Saturday, July 15, 2017

Jamaica


In August of 2014, my sister and I were fortunate enough to visit Jamaica for a very dear friend's destination wedding in Montego Bay at the stunning Half Moon Resort. We were doubly blessed because we got to spend quality time with family friends whom we don't usually get to see, and because Jamaica is simply spellbinding. Although we didn't get to sight see as much as I would have liked to, staying at the resort itself was a wonderful experience. We did at least get to visit an incredible bio-luminescent lagoon, where we proceeded to pretend that we were in Dragon Ball Z as we splashed around in the glowing water. (This is not me, but I didn't get any good photos so I'm using this one.)

Dynamic Featured Image
Photo Credit: Glistening Waters 

The room that my sister and I shared at the resort was simply decorated but very classic and elegant. The staff at the resort were unfailingly polite, helpful and added many little touches such as picking fresh coconuts for us to drink in the morning (while also impressing us with their dexterity at climbing and cutting into the coconut with machetes without slicing off their fingers)! The food was delicious, and there was such a wide variety of food that I had never tried before like bread fruit and saltfish and ackee (Jamaica's national dish) and sorrel (hibiscus sabdariffa) drink.




The amenities and activities available at the resort were also noteworthy. We had a small private beach area in the back and a communal plunge pool in the front, and the water in both the ocean and the pool were so comfortable that you could jump right in without any shock to the system. The wedding itself was short, simple and sweet, and the setting was lovely with a beach backdrop and small pavilion area for cocktails afterwards.




I did wonder with all of the open spaces how the resort would fare if there was a major tropical storm or hurricane, but I hope and pray that the resort managers have a well developed disaster preparedness and evacuation plan. I also hope that the employees at the resort are compensated fairly and treated well, but these are things that are difficult to determine in a short period of time. Overall, I would highly recommend a visit to the Half Moon Resort and also exploring outside of the resort if you have enough time. Generally, I am not a big fan of "the resort experience", but I thoroughly enjoyed this particular setting, although I think five days of pampering were more than enough!

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Namibia

Namibia, stark but stunning landscapes, a photographer's dream. It is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. It is a good place to go and be alone with your thoughts, which is perhaps one of the reasons I am so drawn to it, in addition to its indescribable beauty.

My first visit to Namibia was on a road trip in 2008 with a group of five other young women. We drove from Cape Town to Windhoek with many stops along the way. Unfortunately, Namibia often suffers from drought and at the time oil prices were incredibly high so farmers had to abandon crops. We passed by a field of white pumpkins which we were told was going to be plowed over since it wasn't cost-effective to transport them for sale. We couldn't bear the thought of of them all going to waste so we ended up picking one without any clear idea of what to do with it. Several hours and hundreds of miles later, we ended up with a strange version of pumpkin curry which took hours to make since we had to roast the pumpkin. At least we got some good photos out of it...




Many years later when I returned in 2016, far more well-prepared than the first time around, my perspective was definitely altered traveling with Namibians rather than with a group of American students. There were pieces of history and experiences that I probably never would have heard about otherwise. For example, one of the places that we visited, Shark Island was the site of a former concentration camp for Herero and Nama people in the early 1900s. In a bizarre twist that indicates how humanity has a short-term memory and the general neglect of African history in the western world, Shark Island--essentially a death camp for thousands of Namibians in the early 20th century and a precursor to the Holocaust--has been turned into a vacation and camping area frequented by tourists. Sadly, most have no idea of what happened in the place nor is there a clear memorial or museum dedicated to the island's heartbreaking history.

(Source: Esther M. Zimmer Lederberg Memorial Website)

Namibia, as with many African countries, has a complicated history of colonization and and post-colonial conflict and identify formation that is still underway. Towns like Lüderitz for example have distinctive German colonial architecture, but have a surreal feel as if a small German town had been transplanted into a coastal desert area. And it is, undeniably, also a city in an African country peopled by African people. Not far from Lüderitz is the "ghost town" of Kolmanskop, which continues the surreal theme. It's a former diamond mining town that is slowly being reclaimed by the desert with buildings half covered by the sand while the paint and wood picturesquely deteriorate.

Doorways in a house in Kolmanskop
Another stop on our road trip was the Deadvlei (Dead Marsh) in Sossusvlei National Park, which is truly incredible. I couldn't help but think of Salvador Dali's painting The Persistence of Memory sans the melting clocks. 


Traveling around Namibia was the perfect way for me to celebrate finishing my PhD and to nourish my soul. I couldn't ask for much more from any place in the world, and I hope to return again soon and explore the northern part of the country.


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Kenya



I visited Nairobi in 2013 to attend the International Water Association's Water and Development Congress. As luck would have it, a friend and colleague at my university is from Nairobi and was gracious enough to let me stay with his family. Their hospitality was truly unforgettable, and I wasn't even allowed to help wash the dishes although I did try to pitch in when no one was looking!

