There are a lot of things that have building up in my brain lately that I realize I must write about, but have no way to find the words for it all.  I believe the best way to start is to talk about this month, which is considered the most important month for many Arabs: the month of Ramadan.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this holiday, it is the biggest and most widely celebrated in Islam.  It is a month dependent on the Islamic lunar calendar, so it begins on a different day every year, this year starting July 20th.  This month is a time of spiritual reflection, and historically, the Prophet Muhammad first received revelations in the lunar month of Ramadan. Therefore, the month of Ramadan is considered to be the most sacred month of the Islamic calendar.  Ramadan consists of fasting from sunrise to sunset, where Muslims refrain from food, drink, sexual activity, and smoking.

Watching the sunrise go down on a Falooka boat before we eat Iftaar

This is a time when most people stay in doors (especially when Ramadan takes place in the summer!), sleeping and laying low.  The women spend all day preparing special dishes and huge meals for their families.  As soon as the sun sets, everyone gathers for the evening feast, called Iftaar, and spend time in celebration late into the night with gifts, food, music, special t.v. shows, and of course family and friends.  Before sunrise, everyone will eat again around five in the morning in preparation for the long day of fasting to come.  Although children are not required to fast, many of them do in order to practice later in life.  Here in Egypt, most Muslim women wear the higab, or head scarf, to cover their hair.  During the month of Ramadan, even young girls, sometimes five or six years old, wear the higab as well, in order to respect the sacredness of the month.

Inside a mosque for the first time

Having Iftaar on an island off of the Nile river

Keeping all of this in mind, I am experiencing Ramadan in the Middle East first-hand for the very first time.  The best way I can describe my environment here is by telling you that night is day and day is night.  During the day, the normally crowded streets are practically deserted, and many shops are closed until sunset.  However, as soon as the sun goes down, the whole world comes alive.  Women quickly prepare to go out with their friends and families, every shop is filled with people buying helowiyat (desserts, sweets), colored lights line the windows of countless apartments, and people laugh and talk together.  It is a wonderful feeling, and very similar to the days before Christmas in the States.

During the late night hours, many people eat helowiyat and fruit of all kinds, like Kanafa, Atayef, watermelon, mango, grapes, apricots, and bananas.  My personal favorite is the delicious kanafa, which can be made with raisins and nuts, custard, or a type of creamy cheese (custard is the best!).

Kanafa with custard, made with shredded pastry dough and delicious honey.

Best of all, it seems that the music and atmosphere of the late night hours during Ramadan only increase the constant hustle and bustle of the streets.  This light-hearted, joyous feeling that takes over people simply after eating a delicious meal drowns out the grave political tone that resonates on the streets of Egypt lately.  With the new Egyptian president after over 30 years of the same dictator and centuries of corruption, the streets are tense with political anticipation and expectation.  During Ramadan, however, all of this seems to slowly disintegrate in the wind by the pure joyousness of tradition and holiday spirit.  I wait in anticipation of what the social mood might be like at the end of this holiday good cheer.

A group of us girls about to enter a mosque

In Bordeaux, France, meeting a German student

This last week was a mixed bag of emotions, frustrations, confusion, but also memories I hope never to forget. In my last post I talked about my trip in Sharm As-Sheikh to keep me busy, but I’ve still been very homesick with no way to hear my mother’s voice.

How we all feel after trying for hours to get the internet in our dorm

I finally spoke with her a few days ago and I was so relieved, I cried at the sound of her voice over the phone, thousands of miles away from me.

My beautiful niece in 2008

My best friend since I was 2 years old

Yes, my emotions these days seem to run quite high, I am embarrassed to admit.  But out of it all I spoke with and became closer to people with whom I never expected to have much contact.  I took too many pictures…I don’t know if it really has sunken in that I will be here in Egypt for an entire year.  Time moves so slowly and yet so quickly concurrently.

The newest addition to my heart. Lameese and I are two peas in a pod

My parents. I miss them like crazy

My mom, brother, and newest addition to the family, my niece Rowen

My confidence in my abilities sky-rocketed even after a brief chat with my mother.  I recently realized how important it is to keep good ties with family members and friends back home in order to keep yourself grounded and sane.  No contact with my family until quite recently has made me feel vulnerable and fragile, ready to blow away by the first wind of criticism or disapproval.

Awesome dorm-mates and new friends

One of my sisters in Christ, Kelly!!

Even the sound of my mother’s voice makes me feel so safe, secure in the fact that people are persevering with me in spirit, thousands of miles away from me.  It’s heart-warming, really.  It gives me the courage to continue in my endeavors and increase my motivation for self-sufficiency in a country with which I am completely unfamiliar.

New friends in a new program! Grace and I

Summer domestic flagship, last summer in Austin, TX

I’ve come to the conclusion that new experiences and new friends are always a treasure, and we should never fear stepping out from what is comfortable.  I feel that is rather clear.

My sister in Christ, Xin Zhang, in Archachon, FR

However, this does not by any means imply that through this, we break and lose the ties to those who know us best.  There is value in expanding our horizons, making new–and perhaps lasting–friendships through our adventures.

Arcachon, FR 2011

But perhaps that which is priceless is our closest or oldest ties, those relations that we forget are so valuable because of our close proximity.  I have always loved to travel and jump into the next thing, but that oftentimes causes me to take for granted those whom I love so dearly, cheering me on in my wake.  As wonderful as the future always appears in our dreamy thoughts, the present is a gift in itself and should never be pushed to the side.

Bordeaux, FR 2011

To all of you who I have left behind for these trips and adventures I feel I “need” to take: I am sorry for the times I caused you to feel that I didn’t care or didn’t try.   I am sorry for making you feel like you don’t matter.

