Exploring Florida Culture

A wise man once said that “one safari leads to another” (Oscar Mbogo Paschal). When we were told we had to evacuate Kenya do to COVID, we were not given instructions on where to go. All we knew was that the rest of our program was online and we could not remain in their country. Any country not at a level four travel advisory was fair game. So, with an SIT stipend in hand and endless possibility before us, we were Florida-bound.

In true Tanzanian fashion, our time in Florida saw us going on many excursions. It wouldn’t be a true SIT program without hands-on learning. After all, how else could we hope to compare Florida beaches to Kenyan beaches unless we spent extensive time there? This approach also necessitated the visit of many fishing spots, boardwalks, and a theme park or two…

By happenstance, the place we ended up staying was nearby a boardwalk system through the Florida mangroves. Still having the crab itch from my ISP only a couple weeks prior, I couldn’t resist documenting some of the local species.

In between writing all of our papers assigned by SIT, we even managed to sneak away to Universal Studios in Orlando for some R&R. Over two days, we braved the 97˚ heat to explore both Universal Studios and Universal’s Island of Adventure parks. I would recommend coming at a time where you don’t need to wear a mask as they became stifling in the heat. My favorite ride ended up being Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. You really feel like you are flying!

So far as food goes, Florida did not disappoint. The island we were on had fantastic restaurants and boasts the world’s best donut place with the Donut Experiment, I agree 100%. When we felt adventurous, we would go down to the local pier and catch some fresh snapper.

I love to fish. Snapper from the pier was fun, but after that mahi mahi we caught in Kenya, I had my eyes set on something bigger. Luckily, some local contacts were able to get us on some tarpon and goliath grouper. Tarpon can weigh up to 250 pounds and the largest goliath grouper can exceed 700. To fish for these species, we had to stay out late at night and from a bridge. We would begin the night by fishing for our bait. Then, we would use that fresh bait to try and entice the bigger fish. We never did hook into any goliath grouper. Several times we had tarpon on, but were never able to land them. The way they fight combined with our angle from the bridge resulted in them constantly spitting the hook. Nonetheless, it was a thrilling experience.

While we certainly did our due diligence with hands-on learning experiences, we managed to squeeze in a lot of school work as well. During the month we spent in Florida, each one of us had to complete one reef conservation plan (20 pages single spaced), one semester portfolio (18 pages double spaced), one research proposal (16 pages single spaced), one ISP report (36 pages double spaced), and one research journal (22 pages single spaced). Time was definitely on a budget, but you couldn’t ask for a better place to gator done. It felt good when it was finally all sent in.

All in all, this was one heck of a semester. COVID did its best to throw us continuous curveballs but looking back, I’m not sure I’d change a thing. I have managed to learn more, see more, and experience more this semester than any previous; all the while making lifelong friends. I could not have asked for a better conclusion to my four years at Hope College. Speaking of conclusions, with the altered time schedule, I was able to make it to my graduation ceremony!

There are so many people that deserve to be thanked for making this wonderful semester possible, they are listed in the video below. I would also like to thank everyone who took the time to read these blog posts. I hope you enjoyed reading them as much as I did compiling them.

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ISP Week

SIT is a school for hands-on learning experiences. One of those experiences offered across all of their programs is the Independent Study Project, better known as the ISP. Under normal circumstances, the ISP involves a prep week, three weeks of data collection, and then one week to work on a paper. Under COVID circumstances, they gave us one day for prep and three days for data collection…

Given the situation, I chose to study mangrove crab populations within the Mida Creek mangrove forest. I chose this study given our pre-existing relationship with one of the beach guides there named Hassan. One other student chose to study mangroves at the same location, which gave us the opportunity to work together.

The First day we arrived on-site, we spent it getting the lay of the land. Hassan took us on a five mile hike through the mangroves. The mangroves at Mida Creek are separated into three distinct zones characterized by specific species of mangroves. Part of my study was spent trying to figure out if crab species were also confined to specific zones.

Below are some of the crabs I was able to categorize on my prep day with Hassan’s help.