My favorite part of visiting Nairobi was staying with my friend's family and spending time with them chatting around the kitchen table while preparing the day's meals, with Mexican tenovelas playing in the background. I remember one day, my friend's mom made this amazing vegetable dish using fresh coconut milk (sidenote: my friend's family are from Mombasa so coconut probably featured more prominently in the food they made than in other parts of Kenya), homemade chapati and fried fish marinated in chili and lemon juice. I was in food heaven. I later mentioned this to another colleague who was also attending the conference, and he was definitely a little bit jealous since he didn't get to stay with a family or get treated to such wonderful homemade meals. I've realized that as I get older, while I do enjoy "seeing the sights", the memories that usually stay with me are those personal connections and the rhythm of everyday life in another country.

My least favorite part was the traffic. You need to have a lot of guts to drive around Nairobi. Traffic lights are just a suggestion, and on the highway, due to the horrible traffic jams, off-roading becomes not a past-time but the only way to make it to your destination on time.

An aerial view of heavy traffic jam along Outer Ring Road in Nairobi. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE
Photo Credit: Jeff Angote for Nairobi News

Despite the traffic, I loved my experience in Nairobi. It's such a vibrant, fast-moving, rapidly changing city, and an economic and political hub for the entire region of East Africa. I say this with the utmost admiration, it is a city of and for hustlers in the best sense, in that almost everyone that I encountered had some kind of side business going or was seeking an opportunity to start one. An example of this was showcasing some local designers at a fashion show, a first for me at an academic conference. I liked the idea and the designs, especially the patterned fabric:

Fashion show at the conference gala dinner (October 2013)

My visit occurred shortly after the Westgate attack so people were on high alert and there were additional security measures in most places we visited. We had to go through metal detectors before entering shopping malls or hotels. Unfortunately, the attack deterred several participants from attending the conference and probably a number of other would-be visitors. While that wariness is understandable, it also highlighted to me some of the double standards that we apply to our notions of "safety" or "safe places". Many "developed" western European countries and Asian countries have unfortunately also been targets of terrorist attacks, but they do not generally experience wide-spread cancellations of travel plans as a result or get classified as dangerous unruly places. A similar response happened after the Ebola outbreak in many countries in West Africa. People coming or going to any African country were suspect, even though countries like South Africa which is thousands of miles away from the outbreak, never had any reported cases during that period while the US and Europe had multiple. As many of my friends would like me emphasize, Africa is not a country! On that note, I would highly highly recommend visiting Nairobi and other parts of Kenya which has so much to offer. Unfortunately, I only got a small taste of it during my two week visit so I'll have to go back for more.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Netherlands

Delft, Netherlands

Back in 2012, I visited the Netherlands as the first stage of my PhD journey as part of a multi-year multi-institute project on Sanitation for the Urban Poor in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia (quite a mouthful)! It was led by UNESCO-IHE which is based in Delft. I didn't have much time to go sightseeing as we were holding a week-long project kickoff meeting, but I do remember a few highlights. My first impression on walking around was that I had suddenly entered a land of GIANTS. Given that I am only five feet tall, and Dutch men and women rank as the tallest and second tallest in the world respectively that is not surprising, but I really felt a bit like Gulliver in Brobdingnag at times. 

Some of the things that I really enjoyed during my week-long visit were bicycle friendly infrastructure, beautiful architecture, maatjesharing and polite people. Bicycles are a very common mode of transport in most of the Netherlands it seems. Roads are designed with dedicated bicycle lanes and traffic signals, and drivers are very conscious of cyclists. There are also bicycle racks everywhere and plenty of places to buy bicycles, parts and accessories. Even in the rain many of people could be seen cycling, with groceries in side hanging pouches and children in tow.

Photo credit: Amsterdamized on Flickr

The Dutch architecture with row houses and lovely little detailing around the roof was also very charming, particularly given that the city was built around a canal.

Photo credit: Planetware
One fun experience that we had as a research team was getting one of my fellow PhD students, Sam, to try maatjesharing (soused herring). He had never had raw fish before, and was a little bit squeamish about it, but in the end he tried it and even ate it the "Dutch way".  Unfortunately, I seem to have lost all of my photos from that trip between changing phones and my external hard drive failing on me, but it looked something like this:

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Everyone we encountered was unfailingly polite and spoke impeccable English. I'm not sure if this was a factor of being so close Den Haag (The Hague) where the UN holds the International Criminal Court, but people definitely seemed used to encountering people from all over the world. 

My main complaint, which is more of an observation, is that like most of Western Europe, the Netherlands was very expensive. Fortunately, I received S&T from my university while I was there, and my flight and accommodation were paid for. Otherwise, it would have been a very expensive trip for anyone on a student budget to make. My favorite kind of travel is when someone else pays for it ;o). 