Austin, TX at the ESL dinner with lovely Eman

Fayetteville, AR 2012Another fabulous niece, Cassie

Because in truth, I am only here today, living my dreams, because of you.  Your influence over me has been crucial, and will remain a part of me forever.  I love you all, and I thank you for your unwavering support and encouragement, even when you did not understand my intentions or goals.  Thank you for standing with me in spirit.  It is the cornerstone on which I base my life.

Best friend forever, Tiffany, in Cali. I've known her since I was 7

My sister in Christ and partner in crime, Hannah. 🙂

This last week we all headed to Sharm As-Sheikh, the famous resort town, for a few days of vacation from classes.  I had heard stories of how this town was built around tourists and how it is quite different from other areas of Egypt, but all of those stories were gross understatements to the reality of this place.  Sharm As-Sheikh is the Las Vegas of Egypt, and quite possibly of the Middle East.  There were no restrictions on clothing there, and I saw almost more Russians than Arabs wandering the streets, buying trinkets with inflated prices.  The staff at any restaurant, café, hotel, or shop spoke English fairly fluently, and a few even spoke Russian.  I truly forgot I was in Egypt for a few days.

A little surprise from the cleaning staff at the hotel

The degree of westernization was astounding, to say the least.  On the 4th of July, a group of us all went to a club and begged the DJ to play American songs, as we were the only people there.  He finally agreed and we danced until 2am to songs we all knew.  It was an unforgettable moment in time, on the open balcony of the club, the lights of such a tourist town twinkling around us and the gentle waves of the sea in the near distance.

Early 4th of July party in Alexandria the day before we left for Sharm

We all had to fight in order to speak Arabic with most of the people there, especially our guide when we took a boat out to the beautiful coral reefs of the Red Sea.  Our guide confessed that our group was the first to which he could give instructions all in Arabic in the 14 years he had lived in Sharm As-Sheikh.

On the Red Sea

Out on the Red Sea, I was blown away by the crystal clear blue waters, only a thin veil to the picture underneath the waves.  I went snorkeling for the first time, and I hope never to forget what I saw, the silent world of fish and sea creatures pulsing with life.  There was no sound, but the waters were tense with energy, even the plants and coral seemed to breathe in their bright colors, flowing with the soft current curling around their edges.  Even the schools of fish all seemed to have such purpose, such importance.  I only wish I had an underwater camera.

The coral reefs, from the boat

Showing a little Egyptian pride

The color changes where you can see the solid coral reefs

By the end of the four days we spent there, I was ready to return to Alex.  Despite the luxury of the experience as a whole, I was ready to leave a place that felt so manufactured, so fake.  The thought that wouldn’t leave my head was that some people come to a place like this, and they have no concept of what the rest of Egypt, the real Egypt, is like.  Perhaps they think that Egypt is that tolerant to loud tourists, or bars, or bikinis on the beach.  They would be shocked and most likely disturbed by the reality.  I, however, prefer the real Egypt, despite its flaws.  Outside of Sharm As-Sheikh, Egypt does not seem so stifled, so perfect. It has the feel of a bustling, crazy city, a nugget of the real world in a very populated area.  Just like the my view underneath the Red Sea, Egypt seems to flow with a type of current, tense with energy, filled with purpose, ideas, feelings, opinions.

On the boat with friends

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly we adapt to something new.  As much as my generation complains that people resist change, put any single person in a new environment and watch him not only survive, but thrive.  The first few days after I arrived, as much as I tried to blend in, I looked blatantly foreign.  My social skills stuck out as my white skin and grey eyes.  Yet here I am, just barely two weeks in and I am already learning to be street smart, how to use good manners, how I should or should not dress, etc.  All of these sound simple enough on paper, but can only be achieved through trial and error, and lots and lots of practice.  I am finally starting to adapt.  It seems to be much easier to cross the intensely crowded streets, to look like I at least know where I am going, to order things in restaurants, and to give the correct responses to certain cultural phrases.

Typical bread cart in the streets

At a semi-private beach called Agemy Beach

Even the sounds of life in this city no longer sound so foreign to my ear.  My ways of thinking are shifting and even tuning my ear to the sounds of danger, joy, and daily music of life passing by in the streets.  The latter is something I already love a great deal.  There is something quite distinct in the rhythm of the way Egyptians call out to sell their goods (e.g. watermelons, various assortments of nuts, grilled corn on the cob, pottery, bread, etc.), warn you with a short beep of the horn (as opposed to a long beep, which means you are holding up traffic or there is significant danger), or even the flirtatious comments and cat-calling to any woman on the street.  All of this is becoming very normal.  And so quickly!  I know the streets of this city to a very limited extent, and I am looking forward to knowing my way around a little more every day.

A stray cat making a meal of someone's leftovers...he was later chased out.

Fresh mango juice, the best thing in the world

As strange as it may sound, I rather prefer this “lack” of comfort that comes from living outside the United States; the bed I first thought hard, I now consider perfect, the bathroom I first considered dirty, now seems very western and normal.  I appreciate small things very much, like how white the main floor shines when it has just been cleaned, and the look and smell of boiling hot tea in the morning.  It is amazing to me that even in such a short time, by my sheer presence in this beautiful country, my mind-set is adapting, taking in all the glory of a new culture and new ways of life.

My friends and I, making an afternoon of it on the Korneesh

Sunset on the Korneesh

As a young, independent woman, I am learning to lean on others much more here.  The girls are not always mature, but they are wise and nurturing towards one another.  We have so much respect for each other, simply because we know that we are women, and sometimes that can be difficult enough by itself, especially here where the standard and the customs between the sexes is so different.  I rely, nay, require a great deal more patience that I first imagined I would need.  It is much more difficult for me to express or articulate how I’m feeling or what I’m thinking.  I haven’t been shy since I was four years old, yet here I am, one of the quietest ones because I am still struggling to understand what is being said or how to say what I wish.  It is an experience to be sure, and one I will never regret.  Inshallah (God willing; hopefully) my skills and my courage will increase as I continue to adapt and discover.