The following three days were spent collecting data. Data was collected using a transect and quadrat method. In simpler terms, this entails laying out a long line (200 meters in our case) which is our transect. Quadrats (which are just squares of predetermined size) were then placed every 20 meters along our transect. Everything that landed within the quadrat was sampled and recorded. I wrote down all species of crabs I saw along with their numbers while my partner Gilley recorded the mangroves species present.

During those three days, we sampled one zone a day. What we didn’t know ahead of time was that the third zone was actually on an island. By the time we figured this out, we were already into the third day of sampling. Luckily for us, Hassan had a few connections up the creek.

Once across the bay, we were able to collect all of our data from the third zone. We even managed to meet some local fisherman who gave us some fresh squid.

Now that we had “all” the data we needed to complete our paper, it was time to celebrate. Our class spent one last farewell cruise on our now loved Waka Waka before heading out the following morning. Thank you Kenya for all you had to offer!

Below is an extra video I thought worth sharing showcasing thousands of soldier crabs

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Free Time around the Coast

Taking the SIT Tanzania mascot for a tour around Kilifi
Taking the SIT Tanzania mascot for a tour around Kilifi

Our free time around Kilifi was far and few in between, but we made sure to make the most of it. Activities in the immediate area included tuk tuk rides around town, trips to one of the local beaches (sometimes waaay too early), walks through the mangroves, and rides on the Waka Waka, which was a traditional sailboat operating out of the channel. Being on the Hope College sailing team, the latter was definitely my favorite.

I’ve always loved to fish, and so it’s only natural that I would put out my feelers to try and source local opportunity. We got lucky with our guide back from our Mida Creek excursion. This guide just happened to know a few captains who agreed to take us out for a day of sport fishing at a nice price. The boats were a bit smaller than we were used to, especially given the swell, but it was well worth it.

We ended up bringing back the biggest mahi mahi back to Makuti Villas for their chefs to prepare. Anything extra, which ended up being most of the fish, was a gift for their hospitality.

Dr. Rose managed to arrange a day trip to Mombasa on our behalf. Mombasa is a large port city just over an hour South of Kilifi and contains a very rich history. Throughout the last 400 years, Mombasa has changed hands from the locals, to the Portuguese, to the Arabs, to the Germans, to the British, and now back to the locals. As part of our trip, we got to see Fort Jesus, visit the historical Portuguese district, shop at the oldest spice market in Tanzania, and visit Haller Park with all of its exotic animals.

The hippo on the right in the picture above is an adult female. Before Haller Park, she was kept as a pet until one day she threw a temper tantrum and crushed the family volkswagen!

Below are some extra videos showcasing some excursions in greater detail, enjoy!

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Coastal Ecology

As soon as we were able, our professors got us back to learning ecological research methods, only this time it was in water. With the help of local guides, we were able to visit a variety of marine parks in and around the Kilifi area. Local seagrass expert Dr. Charles headed up our field data collection while Dr. Oliver and our activities coordinator Oscar were along to assist.

The first place we explored was Jumihija Beach just South of Kilifi. We spent the day sampling the seagrass beds in the reef protected lagoon. 3, 100 meter transects were laid in roughly 1 foot of water. We then recorded shoot density, variety, as well as proximate invertebrates. The highlight of this excursion was getting to eat a sea urchin halfway through, that is, until I realized the only edible part of a sea urchin was its genitals. Still, the salt water helped drown out the taste of gonads and it wasn’t bad.

The second place we went was a place called Mombasa Marina Park. This place was by far my favorite. Mombasa is located roughly 1.5 hours South of Kilifi, and is a bustling coastline city of over 1.2 million people with a rich history. Upon entering the city, we were driven to a beach where we boarded a clear bottom boat. The boat took us about a mile out to a seemingly random spot, that is, until I peaked beneath the waves…

The goal of this excursion was to understand how to sample fish populations under water. This was done by placing 3, 50 meter transects along the seafloor using a giant tape measurer. We then donned our snorkel gear and began to collect our data.

