time walking around, chatting with people, and I enjoyed my group's company. Part of the allure of Semester At Sea is developing relationships with people experiencing the same types of joys, pains, and reflection at the same time.

On the last day in Cape Town a special guest embarked on the ship. Archbishop Desmond Tutu met Semester At Sea faculty and staff during a reception in his honor. He is nearly 80-years-old, but maintains a youthful sense of humor and presence. Following the reception, he addressed the entire shipboard community. His message of interconnectedness and dependence on one another was inspiring. It reminded me of my place in this world as well as the place I should continue to hold for those I am blessed to have in my life. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Reflections of Cape Town, South Africa

My initial trip to Cape Town occurred when I was twenty-years-old. I prepared to set foot on African soil for the first time filled with a lot of questions and uncertainty. I saw the city—one that didn’t look much different from many cities I’d visited in the States—and wasn’t certain what to make of it. I didn’t recognize it as Africa. It wasn’t the Africa I’d learned about in school or saw on television. I saw excess. I saw commercialism. I saw lush vegetation. I saw a mountain that signified power, strength, and longevity. It was a long way from the dirt-covered, fly-infested, safari-filled Africa that the media and my school books shoved in my face. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Was I supposed to be pleased that Africa was more than what I’d been presented? Or should I have been upset by the one-sidedness that I’d been exposed to?

Cape Town, South Africa is an incredibly beautiful, seemingly fictional place. Located on the Atlantic Ocean and surrounded by majestic Table Mountain, it is hard not to be distracted by its breathtaking natural beauty and lush greenery. In addition to its stunning physical allure, the city is filled with an international flare of people. As magnificent as the city and its people are to behold, neither compare to the beauty I’ve found in something far more influential.

I tried to take Cape Town for what it was. I accepted the beauty. I appreciated the sense of familiarity. However, there was something very odd lurking in the seemingly perfect African city. In this picturesque, gorgeous backdrop the remnants of something evil and ugly was hiding that carried about as much weight as Table Mountain. In 1999 apartheid had been over for nine years, and while it was over, the impact was apparent. I’m positive that the residue of apartheid had been lost on some of my fellow classmates, but it was clear to me that I existed in a world that operated differently than what I saw. None of the consumers looked like me. None of the people living near the attractive and charming area that the 600 American students were plopped into looked like me either. I saw people with my complexion, but they were not consumers or residents of the Cape Town I walked around. People who looked like me were behind counters, selling items, or living in areas that required us privileged American students to take a faculty-directed practicum trip in order to see. People who looked like me were not active participants in the economy on Cape Town’s preferred, show-to-company side of town.

I wanted to experience as much of Cape Town as I could, but I wasn’t sure where I fit. Should I shop as the American privileged student and show South Africa that it was possible for someone like me to be an active participant? Should I be ashamed of having the means and more importantly, the audacity to expect that I could walk around in that pristine area with my head held high? What was I to make of the township visits? Were they supposed to show me where my kind belonged? Or should I have looked at it and simply been grateful that I wasn’t born here?

Fast-forward to 2011. I didn’t know how I would feel about Cape Town post-Mandela’s presidential term. Had anything changed? Would I feel as conflicted as I had during my first visit? Once again, I stepped off of the ship filled with uncertainly. I was pulling for Cape Town, though. I was hoping that twelve years had done more for the city than I’d even witnessed at home. I wanted Cape Town to show me that it was serious about revolution. I needed to see what that looked like.

I got off the ship this time and the picture-perfect area that our shipped was docked had expanded. It remained stunning and breathtaking, especially with Table Mountain huddled over it like a proud parent. Economically, I knew that the last twelve years had been good. As I ventured out I looked at the people around me. I looked for the people who looked like me. I saw them. They were behind counters and selling items. Yet they weren’t the only ones behind counters and selling items. Even more encouraging, the people who looked like me were also in line with me. They entered the same stores, ate at the same restaurants. They were a part of Cape Town in a way that I hadn’t seen prior. It made me smile.

I’m not suggesting that all of the work is done or over. There is still a major disparity between rich and poor. Townships still exist. Children from townships still aren’t being educated at the same levels as children who aren’t from townships. However, I can see the progress. In twelve years, improvements have begun. When the manifestation of change is evident it means that the movement has momentum.