Two of my favorite people in the program 🙂

A lovely typical day at a café

Visiting a coptic church

A supermarket that had an especially beautiful display window

The following is from my journal during the first day in Alexandria:
I lie here on my bed on my first full day in Alexandria. The very first thing I noticed flying in to this country was all the many buildings, crammed together into little towns and cities, very much like the imprint of a gridded shoe in the earth, a once muddy surface, now dry and cracked. It was quite an impression. As I stepped off the plane into Cairo, the dry heat and dense air hit my face but I was surprised by the hot breeze that occasionally passed by.

On the Korneesh, on the edge of the Mediterranean

We arrived at the girls’ dorms by the late evening where I met my Egyptian roommate, Alaa. She is only 20, but acts like a big sister with me, very caring and patient with my unfortunate Arabic. Most of the other girls in this program are in the same position, with varying degrees of fluency in the dialect here. Madame Hoda, the kitchen manager, has taken an extreme liking to me, as I am uncannily similar-looking to a girl from a few years ago. I’m going to take it as a compliment.

My dorm room

Everyone here talks so quickly that it’s very hard to follow right now. However, they also have very kind eyes and often greet me with a smile. I haven’t ventured outside in the daylight yet, but soon.
One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed, even after a day, is the way in which people communicate. It seems that in order to be heard, everyone talks over everyone else, even those with more authority. It’s as if they fight for their voices to be heard among the chaos (which seems counter-productive). Entry from 6/10/2012
The last thing I would like to mention is how valuable water is here. There is a brand of bottled water called Hayat which means, “Life”. Fitting, isn’t it? One of the biggest symbols of life in this country is indeed water. Without it, everyone would be reduced to nothing. It’s common for Americans to think of the Middle East to be dry and dusty.

View from the plane, Frankfurt to Cairo

But here I am at last, and Alexandria is bordering the beautiful Mediterranean Sea…A symbol of the life that thrives here so vibrantly.

The view of the city from my dorm room

The Mediterranean

Of course I knew race is an acerbic topic in South Africa. It’s obvious in ever dimension of this country’s social sphere. But when Chris told me that people still hate to see a mixing of races, I thought he was exaggerating a bit. He told me if he and I were to walk along the road, we would get looks and some might even say something.

Probably not, I thought. That would just be going way overboard with the racial integration thing. I mean I know there’s some tension between black and white South Africans, but that’s just because things have been made awkward between them because of the history.

Awkward is somewhat of an understatement.

Francis, from the carwash, and I always have great conversation. He’s intelligent, and we always talk about our perspectives on South Africa’s state – socially, economically, culturally, etc. – and about our perspectives on the world at large. I love hearing from his Zambian point of view and he too loves hearing from my American point of view. We have grown up in two different worlds; and we share a mutual fascination because of it. He asks me questions about life in America; I ask him questions about life here. We learn from each other, and we always find something new to discuss – every day that I see him.

Zambians like to talk, and Francis is indeed a Zambian.

The gate to my residence is a 30 step walk away from the carwash at which Francis works. On slow days he likes to walk with me to my gate, especially if we’re having a conversation. Yesterday was one of those days.

My residence and Francis’s carwash are situated right alongside a main road. So as he and I are walking on the sidewalk, cars are passing or are stopped at the intersection. Yesterday we began heading back at around 5 p.m., so traffic was heavier than usual. The cars were stopped at the intersection. As we’re walking I heard yelling from one of the cars, and I turned to look and saw a man yelling at me. He was white, gray-haired and angry. His face was screwed up, and he was yelling in Afrikaans. I looked at Francis and asked him what the man was saying, but Francis doesn’t speak Afrikaans either. It dawned on me, though, that this man was yelling at me because I was walking with a black man. His yelling was relentless, and he continued to yell even after we walked past his car. Francis said, “Don’t worry about him. Just don’t look at him. Ignore it.”

Francis has been here for only 3 months, and already such racism is cavalier to him. He was completely unaffected by this man’s hatred of him. But I was affected. I was shocked – stupidly so – at the audacity of a white man to do such a thing. That man could have been verbally degrading me but it was only because I was associating myself with someone that man had already deemed unworthy and filthy. In that moment, I was thrown back in time to the era of racism and hatred. It was horrible. I only tasted a tiny spoonful of it, but it made me sick.

“That’s so sad…” I said to Francis, and that’s all I could say. He just shrugged and kept smiling his big, relentless smile.

The next day he kindly asked me if I was okay from yesterday. He thought it had scared me or something. It didn’t scare me, I assured him. I just feel sad that that is the reality of this country – still. I wanted it to hurt Francis because it isn’t something he – or any other black South African – should ever be desensitized too. It should never be something so cavalier and unimportant. But it is. That treatment of blacks was and still is accepted as something to be expected. That is sad. I could never take that lightly. It disgusts me – no matter how widespread it once was or still is. It disgusts me. And it will always disgust me when people see the world in black and white. It will always disgust me when they defend the separation of those races. It will always disgust me when they think color is indicative of superiority or inferiority. Sometimes I feel like being white in this country is shameful.

Because until they hear me speak, I’m automatically associated with that horrible history – as the villain.

I think I love Saturdays most of all. Saturdays are more my days than any other day.