Data was collected by slowly floating along the transect and recording all fish species we saw along the way. We also recorded estimated fish length as well as how many there were. With the amount of fish present, this would have been difficult for an experienced researcher. As someone who had never seen these fish species in my life, it was interesting. My data sheet was riddled with the numerous species I was able to identify such as the “yellow blacks” and the “not clown fish”. Luckily the point of this exercise was the methodology involved and not the accuracy of our results.

Overall, the day was a huge success! Despite shortcomings, we managed to collect huge amounts of data to be presented on later. I still cannot believe I get to call this school. As if the day wasn’t already cool enough, a camel was awaiting us on shore to take us back to our cars.

Lessons from the Concrete Jungle

The New York Arts Program has flown by like a whirlwind. This whole experience felt like just a couple of weeks even though it was four months of living in the city. From the slightly chaotic start of figuring out my new life to settling into the city culture, NY has equipped me with new tools and perspectives. Below I wanted to share two main takeaways from my experience in NY, and its impact on me.


Over the past few months, I had the opportunity to make many new relationships and get to know some great individuals. Although this added a lot to my experience there, it also pushed me out of my comfort zone. As I began reaching out to small groups from different churches and meeting up with people for coffee or outings, I constantly found myself in spaces where I didn’t know anyone and had to initiate relationships. These moments pushed me to adapt, and live beyond my feelings of doubt and nervousness. Of course, I wasn’t always successful in that and failed many times, but each moment was one that has shaped me to become more confident when venturing out of my comfort zone.

Doing these things showed me how rewarding the other side of fear can be but also how to pick myself back up when things dont turn out the way I expect.
Pushing myself to initiate new relationships outside my usual friend group has grown my confidence and independence in creating community around me. It has given me the tools to face similar situations in the future, and has taught me how to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.


The first few weeks in NY, my mind was occupied with being in a hurry to create a community in the city and make new memories with friends; spending time alone was definitely not on my radar. But as soon as everyone slipped into their daily schedules, I found myself with a lot of time on my hands. Seeing this rare opportunity, I decided to try to go on small adventures on my own. This mostly consisted of long walks in central park, window shopping, and exploring more of NY. Although these things are simple, they created a space where I could begin to grow the relationship I have with myself, and learn to enjoy my own company.

Doing this showed me how easy it is to forget to steward the relationship I have with myself and get caught up in other relationships around me. But by setting aside time to spend alone, I learned that the time I invest for myself is just as valuable as the time and energy I pour into others.

Central Park

One of my favorite places to go in New York was Central Park. One of the very few perks of COVID was that our program moved to different dorms located in the Upper East Side. This made Central Park only a short walk away from home, and I’m so grateful for that. Whenever I didn’t know what to do with my day or if I had an extra hour to spend between work and school, I would speed walk to the park. Especially after a long day of work staring at the computer for seven hours straight, I would book it to the park to spend some time there before the sun went down. The park was like an escape for me. An escape from all the hustle and bustle of the city and a nice change of scenery. In addition, the dorms we lived in offered zero privacy, so it was the perfect place to go when I needed some alone time. 

One of my favorite parts of the park was how quiet it was. As soon as you entered the park, it was like the city around you melted away. It was like stepping into another world. All the sounds of cars and honking, suddenly disappeared and you were surrounded by nature. And the park is much bigger than you think that it would be. I was constantly discovering new things about the park every time I entered. One time on my way back from the Upper West Side, I somehow stumbled upon a beautiful rock archway in what felt like the middle of the woods. The paths of the park had turned to dirt and the trees were thick, making the air cool and dense. No matter the season too, the park was gorgeous. I got to witness the transition from winter to spring and I was shocked with how quickly everything bloomed and turned green. For being such an urban city, New York does a great job at making sure their green areas bloom.