I love Cape Town because nearly twenty years after the end of apartheid I can see signs of progress trickle down to the masses. I love Cape Town because it is not afraid to have the difficult, uncomfortable, race-related conversations. I love Cape Town because the student union at the University of Cape Town is named after anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko. I love Cape Town because in the twelve years since I visited, I feel improvement. While I am grateful to have some comfort in the ease of navigating the culture, I love its willingness to transform. While I am in awe of Table Mountain, I love the strength of the people it oversees. While I appreciate its beauty, I love Cape Town so much more for modeling forgiveness, restoration, love, humility, and humanity.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Life at the Top

As I prepared to spend six days in Cape Town, South Africa, I had the fabulous idea to hike Lion’s Head Mountain. I thought it would be a fun way for me to spend an evening and see an incredible sunset. Having absolutely zero hiking experience, I was right about the sunset, but na├»ve regarding how much fun it would be. I won’t bore you with the details of how my calf muscles and lungs burned not far into my 900-foot trek up the mountain. I will, however, share that what was only supposed to be a fabulous photo opportunity taught me a valuable lesson on experiencing a peak lifestyle. 
The initial part of our ascent was simple because all I had to do was walk. Even still, the steep incline wore me out. What kept me going was the fear of being left behind on a mountain with the name of a ferocious cat in its title. I was relieved when the end of the dirt path signified the end of the horrendous incline. It wasn't long, though, before my relief dissolved. I looked up and saw how far the mountain’s peak loomed over me. I didn’t understand how I could possibly get up that high. There was no path. No flight of stairs. No elevator. No Black Hawk to rescue me. All I saw was rock. Rock stacked on top of more rock.
Part of me wanted to flop down, throw a fit, and refuse to go any further. I didn’t know how to reach the peak of the mountain when there was no trail. I couldn’t fathom a route because the route wasn't paved. There was a path to the top, but I couldn’t visualize it. The path required more creativity than I was willing to give. Instead of going up a clearly marked walkway or flight of stairs, I needed to tap into more. Those in front of me used the rocks—what I viewed as impassable obstacles—to further their climb. My barrier was part of the solution. By themselves they were rocks, but combined with physical exertion, the rocks were the answer. Using the rocks to stretch, pull, and physically work was the only way to get to the top.
Once I exerted energy that extended beyond my normal activity I was able to reach the top of that mountain. As exhausted as I was that night, I will never forget the feeling that came over me when I made it to the top. Even in the days that followed, as I looked at Lion’s Head Mountain—now known as my nemesis—from the valley, I felt great knowing that I stood on its peak. The beauty I experienced outlasted the sensation of breathlessness. The satisfaction I felt as I looked over the bay overshadowed the pain of the bruises on my legs. The pride I feel each time I think of the day I hiked up 900 feet will significantly outlast the time it takes for my muscles to stop aching.
Some of us are on a journey that hasn’t exactly been paved. It’s a journey that requires more energy and vision than we may think we have. Yet those who are determined to experience life on the peak of the mountain must continue climbing, mastering obstacles, and maintaining a level of vision that can only be found in those brave enough to live a life blazing their own trails.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Internal Change

The last two years have left me searching for more than what my day-to-day life presented. I wasn’t unhappy, but I felt that there had to be more. The nomad within was screaming for me to pack up and relocate. However, before I could commit to making a major life change I had to discover what my soul was searching for and consider whether or not moving could provide it.
What we need isn’t always obvious. We have to do a little digging and probing. We have to ask ourselves what it is that we are truly after. For example, if I wanted to leave Indiana because I was tired of winter, it would not make sense for me to move to Illinois. It sounds ridiculous, but many of us have made similar decisions. Have you ever made a lifestyle change, but after time passes you find yourself faced with the same type of people or the same circumstance? You end a destructive relationship only to step right into another destructive relationship with someone new. You relocate to get away from negative influences, but find yourself surrounded by people who are just like the ones you left. You have changed your external world, but you haven’t changed.
Changing the scenery will be ineffective if the scenery isn’t the real issue. At certain points in my life relocating was an easier option than doing the work, being honest, and finding out what was causing the discomfort or desire to flee. When we change the external, the internal doesn’t automatically change with it. Internal changes require more. Internal changes are harder. Internal changes force us to face truth. Internal changes are uncomfortable and scary.
After spending some time listening inwardly, I understood why I was frustrated. The level of excitement about my future started to fade. Instead of discovering what I could do to get excited about my life again I entertained an easier route. I thought, 'Surely I can get excited again if I live in a new city.' However, the change I craved was an internal change. The frustration I felt was not related to where I lived but how I lived. Now that I am aware of what I need, I am focused and better equipped to pursue it. 
When you are faced with a repeating source of frustration try not to rely on your usual list of things-to-do. If you have recurring discontentment consider some serious self-reflection. Get to the root of the frustration. It may be difficult and uncomfortable, but increasing your quality of life is absolutely worth it.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Try-Umph Travels: Ghana