I wake up almost as if on cue, every day at around 8 a.m., if not woken earlier by a my Miley Cyrus alarm clock song. I hate when I wake up at 8, knowing that I don’t have to wake up until 9:30 or even 8:30. It’s harder to fall back into a nice, deep sleep when you know you’re waking up in an hour more or less.

But on Saturdays, it doesn’t matter when I wake up first. Because I can close my eyes and go back to sleep for as long as I want. Saturdays mean my kitchen is a mess, my house is quiet, and my neighborhood is taking the day off.

On this Saturday, I woke up at ten thirty. I took my time eating my breakfast in my room. I pushed the curtains aside and let the bright morning light into my room. I opened the window and felt warm air outside. I did some reading for class in my bed, took some notes on various philosophers, and looked over the South African constitution.

Madison came over and we walked to the grocery store. I stocked up on gluten-free noodles and pancake mix, and she stocked up on those rare tortilla chips, which only one store that we know of has. I came home to warm up leftovers of rice and shrimp for lunch, and then I made some coffee.

My time in Africa is perfectly embodied by a leisurely pace. It’s like I casually stroll through life here at a speed dictated by no demands. I can walk as quickly or as slowly as I like, and most of the time, I walk the latter pace. I have nowhere to be, nothing to do. Time just isn’t of the essence. Days float by like bed sheets hanging on a clothesline. They blow in the wind, but they promise not to go anywhere, and they are certainly in no hurry to dry.

Every day is the same here. But that, and the fact that I can walk by at a pace slow enough to notice what I pass, allows me to learn of new things each day. It lets me become further established in my life here. It allows me to teeter on the edge of new and familiar.

Beyond the gates of my residence, my nerves are, for the most part, on edge. I worry that each man that passes me by is going to pull out a knife or a gun and put it to my head demanding that I give him everything I have. It seems almost comical that this is my fear: but it’s not a joke and that means it isn’t funny. I look around like a nervous dog as I walk down any sidewalk. If I hear steps behind me, my own quicken. I don’t look anyone in the eye, and I have learned not to say hello and smile kindly. I’ve learned to pretend like I know what I’m doing, to pretend like I have a purpose, to pretend like I’m not nice, to pretend like I don’t have a heart when they come begging.

Despite having to remain in this constant state of paranoia, though, I have never felt so at peace than in this place. Here, I know what it’s like to breathe. I know what it’s like to sit and have nothing to do but think, be still, write, or just listen to music. I go to bed early here because I want to and I can. Not because I need to. I don’t have American-Dream demands tugging at both my wrists. My shoulders feel less tense than they have in, seemingly, years. My time doesn’t need to be planned out and delivered in portions to demands I am obligated to fulfill.

And this, I have a feeling, is the way much of South Africa lives. I can infer this from the literal pace they walk at every day. We Americans have had a tough time walking behind a native; they walk like they have nowhere to be. And though we don’t either, we feel we should at least look like we have somewhere to be and things to do.

This leisurely way of life is nice, yes – it’s even rejuvenating. But it seems to come at a cost.


South Africa as a destination for study abroad is a destination only because there is a wealth of information to be learned by just living here. It requires that you have already an understanding of the global economy and a base understanding of developing nations.

South Africa is not a destination for study abroad because the education is top quality. It’s not.

Frequently, Matt, Madison and I find ourselves commenting on the lack of standards in a university that is supposed to be of high caliber. Our professors expect little of us. They tell us what to read and they tell us what we read when we get to class. Going to class may be “compulsory,” but it’s really not. You don’t need to go to class to learn here. The professors, save for a rare few, hardly add anything to the quality of education. There is a sad lack of dialogue between students and professor. Questions asked by students are basic, asking only for clarification. It seems that they are not encouraged to critically think on their own. Classes here revolve around a textbook.

Students here lack the basics – those basics that we, in America, learn even before high school. On one of the first sessions of one of my senior-level classes we had a lecturer come in and tell us how to write a paper. She told the class what an introduction and conclusion must contain, how to link paragraphs using transition sentences, and how to cite sources – things we learn no later than our freshman year of high school and hone throughout the rest of our educational career.

Madison had a professor address her students because in some papers turned into her students had cited themselves as a source. That same teacher complained out loud that the standards of the university had been lowered because half of the students in the humanities faculty failed.

The frequency of testing is much lower than I have experienced in classes at home. I have one class that has five-question tests every week over one chapter in the book. He is sure to tell us that these are difficult tests and that students need to study for them as they would any other test. But come the test, the questions ask nothing that involves thinking beyond what is plainly written in the text. If you read, you’ll do fine.

There is a sense of apathy among students. This is revealed in the absolute silence that follows when a professor asks a question – even a question about the current affairs of these students’ own country. Students’ low standards for themselves are only reinforced by professors that don’t seem to care one way or the other. There is hardly any relationship between professor and student here. And it clearly hurts the education of the students.

The University of Pretoria is considered the top university in the nation. We are at the Harvard of South Africa. And yet we struggle to find the school challenging. The professors only direct our eyes at what we need to see, and other than that they are unnecessary. We teach ourselves everything. Going to class has become a waste of time – so I don’t go. I go to two of my four classes because attendance is taken. The content and lecturing of the other two are elementary.

We are not students of our professors, or of the institution itself. We are students of South Africa while we are here.

I try to refrain from being a “typical American” who thinks that everything should be done our way. I don’t believe everything should be done our way. But I do believe, and the other two Americans agree, that the American institution of education – and especially university-level schooling – is something worth praise. While the quality of education is not evenly dispersed among Americans, generally speaking it is high.

Our elementary schools and high schools may be at a lower level than other countries’, but we at least have top-quality universities to reinforce our lower-level education institutions. The university culture that has been created in America is one in which all parties involved are dedicated to high standards. There is an atmosphere of competition in American universities, something I don’t sense in our South African university.