Kilifi Life

We finally arrived to Kenya on the 13th of March. We got to Kilfi in the evening following an 8 hour drive; we were all tired, sweaty, and ready for bed. The next morning, we got to see just where SIT had elected to set us up for the foreseeable future. So far as quarantine accommodations go, we were not disappointed. We were staying at a place called Makuti Villas, pictured above, and that little island is where I liked to do my work such as working on these blogs. Kilifi Kenya is a mid sized city located an hour North of Mombasa on the Kenyan coast. It is a place that is known for its beaches, but most importantly for us, its coral reefs as well. All the students, including myself, couldn’t wait to finish up quarantine and get outside the walls!

Some COVID drama ended up extending our quarantine an extra couple of weeks but eventually we made it out. Even a place as amazing as Makuti starts to lose its charm after a few weeks cooped inside its walls. The company wasn’t too bad though. It included my cell mate (the guy next door who also had COVID), a local stray cat who we named COVID, and the resident monkey troop. You had to watch out for the monkeys though, they had a tendency to steal your toast when you were not looking…

I managed to get entertainment out of the monkeys despite of their thieving habits by arranging obstacle courses for them on the old playground equipment out front. I would incentivize them with bananas duct taped in various places, which provided much laughter for me and those around me during my sentence. For those concerned about feeding the wildlife, this particular troop of monkeys lived in the heart of the city and was adapted to live almost entirely on human food because of it (for better or worse)

When we finally got out, our professors were anxious to get everyone back on track and this meant lots of excursions. I couldn’t be happier! One of the first places we were taken was to the mangroves at Mida creek. On our tours through the mangroves, we were educated on the different species found within the area as well as all of the types of crabs and other creatures that rely on them. I made sure to pay especially close attention during this portion because I plan to conduct my Independent Study Project on crab species richness and diversity as they pertain to mangrove type. We managed to hit the mangroves at low tide which meant we had extra time to walk around and explore.

Some of the other places we managed to hit included the Mnarani Ruins (circa 1400s), the Arabuko Sokoke forest (where we got to see the endemic Sokoke Scops Owl!), Local Oceans sea turtle rehabilitation center, Arocha Kenya reef and forest research center, as well as numerous other types of reefs and other marine ecosystems, the latter of which will be covered in another blog post. We managed to cover all of this in about a week. Due to the uncertainty of our programs future with COVID, everyone is trying very hard to prepare us for our Independent Study Projects as soon as possible. 

Now that I am finally out of quarantine and have gotten a taste for Kilifi life, I cannot wait to see what kind of fun I can find in the next few weeks.

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The Season of Cherry Blossoms

I was excited to be able to witness the cherry blossom season in South Korea. The cherry blossom season is typically between the end of March and the beginning of April. This year it came earlier than expected and did not last long due to the strong winds blowing the cherry blossoms away. During the beginning of April, there are festivals and outdoor activities held to celebrate this joyous season. However, due to COVID, the government decided to cancel those events. Even though the outdoor events were cancelled, people were still able to enjoy the cherry blossoms, all throughout Korea. Both locals and foreigners look forward to this season because it only comes once a year, and it is a great time to take lots of pictures. I was lucky enough to be able to see and take pictures of the cherry blossoms.

During this season, you can see cherry blossoms anywhere around Korea, but the best places to see them are Seoul, the city of Gyeongju, and Jeju Island. Since it is once a year, stores and cafes use this opportunity to sell cherry blossom products. I was able to go to a café where the drinks were cherry blossom-themed. However, this is only for a limited time. It’s really nice to see all the pretty cherry blossoms thought Korea that everyone can enjoy.

Artists Block

Unsplash images- Justyn Warner

A message for my creatives.  Have you ever been through a creative desert? A place where inspiration and motivation seem to have dried up completely, but you still have the task of creating before you? Although constantly surrounded by art in NY, for some reason I felt more overwhelmed than inspired. Days and weeks roll by without having picked up a pencil or paintbrush, leading me to be hard on myself as an artist. This wall of unproductivity is something that I often encounter and many of you may sympathize with. Throughout this trying time in my studio practice, I have found two points that have helped me get going again in my artwork.

Look inwardly before creating outwardly.