What can I say about Ghana? I had an amazing four days. I will admit that I found my first ten minutes overwhelming. I was dropped off just outside the port and there was a cluster of confusion. There were people from my trip trying to coordinate with one another, taxi drivers trying to get our attention, and vendors trying to show us their art, shirts, bracelets, and anything else they were selling. It was hot, the air was gritty, there were at least two people vying for my attention at once, I could taste the dust, and the smog from the trucks and cabs was oppressive. It was sensory overload and I was uncomfortable.
I’m almost ashamed to say this, but I went right back to the ship to regroup. I needed a game-plan because winging it wasn’t going to work. I joined a group of people going to visit Parliament so I got on another shuttle that took me to the city of Accra. When the shuttle stopped it felt like a set-up. A large group of tourists were dropped off and a large group of vendors were waiting. The vendors swooped in, introduced themselves, and asked for our names. While casually chatting, these vendors, these very friendly and smart vendors, have already threaded a bracelet with your name on it. Without even meaning to, you have just received your first Ghanian souvenir.

During the afternoon of the first day, three of us stumbled upon a restaurant.  That delicious discovery altered the course of our trip. We told others about it and eventually, groups of us were meeting at Ambar for dinner. During our last night in Ghana the owners told us that the restaurant wasn’t even officially open. They kept feeding us because we kept showing up! Ambar doesn’t officially open until October. If anyone visits Accra, Ghana, I highly recommend a visit to Ambar. They serve traditional Ghanian dishes like red-red and jollof, but even their other dishes, like the pepper chicken, are wonderful.
One of my favorite moments occurred while a small group of us visited The Arts Center. As vendors encouraged us to come to their shops, one particular guy asked if we would come to his shop so he could play the drums for us. When we arrived at the shop we were instructed to sit down. Six men grabbed drums, sat down in front of us, and started playing. It was incredible! Those men not only made those drums come alive, but the drummers came alive as well. It was evident that playing those drums brought them joy. They weren’t performing, they were presenting us with a personal gift by sharing a part of themselves with us.

My four days in Ghana was amazing and I know that it was because of the people. Everyone from the thirteen-year-old artist named Kwame who talked to me about graduating from middle school before he showed me his art, to Josephine and Gertrude, the owners of Ambar, who fed us simply because we showed up, to the men who shared their love of music will continue to travel on this journey with me. When I think of Ghana I will always remember the smiles, the laughter, and the joyful sound of those drums. Next stop, South Africa!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Benefits of Independence

One of my favorite characteristics is independence. Independence frees us from the ties associated with depending on the external world to provide some of the very same things we can provide for ourselves. However, being independent does not suggest an existence that is void of relationship. Independence has made me even more grateful for my relationships. I am not relying on others for the things I should provide for myself which makes me a much better daughter/sister/friend. It is because I am independent that my relationships are healthy and purposeful.

I’ve never quite understood people not being able to function without the presence of someone else—particularly when the character of the ‘someone else’ does not seem to matter. I’ve seen so many enter or remain in relationships that are unhealthy and unfulfilling simply because of the assumption that having someone is better than having no one. Witnessing these relationship train wrecks make me appreciate knowing that a negative somebody is far worse than having nobody.

Being independent frees you from engaging in discouraging, harmful, and destructive relationships. When you discover your independence you realize that you are able to function—and function quite well—without negative people or people who encourage the negative in you. People who do not support your development only add to your relationship roster and not to your life.

When I say I’m independent it doesn’t mean I don’t need people. It doesn’t suggest that my friends aren’t important to me. It doesn’t imply that I think people are replaceable. I am able to be independent partly because of the loving, positive, and encouraging people supporting me. Independence means that I take responsibility for my development and emotional health. Independence means that I am accountable for the choices that I make. Independence means that I am sensible about the company that I keep because those who are in my life have a purpose and add value to my life.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Try-Umph Travels: Morocco

I just spent four days in Casablanca, the largest city in Morocco. I enjoyed my time there, but I am still processing all that I've seen and experienced. I took a city orientation tour that was designed to acquaint us with the notable sights and neighborhoods of Casablanca. We visited a food market and I saw mass amounts of fruits and vegetables, but I also saw carcasses strung up that were for sale. I think I hid my initial shock well, but the image of the skinned rabbits with the fur still on their feet will probably remain etched into my brain for a while. At least until we get to the next port and something else takes its jolting place.