I had a long discussion about this with two of my new Zambian friends who work at the car wash right beside my coffee shop down the road.

Immediately upon meeting them I felt they were different than other people. They were warm and congenial – asked me questions, remembered my name, stood around to talk to me for a long time. It wasn’t that they were “interested” in me; they’re grown men, one even introduced me to his wife. That one moved to South Africa eight years ago from Zambia; the other moved only three months ago.

Their English is clear and grammatical. They seem well-educated and have a firm understanding of the world. The one, whose name I have completely forgotten so we’ll call him John, has been all over the world. They are both fascinating to listen to; their perspectives on things in South Africa, as outsider insiders, add an interesting dimension.

They asked me what I thought of South Africa and how it compared to what I expected from it.

I hesitated in my answer.

What I had expected was something I thought would be more “African” – warm and inviting people. Other than that I had no expectations. And that one expectation I had, I told them, was greatly defeated. I have spoken with the other Americans, and we all agree that it has been a challenge to find our way into “society” – into our university’s society. People are rooted in their own niches, and they aren’t looking to invite anyone else into them.

The Zambians wholeheartedly agreed with me, saying for them, in their country, people are always looking to greet each other, to invite each other over for dinner, to talk and talk and talk. Coming here, they told me, took some adjustment – no one looks at anyone else, no one says hello, no one cares to care. We hang out with each other, they told me, because it’s hard to make friends with anyone else. And furthermore, they say, it’s impossible to trust anyone else.

To look across campus in the student center, where everyone lays in the grass and sits at picnic tables, is to see a racially and sexually segregated population. There are black, white and Indian, separated by race and ethnicity. And those groups are further separated into male and female, save for couples. The divided history that has bred them is revealed conspicuously in their present lives. Even in class, the international students have all noted the separation. I looked across my classroom one day and saw blacks on both sides and whites in the middle. The mingling of our races is minimal.

There is not one international student who has found a niche in the wider Pretoria society. We have befriended each other, and these, the people who are our neighbors, are the people we spend our time with. Beyond that, making friends is difficult. There isn’t an outreach to the international students – not a tangible and effective one. So we sit on the sidelines and watch the racial interplay – or lack thereof. And it’s fascinating.

But I can’t paint such a terrible picture of this nation. As John and I agreed, this place has so much potential. But a wheel can spin when it’s stuck in wet mud. Even if the engine on the vehicle is working, it won’t go anywhere. Foundational reparations need to be made – starting with the educational system.

John and Francis, the other Zambian, told me that only fifty percent of South African elementary students make it through school; only eighty percent through high school; and one percent through university-level education. Those statistics are probably rough, but I wouldn’t think reality to be far from them. There are always jobs in the paper, John said, asking for employees. But those jobs require high-education, which a vast majority of South Africans don’t have. Such a lack of education has, it cannot be doubted, contributed greatly to the critically high (documented) unemployment rate of 25 percent. And beyond that, such educational deficiencies have inevitably contributed (among various other historical and current international and domestic factors) to the fact that South Africa remains at a status of “developing nation.”

Maybe my faith in education is too overplayed, but its effects can empirically prove lasting and beneficial results. There is, I think I will forever believe, nothing greater than education. It is the key to possibility. Its inexistence or deficiency is just a locked door, behind which opportunity stands waiting idly. This philosophy is what drives me to dedicate my life to being that teacher that delivers keys out to children who will inherit their towns, their cities, their states, their nations, their continents, their world.

Globalization proves to be a problem. It intertwines economy with all other facets of domestic life and culture. States can’t join the ranks of global trade without permitting domestic changes, dictated by the economic powers at be, to happen. If a state wants to become a major player globally, it has to start at a foundational, domestic level, in compliance with – inevitably – Western principles. Such principles can only be infused into a population through mandatory education.

It means the slow-paced life of African countries, namely those seeking a valid position in the global economy, can’t continue on that way. There must be a dedication to work; there must be a standard of efficiency and healthy competition among the population. Young students must be given opportunity and encouragement to be ambitious.

What drives young Americans is a capitalistic dream. And as much as I hate capitalism, its defeat is not going to come about through revolution. It will come about because of inevitability if it is to come about at all. For a healthy economy and thus a healthy citizen life, a nation like South Africa must adopt those traits that can make it viable. From the perspective of empiricism, those traits are clearly American traits.

I don’t think I know what I’m talking about anymore, so I’m going to stop.


We couldn’t go to Mamelodi last week because there was a huge strike. Teachers want an 8.5 percent raise, but the president promised them 6. They aren’t happy. So school was cancelled.


New Character Introduction:

There’s Chris from Kenya, who lives in House 12 in my neighborhood. He is a riot. He’s like a host straight out of an American TV show. Like Ryan Seacrest but better. He thinks I’m like this sweet, innocent little “minor” – the “beautiful girl from Oklahoma!” He talks so fast I often have to do a double take. He asks a million questions at a time, wanting to know all about me – how’s my mom, where is my dad from, do I like South Africa, I must miss my family back home, what does my boyfriend study, how did I get such a fit figure, how am I doing today, what do I eat, am I a vegetarian, what do I do for fun. He’s a graduate student. He thinks I’m just “so cute!” and such a “good little girl.” He tells me I’m the “hot American girl from Oklahoma” with such Hollywood animation I can’t do anything but laugh when he says it. Every time I see him he’s with another girl, but he has a girlfriend. She’s very pretty and calmly at ease. He introduced her as his princess and then said her name, but I couldn’t say it again much less write it out.