Unsplash Images- Sasha freemind

Art is often an expression of our personal experiences and what is inside of us. If we are going through an emotional turmoil or our mind and heart is not in a healthy place, our art will often be a visual reflection of that. Creative work takes energy, emotion, and intentional thought; when I am in an emotionally drained place, I often see that my art quality declines. It’s easy to find myself overwhelmed to finish all of these projects so I end up not doing anything. During those times, taking a moment to clear my head and breathe has been an agent to break through unproductivity. Practical things that I do to assist are going outside for a walk, talking to family or friends, and meditating/praying.

Spiritual Breakthrough is Creative Breakthrough

Unsplash images- Amaury gutierrez

My relationship with God has always been the foundation of my creative practice.

Spending time with God before creating reminds me that he is the ultimate creator, therefore he is the expert for my creative process (Gen 1:1). This time also gives me a space to address the noise in my head, and find peace in the often overwhelming search for breakthrough. Giving it all to God and letting him guide me in my practice, instead of my various thoughts and emotions, brings more clarity in my thought process and state of frustration (1 Peter 5:7).

These moments give me a space to be at peace with the fact that I’m not supposed to have it all together because as humans we were created to be dependent on God. It gives me the freedom to surrender and acknowledge my limits, and from that place of surrender create something beautiful with my creator.

Food Glorious Food

Walking down the streets of New York City your nose is bound to pick up some of the delicious smells wafting out of the restaurants lining the streets. These smells are a lovely break from the often overpowering smell of the trash and sewers, but hey you win some you lose some. Having spent about two months in New York now, I’ve tried quite a few restaurants, especially during quarantine when I couldn’t get any groceries. This being said I’ve tried my best to eat in as much as possible because New York is pricey, even groceries are robbing me blind. As hard as I’ve tried to be a fiscally responsible member of society, I have failed many times and splurged on a meal out. Here is a list of the top three places I’ve eaten thus far. 

  1. Emmy Squared Pizza

This place was actually recommended to me by the head of the New York Arts Program. My roommate and I had to quarantine for ten days earlier in the month, and on the last day of our isolation she very generously offered to buy us pizza. We told her we really didn’t have any place in mind so she suggested Emmy Squared Pizza. This restaurant has several locations in New York as well as other states in the east. We of course got delivery since we couldn’t leave our room. My roommate and I are both fans of white pizza which does not have tomato sauce. We both got the “Good Paulie” pizza which had caramelized onions, sausage, and smoked gouda on it. We enjoyed the pizza so much that we ordered the exact same thing again two or three days later. The crust was the perfect thickness; not too thin, but not too thick and fluffy either and it still had a nice crunch. I would highly recommend Emmy Squared Pizza.

  1. Tacombi

I discovered this place one day out on a walk around the Upper East Side. I was immediately drawn to the restaurant because the building looked like it was straight out of a Wes Anderson film; perfectly square and covered in bright colors. I took a picture and told myself I had to come back to try the food. Turns out the restaurant has a ton of different locations throughout New York and each restaurant looks so unique and retro. One night I had a real hankering for Mexican and I dragged my friends along with me. I got pork tacos and please believe when I said they were incredible. I will say the portions are rather small so make sure you order at least two (I got three). I also have to give a shoutout to their marketing team because I’m obsessed with their branding. The restaurant brands itself as a tropical vacation destination and when you get their business card it looks like a retro postcard from a beautiful getaway in Mexico. 

The Tacombi building.
The Tacombi building.
  1. Court Square Diner

I put Court Square Diner on this list for aesthetic reasons. The food was good, but not life-changing good. This diner was located in Queens, and it was the first restaurant I got to sit down and eat in. From the outside and inside, this place looked like your typical retro diner. The diner sits on a corner tucked under a bridge, but with its silver exterior and neon lights, it’s hard to miss. On the inside you have your typical bar with stools that I could imagine sitting at and ordering a black cup of coffee (if I drank coffee straight up). When we sat down, half of the table ordered lunch items and the other half ordered breakfast items. It was a very cold day, and a cup of coffee and french toast just sounded right to me.  

Outside of the diner.
Outside of the diner.