After leaving the market we visited City Hall and a compound. I found the architecture of the buildings in this industrial city unique and beautiful. The architecture had Moroccan, French, and Portuguese influence, giving the city an identity that felt like a remarkable blend of individualism. For instance, I saw a lighthouse and from a distance it looked like many lighthouses I'd seen before. It wasn't until I got closer that I realized that this lighthouse, near La Corniche, had distinct differences. It's top had a Moroccan flare that reminded me I was not just on any other coast, I was on the coast of northern Africa.

I spent some time visiting the $800 million Hassan II Mosque, one of the largest in the world. This massive, beautiful, and breathtaking building is truly art. The sheer size of the structure is enough to give you pause, but when you consider the level of detail evident in the ceilings, the artwork surrounding the fountains and everything in between, you cannot help but to stand in awe. It is one of the most inspiring buildings I've ever seen.

No matter how interesting or beautiful they are, a country is more than markets and buildings–it's also its people. I met some interesting people in Morocco as well. My favorite was Mustafa. My friend and I met him in a market and he has become part of our Moroccan experience. He took us deep into one of the markets to show us where to get what we were looking for and even haggled prices for us. When we were done with our shopping, he even put us in a cab and sent us on our way. He was such a fun and friendly part of my time in Casablanca. Mustafa reminds me of the good that exists and I hope to use him as an example of how I should treat tourists when I'm at home. I should never be too busy or too caught up in my own world to be kind to someone.

Another part of my Moroccan experience was a wild cab ride. I am certain that a particular cab driver will travel well beyond Morocco with me. I don't know his name, but I'm willing to bet that he was auditioning for a role as a daredevil. This guy created his own lane and not only pulled in his side mirror to create more space, but at one point he reached out to the car next to us to push in that driver's mirror, too. He then went down a one-way street and decided that's not the way he wanted to go. He put the car in reverse and hit the gas. After that, we rode behind a car that was traveling too slow so he decided to go around...with an oncoming truck heading toward us. There was definitely not enough space for him to clear the slow-moving car so I thought 'this is it. This is where he looses, and ultimately, we all loose.' No, he veered off to the left onto a side road that my friend and I hadn't seen, but was extremely thankful was there. We couldn't get out of that thrill ride fast enough.

Of course you can't talk about traveling without talking about food. I had several meals, but one of my favorite foodie experiences was at this darling ice cream shop called Oliveri. I ordered this concoction that said vanilla, nougat, caramel, chocolate, and a few other ingredients. It was delightful. My other fun food experience took place at the local supermarket. My favorite food purchase so far has been the hazelnut chocolate caramel spread, although I haven't tried to the potato chips with the picture of the rotisserie chicken on the bag yet.

My friends and I stood out on the deck as the ship sailed away from the dock in Casablanca. As the ship floated out to sea, I thought of my time in Morocco with fondness. Casablanca was a great host. Now I am excited to see what Ghana will bring.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Internal Directives

Working for a study abroad program affords me with many opportunities to get to know people from various backgrounds with a wide range of aspirations and perspectives. In the last two weeks I have had conversations with more people than I can count. Yet one theme seems to surface repeatedly during the majority of those conversations and that is timing and purpose.

You may be doing a job that you are grateful to have, but lacks inspiration. You may think your daily life is mundane or that what you do from day-to-day is insignificant. You may have much greater aspirations than what your life currently displays. You still must consider that there are times when you will be placed in a holding pattern for preparation and to ensure that when your life flourishes it is at the right time.

In the last two years there were several moments when I craved a life change. I felt restless and the desire for me to flee was growing by the day. Yet even stronger than my desire for change I felt that I was being directed to wait. I knew that something was developing and if I acted out of impatience I could negatively alter the course of my life. Was it easy to simply wait? No! Were there days when I wondered if that internal directive to wait was incorrect? Absolutely. How did I know that waiting was the answer? I knew because when I took the time to listen inwardly what I heard did not mimic or shadow my fickle and flighty emotions. No matter how I felt I heard the same directive–wait.

If you are growing increasingly frustrated take some time to listen–really listen. You’ll know that you’ve tapped into more than your sometimes untrustworthy emotions if what you’re being directed to do isn’t completely wrapped up in how you feel. On the days I wanted to interject a change that I knew wasn’t in my best interest I was taunted by impatience. Yet as frustrated as I was, it does not compare to the gratitude I feel being where I am at this time, for this purpose. Find out what life is directing for you and then have the courage and determination to follow through.