I like Christ from Kenya. I think he loves women, but in a respectful way, because I think he loves his woman a lot. He seems to find people fascinating and it makes him incredibly outgoing. He will stop me every time I see him and talk to me, about me, for as long as I’ll let him.

Twice I saw him today, and I stopped for a long time both times to chat with him and the girl he sat with on the bench. We all went to his house for some nasty flavored blueberry cheesecake ice cream. Another girl came over and we sat around talking about religion and other things. They asked me if I go to church, and I told them I didn’t. They asked me what I believe, and I was reluctant to expound. They promised they weren’t judging and that they were just curious. I told them I believe in God but that I’m not a Christian. I told them I’m on the search and that I’m not worried about finding truth. The girl that had sat on the bench with Chris outside said she was in a place of questioning her faith, even though (or maybe because) she had grown up in a family of pastors and Jesus-freaks. We shared a mutual fascination with one another because of our individual foreignness and circumstance.

There’s Shepherd from +27 Design Café – the place I frequent every single day. Shepherd works there and makes my coffee. For him, yes means no and no means yes. He oozes sarcasm.

Shepherd has a sideways, close-lipped smile. I can’t imagine him outside the trendy café in which he works every day. He fits it, look, attitude and all, to a T. He has a quiet voice, and he talks quickly with a heavy accent. But he is kindhearted and good-natured. He wears patterned shirts, slacks and a brimmed hat.

He can’t pronounce my name, so he conveniently calls me “B.”

I order four things at the café: a coffee with hot milk, a chai-tea latte, a cappuccino or a Turkish delight. When I order, he says “No,” but he makes it. And he serves whatever I order in a simple mug on an artistically simple plate, and he draws a perfect picture of a flower or a heart or a dog or a dragon in the foam. If I ask for white sugar, he brings me brown, because he says “it’s healthier.” I roll my eyes and take it and he laughs.

When I finish my drink, he looks in the mug to see if it’s gone, then takes it while asking “A nudda?” Always, I say no, no, I can’t! He smiles because he always knows what my answer will be.

Shepherd and I have become friends. We display our sarcastic muscles at each other, make jokes and pretend to be mad.

I’m sure there will be more to come.

There is a feeling of detachment here. I am living a life, but I stand in the corner and watch it happen, and later I write about it. I think that I will travel as an author of my life and the lives of others. But I will always have a home base, where I can come back to and remember that I am incorporated in the weave of involvement. I have friends at home. I know the laws. I know the roads. I have family at home. I know where to find things in the grocery store. I know the food, and where to go out on a date.

There are two things that are fundamental to development: familiarity and discovery. Abroad, I am an explorer; but at home, I am an expert. I love both.

I’ve reached the stage in this journey where it has hit me that I’ll be here for the four month duration. I left when it was the peak of summer, and I’ll return when Christmas is right around the corner. It scares me to come home to lives that have been living without me in them. But there are things I can’t wait to come home to because they’ll be different.  Only here do I sit in a mellow wait, anticipating from a far-off distance the new beginnings and finished ends.

So this is the way life goes. Here, I am a scientist and I can see the maze from some higher point of view. I am 10,000 miles away from my life. I can see how its undulations evolve. Pictures scroll on my computer’s sidebar, and at the same time I come to terms with those images being only memories of lived times. Is it scary, is it relieving or is it exciting to know that life is passing on into new stages and new seasons?

I’m happy that I was the only one laughing and waving at my family from on stage at my high school graduation.

Where are you taking me now?


August 9, 2010  National Women’s Day


I learned one thing from this trip: Men always have ulterior motives, no matter how nice and sweet and innocent you may think they are. Of course, I already knew all that, it was just displayed blatantly as a kind reminder over the weekend.

It’s always good to be woken up every once in a while.

It was seven in the evening before we made our way out to find a mini-bus to take us to the big bus station. Nighttime had fallen as it is wont to do at such early hours.

We were American tourists – it would have been fitting had that label been written on our shirts and on our foreheads and on the butts of our shorts just in case someone missed the front. We walked along the road with huge backpacks and other carry-on bags. Perfect targets.

But we were going to Durban so it was funny. And we laughed at how stupid and confused we looked. We laughed and we laughed, all the way down the road outside our residence. No mini-buses were driving past the corner, so we trekked down to the other end – the sketchier end. Our laughter dissolved the closer we got until a more potent reality stopped our laughing at our vulnerability completely. Fear made us short-tempered with one another when we couldn’t find a bus and we were forced to walk up and down the dark road.

We packed into one, eventually, with ten other people. Our successful last-hope effort. A group of young boys traveled with us, holding small duffel bags. I asked the one next to me, who looked no older than 16, where he was going. Far away, he told me and said nothing more to me after that.

Pretoria Station is ghetto. It took us nearly an hour to check in and get our tickets printed. And then we stood around for another 30 minutes, waiting in a line without first-come-first-serve rules. Finally, we found our seats on the second story.

I rather enjoyed the bus ride there – for the most part. For the other part, I sat in an agonizing terror at the thought of the man next to me taking one final lurch of a lean in my direction. I thought of all the different things I might do if he decided to plant his head on my shoulder. It wouldn’t fly. And for a couple hours I was in misery over his proximity to me.

I was sure from the onset that the bus ride would be pleasant. I had a window seat right next to a fresh, clean woman. Before the bus began to roll toward our destination, however, she traded places with a he. A big black young man who had neglected his duty has a human in the twenty-first century to take a bath (if not for his sake, then at least for the sake of others). Immediately the odor found somewhere to cling to inside my nose so that the whole time I was either on the verge of barfing or holing my Pantene Pro-V’d hair up to my nose.  He fell asleep almost instantly, and that’s when he began to lean. My arms were almost jumping inside my torso, and I too began to lean in the same direction he was leaning. My face was screwed up in fierce animosity and frustration.