Places I've Visited or Lived in the Last Five Years

Places I've Visited Or Lived in the Last Five Years

I've been meaning to write about some of my travels for a number of years, but some how just never got around to it. (Sound familiar?) I've been really blessed to have the opportunity to visit many cities/countries in the past five years through my research and through personal connections. So I think I'll feature a post on each country chronologically and wrap up with some of my thoughts on why I love traveling so much. Just for some background, I grew up in the US, but have lived on and off in South Africa for the past seven years.

Thailand
Vietnam
Singapore
Mexico
Botswana
Indonesia (Bali)
Rwanda
South Africa (my home base from 2012-2016)
United States




Monday, June 13, 2016

What next?

Two of the most frequent (and dreaded) questions you're asked as a PhD student are:
1) How's your thesis going?
2) So what's next?

Depending on the day or week that you are asked, these questions can trigger mini existential crises and heart palpitations. (It's a bit of a crap shoot so if you're not sure where your friend is in the process, rather don't ask these things!) Fortunately, if you're making progress, these are welcome questions that keep you on your toes.

I'm almost ready to submit my thesis so part of me wants to do a happy dance, but then the other part realizes, "Oh wait, what am I doing next?" After more than four years of single-mindedly pursuing your thesis topic in the ivory tower of academia, you suddenly are faced with the paradox of choice (shout out to a professor from my alma mater).

I find myself in the tricky but privileged position of not only trying to decide what career path to pursue, but also where to pursue it? As an American who has now lived overseas for more than six years, I'm not quite sure where home is anymore. The aphorism "Home is where the heart is" holds a lot of truth, but what if your heart is divided? I love my family, who are mainly in the US, but I also have a seemingly insatiable wanderlust and desire to live all over the world.

I'll wait to see what opportunities arise and keep praying into these decisions, but I'm happy to dream about the possibilities. So what's the answer to the question? I don't know for now, but I'm happy where I am and grateful to be at this point.

To be continued...

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Thoughts on listening

Chatty Cathy, Little Miss Chatterbox, Big Mouth... yes, I have been called all of these things before. I recognize that is probably a problem. Something I've realized is that words sometimes spill out of me because if they don't, I feel a bit like a boiling pot about to blow the lid. Hopefully writing will be a better outlet for me than talking the ears off of my obliging friends and family.

I don't think that I am alone in this problem. In trying to address it, I came across a helpful article published in Forbes online entitled 10 Steps To Effective Listening. As a brief summary:

1) Face the speaker and maintain eye contact. (*caveat cultural context needs to be taken into account!)
2) Be attentive, but relaxed
3) Keep an open mind
4) Listen to the words and try to picture what the speaker is saying
5) Don't interrupt and don't impose your "solutions"
6) Wait for the speaker to pause to ask clarifying questions
7) Ask questions only to ensure understanding
8) Try to feel what the speaker is feeling
9) Give the speaker regular feedback
10) Pay attention to what isn't said -- nonverbal cues

The two points that I struggle the most with are #5 and #6. I struggle with #5 not necessarily because I think that I know best, but because I have a strong desire to help when I hear friends/family discussing problems. I realize, however, that it is often best to wait for someone to ask for your feedback or advice before offering it. Oftentimes, all the person wants is a listening ear. I also struggle with #6 because my thoughts tend to race ahead of the pace that the person is speaking, unless the person is speaking very quickly. I agree with what the author of the article wrote about pacing a conversation. The onus is actually on the listener not the speaker to hold back his/her desire to ask questions or to interject, and to allow the speaker to set the pace of the conversation.

I am hoping that I can improve in these two areas. Perhaps others will also find some of these points useful, particularly with identifying weak areas. In summary, God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Sharing our other selves

Something I've been reflecting on over the past few months, and which a friend highlighted to me at church the other day:

When you casually ask someone, "how are you?" how often are you prepared for a non-superficial response? We're often afraid of being vulnerable so we don armor or a mask to protect ourselves from prying eyes, gossip, or even for fear of being hurt by misplaced kindness. Expressing pain or fear is difficult to do. Perhaps we also hide the broken parts to shield others around us because to look at someone who is in deep pain, be it physical, emotional or spiritual elicits a complex mixture of sympathy, empathy and perhaps even disdain or guilt because we are unable to help. So we hide these parts away, and sometimes are grateful that others hide their brokenness. We look away, only allowing a select few, if any, to ever see.

Sometimes, that may be what's necessary to function from day to day, at least for a while. But ultimately, when we're ready to let people into those broken and hurt spaces, what we thought was ugly isn't as hideous as we thought it was. The broken shards that we thought could never be pieced together again miraculously start fitting together. We should choose wisely who we do let in, but God did not intend for us to go through life alone or to hide our faces from Him or others when we feel hurt or shame. He asks us to look at Him, to trust Him and offers to lift our heads, often using those around us to remind us of this truth. We just have to take that first step of acknowledging and sharing those parts of ourselves that we feel are too hurt or too unlovable to reveal. Then we realize that we are not the only broken ones. We are acceptable as we are, and there's healing in that first step.