I swear if he touches me I will freak out. I will shove him, and I will yell at him to get the hell off me. Matters of proximity are never made better when you are trapped inside a bus for the whole entire night and into the early morning.

Ever closer he came to me and ever madder I was. He was an inch away from plopping onto me like a heavy, smelly, hairy rock, when he as if by magic snorted and popped up. My heart twirled in my chest, and I heaved a sigh of utmost relief. Thank God. Things were about to get ugly.

Beyond that episode, I slept soundly, listening to Damien cake my ears with gentle music so the rest of the snorts and baby cries were inexistent to me. I was woken every now and then by the lights and the sound of people rummaging through their bags so they could get off the bus. But instantly, I fell soundly back asleep. And, eventually, Bubba moved to another seat, so it was me and my very own for the rest of the trip.


“I will be dirty until Monday. Even though I just showered, washed my hair and everything. It smells like something dirty is hanging onto me. It could be the bathroom, which is right in front of my bed. The German took a dump about ten minutes ago, I’m pretty sure. That’s alright because I don’t mind being dirty for the next few days.

We’re all tired like children who spent a long day at the zoo. We got to Durban at 4:30 this morning by bus, and we waited for Ruben’s bus to bring him until about half past five. We managed to find a taxi to deliver the six of us to our hostel. Our driver was an absolute madman, but I found his negligence of red lights to be thrilling – even at six in the morning.

Of course, we came with absolutely no plan. We figured out transportation and we figured out accommodation, but beyond that it was to be free sailing. That’s what Africa demands, anyway: nothing but for you to sail along through the current – no matter how fast (but it’s never fast), so no matter how slow.   So when we arrived at the gate of our hostel with the comedic realization that there would be no one at this hour to let us in, we were left only to laugh. And shivering in the windy morning chill, we did. And we waited for any sign of life to greet us.

Life indeed came, in the form of a shocked British woman with ringletted black hair and a motherly concern.

‘Well what are you doing here?!’ she asked, her mouth agape and her neck twisting in every direction as if looking for whatever brought us there.   We explained. And she explained that she was just staying here and had no idea how to let us in. She told us to wait and she went away in search of someone who could help us.

Help came in the form of a long-haired man with an earthy essence. He, too, was only a resident – but at least one with keys.”


Inside, the British woman showed us the lounge area where we could wait until the owner of Hippo Hide came. She sat at the dining table, sipping coffee and asking us about ourselves. She told us that she’s lived on a farm all her life, so she’s always the first one up. She’s been around the world and back, with property in Europe and in South Africa. She farms sugar among other things.

She looked like a mother or an aunt or something. But she was the cool kind of aunt who travels the world just because she’s a farmer and she can or should. She loves to travel, she tells us.

Hippo Hide is like a jungle house. We walk down big rock steps to get to our lodge, inside which 11 beds wait for new bodies to crawl into them. People inside are sleeping when we enter, so we quietly tip-toe around them and find our own beds to crash into.

My eyes are shut and my conscious is closed within less than five minutes of lying down.


We wake up that same morning to a gray and windy day.

Our new characters deserve an introduction.

There is Ruben, who I’ve already told you about. He’s been to two or three Olympic games as a middle-distance runner. He’s from South Africa, so he is our tour guide. He brings with him two backpacks full and one massive suitcase for a three day trip. He is sponsored by Nike, so everything he wears is Nike. He dresses better than any of us, without a doubt.

Ruben is kind and thoughtful, loves people and wants to know more. He’s driven, determined. He likes to have a plan – even on vacation.

And then there’s Ferdie, real name Ferdinand, from Germany. Ferdie has baby skin on his face, with little black whiskers under his chin that I’m not sure he knows are there. He has Aryan features to the T – authentic blond hair and blue, blue eyes.

He has an oval face, and a rounded belly. He wears drab, winter colors – neutrals. Ferdie trails behind us as we trek all across town, holding up the rear. He doesn’t talk often, but when he talks he keeps going. And when he laughs, his head bobs as if on a stick. If you make a joke with him, he won’t laugh. He’ll stand stoically as if you have said nothing. He gets riled up easily – over small things – because he likes things to go accordingly. His temper is quick, but harmless as a punching teddy bear.

You never know what Ferdie’s thinking. Could be anything, could be nothing. He’s a literature and history major.

For the most part, he’s silent. But if he’s feeling something, he’ll tell you.

He orders a Coke first without ice. And then he orders sparkling water, also without ice. Never fails.

His German accent dressed in his higher-pitched voice gets me every time. Sometimes I love the kid because he’s so quirky, and other times he drives me insane.


We walked no less than ten miles on the first day. We walked around and around in every wrong direction until we finally stepped into sand. I didn’t care about walking – I was on vacation, and I had nowhere to go. If anyone asked me what I wanted to do, I stepped away shaking my hands and head and point to someone else. I wanted no part in decision-making.

The boys (Matt, Ruben and Ferdie) were uptight the entire time. They wanted plans, they wanted transportation, they wanted time to stop, they wanted us to walk faster, they wanted to know what time we wanted to do whatever, they wanted to do this, they wanted to do that, they wanted to know what time to wake up tomorrow, they wanted to know if there was a way they could stop the hands on their clocks from turning.   Madison, Jamie and I walked along slowly; we shook our heads at their agitation with time. We were on nobody’s watch, we had no schedule, and we certainly didn’t want either.

We were content on the beach, the beautiful Indian Ocean beach, where we stayed for the duration of our trip. The palm trees twisted in the wind and waves crashed one on top of the other. We walked up and down the shoreline, taking pictures and loving the ocean breeze knotting up our hair. We frequented a pub/club/restaurant each day and then got ice cream dipped in chocolate from downstairs.

Durban feels like another world – a fantasy away from Pretoria. It’s beautiful, it’s sunny, the people are sweet. It’s a big city, with people walking down every street, vendors selling fruit and other products, and mini-buses and other cars whizzing by without heed.

I felt like I was in Africa.

And the whole time I wanted Reston there.   On the last night, in our pub/club/restaurant, I sat across from a couple madly in love with each other. I watched them like I was watching a sappy romance, and I wanted to cry. His hand around her waist, their lips finding every chance to come together, her whispering in his ear…  I hated them.

“I hate every couple I see here. Like that one,” I told Matt. He looked across at them, looked at me and said, “Me too, sister. Me too.”


Our second day on the beach was divinely FREEZING. Freezing in my terms. We woke up to beautiful, sun-shining weather. We got to wear shorts, and I wore a tank top. It was like a bit of home on our bodies. We walked all the way to the beach again, through the winding streets of the old city.

When we got to the beach, we stopped at our pub/club/restaurant for some lunch on the second-story balcony. We took entirely too long to eat lunch – because African food service is slow – because African mentality is slow paced and relaxed. I didn’t mind a bit. I’ve learned to enjoy the time as it passes slowly. I know that when I go back home, it will whizz past my face again. So I like to sit, doing nothing but waiting and enjoying the view.

We watched some human acrobats do some street performance, clad in nothing special at all. A man had apparently been training his children since they were tiny toddlers to do these stunts and whatnot so that they could make a buck. He had a crowd around him and his children as they climbed upon one another and writhed in abnormal ways. Spectators dropped change into his can. And after the show he let his two kids get an ice cream.   After lunch, we stripped down to our swimming gear on the beach. The wind was roaring around us. And I was absolutely freezing. Me in a bathing suit didn’t last long. I even ensconced myself into the sand while the others (minus Ferdie who sat in the shade) went and frolicked in the waves. That little guide book that told me Durban had year-round warm water was lying. Because the Indian Ocean is frigid. I only let it touch my toes. The others were all up in it – at least, as much as they could be in it. A lifeguard passed by and told them the waters were closed because they had spotted sharks that day.


As I stood watching the crazies play in the water, some men came and took pictures with me. Awkward. They wanted to take me to “Zzzzaaambia!!” where they were from. But I was firmly planted in the sand.

We walked all across the shoreline and stopped to get some coffee. When we got home that night we went to a real Indian restaurant close by (Durban has tons of Indians and, not to mention, the world’s largest mosque). I had the spiciest meal I’ve ever eaten in my life. I stupidly asked the waiter for something really spicy, forgetting that just plain old Indian food is spicy enough.

It was amazing though, despite the fact that tears were streaming out of my eyes and I had to gulp down water between bites. We all feared, however, the after-effects of spicy Indian food. I assured everyone that they would not be using the bathroom in front of my bed at the hostel.


Transportation in South Africa is…different. It’s fun if you ride the way black people ride – mini-bus style. You will never see a white person in a mini-bus. But that’s the way we travel. Mini-buses are made to fit about 10 people, but they inevitably transport about 15-20. It costs absolutely nothing (at least not in Durban), and it’s the thrill of a lifetime.   But sometimes it’s unsure if you’re going to get where you need to go…

On the third day we hopped on a mini-bus after asking if it would take us back to Ridge Road.

Ridge Road?

Yeah, Ridge Road.

Can you take us there?

Ridge Road?

Ridge Road.

Yeah, come on.

That was basically a verbatim dialogue between the “bus assistant” and Ruben. Evening is falling quickly on us, which means that night is following closely on its tail. We pile into the bus – all six of us. And ten more people pile in, too. We start driving toward the highway.

I’m squished in the back corner seat and they’re speaking another language as well as English, so I don’t really know how it came to happen – but the bus driver and assistant didn’t know of any “Ridge Road.” Ruben says that he asked the man if it could take us to Ridge Road and he said yes. So a little skirmish starts up and everyone is talking over everyone – all in different languages and English and whatever else.

And then Ferdie chimes in…

Ferdie, already an uptight character, does not do well under pressure – even mild pressure. Let it be known, that we could easily have stopped on the side of any road and picked up another three rand mini-bus to take us where we needed to go. But Ferdie is up in arms.


Madison and I are hiding our faces in shame. This is what happens when men handle things.

Ferdie does not stop at that, he proceeds to tell the bus people that he will pay a “special price” if they just take us back to Workshop (the bus stop) or to Ridge Road.


Madison and I are mortified.

But Ferdie has, of course, picked up the attention of the bus driver people. Okay, okay, okay, they say, we’ll take you where you need to go.

Let’s make a long story short and just learn from the moral of this story. Yes, the bus driver got us to Ridge Road somehow. And yes, Ferdie had to pay roughly fifteen dollars for a bus ride that should have cost 30 CENTS. The lesson: You do not ever, ever tell African people – or any people not in your own country – that you will pay a “special price.” You will be taken advantage of. Simple as that.

Needless to say, Ferdie learned his lesson and continued to drive me nutso from then on. Madison, Matt and Jamie had to stop at a pub before we got home. So Ruben and I sat drinking tea and coffee talking about our future plans, while the three amigos had some drinks to perpetuate their buzz from the previous restaurant. Ferdie sat drinking a Coke looking utterly miserable and pissed off.


Now I’m back in Pretoria. Today’s National Women’s Day, so we had no school. Why don’t we have National Women’s Day? I don’t know, but we should.

For more on my previous days in South Africa, check out my other blog at

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