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Knowing Your Nature

Branches whip madly above my head as we walk along a mountainside that’s alternately damp, earthy forest and golden-haired meadows. With his growth potion (aka me – he’s on my shoulders) my young friend Kylan is among the trees. Kylan, when not making the most of his childhood, is an alchemist, who happens to make magic potions in lieu of gold. Today, he and I are working on a growth potion, presumably so he can be tall even without me around, which I guess means I’m making my replacement. Regardless, after seeing the results of his speed potion, which left me realizing how badly I’ve let myself go, I asked Kylan to teach me some alchemy. In the meantime, newly an apprentice, I scoured the forest floor for duckweed and pine needles and mysterious white berries.

As I worked, shuffling along the damp ground, I found out how much I normally missed, little duckweed (which I found out later wasn’t really duck weed) hid below shrubs and among moss, wolf lichen clung desperately to trees, and frail spiderwebs tied themselves to fragrant pine. This newfound attention to nature intrigued me and, eager to learn more about the alchemy that inspired this attentiveness, I checked out Gillot de Givry’s tome about the science called the Illustrated Anthology of Sorcery, Magic, and Alchemy. Upon leafing through musty pages right out of a Harry Potter movie, I was surprised to find a science deeply respectful of nature, a science which echoed my lessons from Kylan. The goal of alchemy was, “to penetrate the mystery of life” by looking to nature and imitating (De Givry 1973). What I learned from De Givry sounded more mystical than I’d previously imagined, not at all what usually comes to mind when I think of alchemy: “man’s vain endeavor to make artificial gold” (De Givry 1973). Alchemy of old, respected nature as teacher: “all the alchemists stubbornly repeat so often that their sole master is Nature,” says De Givry (De Givry 1973). Alchemists even went so far as to say that books aren’t necessary for learning from alchemy, one merely needs an upright soul and ears open to nature (De Givry 1973). Far from hermits crouched over bubbling pots with dreams of riches beyond belief, it seems alchemists respected and knew nature in a deep, almost spiritual way. After my time as an apprentice alchemist, I started asking this question over and over again: How can I get to know nature? What follows are a collection of stories that attempt to answer that question.

Back in the day, alchemists claimed to use ‘A single substance, a single vase’ to plumb the secrets of the natural world. In my time as a computer “alchemist”, things were a tad more extravagant. As modern-day Puffers (alchemists name for chemists), we used supercomputers and the buzzword of all buzzwords ‘machine learning’ to pick at the secrets held so jealously by the material world. The goal of our project was to predict what material combos were most promising for research, saving material scientists the work (and cost) of getting to know nature’s materials first hand. That was the goal. The reality was that we were a bunch of undergrads who barely knew what machine learning was and ran random models with data we didn’t collect about materials we’d never seen. Our models appeared to be predictive of something in the end, but none of us knew what, other than the fact a line followed a curve pretty damn well. We thought that computers could make our work fast and “know” nature for us, but it turns out they only disconnected us from the nature the alchemists imitated.

My experience as a computer alchemist shouldn’t be surprising. In our culture we glorify experimentation as the way of all ways and machine learning is the holy grail of experimentation. Computers can try so many hypotheses so fast, they guarantee a golden ticket to understanding. After all, the scientific method can solve everything right? I don’t think we verbalize this belief – nor the underlying belief that all our experimentation comes without consequences. The great experiments of our time – social media, cell phones, fossil fuels – have bit us hard and it makes me wonder whether the scientific method couldn’t use some of the funky reverence of the alchemists. If alchemists were lovers of nature, us Puffers were creepy weirdos who watched her from a distance with a calculator, converting our “love” into numbers we could easily understand from behind the safety of a screen. In our disconnection from nature, we hurt ourselves. In my case, we not only wasted time staring at screens and crunching numbers, we missed out on what Kylan and I discovered in the forest that day: a sense of wonder and the care that is listening. After all this, I can’t help but think our time wouldn’t have been better spent out picking what we thought was duckweed to make a fragrant potion, whose magic would teach us to notice the world around us. In that class we might have discovered less, but more worthwhile things.

I’m checking over the gray, cold body when I see he has a tiny penis, I think. I’m serious, it’s like the size of my thumb. Which I guess might actually be big for a poor little squirrel. Right above his tiny appendage, I grab a chunk of skin and saw away with my knife. This little dude’s life left him just a few hours ago. A big truck clocked him and his friend as they tried to cross the road. My friend here came out ok other than his head, which suffice to say, did not come out ok. His bushy tail jitters with false life as I slice up his gray abdomen to slip still warm organs out. With them gone, I start skinning him, laboriously pulling pelt away from muscle and bone. As his skin slips off like a well fit suit, I see an eerie resemblance between myself and him. We both have puny biceps and are sewn together with tendons and muscles which cover lungs and a heart, which precariously beats along. With the skin nearly off now I have to break off hands and feet and head and again I’m struck with a sense of déjà vu. My fingers search along the knee for tendons, tendons I later absentmindedly touch on my own leg, that is until I remember his. With all his appendages gone and clean, the pink headless squirrel does not look so different than I. I’m chilled by how accurate a picture of my own body I see below me. In this little life there is an odd resonance between my mortality and his. Annie Dillard once said, “You see the creatures die, and you know you will die.” I didn’t see this guy die, but I saw him dead and I knew him. More, I saw me in him. I am spooked.

Later I’m in the woods again, trying to wrap my head around another way of knowing nature, this time in the “sit and observe” way Dillard is so fond of. I try to sit and observe, I really do, but shortly after the sitting part begins an uprooted tree catches my eye and I’m drawn to it like a moth. The upturned roots speak of a hidden world below, a dark mirror of the one above. Tendrils of wood grasp vainly at the sky and a mass of little roots tumble from the tendrils like thick hair. I step into the hollow below and look up. I’m not used to looking up, being 6’ 4’’. It always comes as a shock, but here it’s extra bizarre because I’m used to looking up to tree tops, not tree bottoms. These roots feel like the underwear of trees, they tell you tons about them but it’s really not your business to know what goes on down there. I just kind of stare at the roots for a while, lost in wonder and feeling lucky and sad the tree had to fall.

Then I ask a rather obvious question: What the hell could topple a tree like this? Whatever it was I’m glad it’s gone. In another part of the forest I saw trees missing tops and imagined an immature giant running around with a sword, leveling trees in a tantrum. In reality, it was probably the wind, but that’s rather boring. Being a bit bored myself, I climb out of the hollow and onto the trunk of the tree where I decide to meditate. I slow my breathing and feel foolish for doing this standing up, but that thought flees in the fright of another one. I can feel breath on my face, though I’m alone. A breeze from roots long dead, cold and moist, mirrors my own breath. I know it’s probably just old wind at it once again, but I can’t help but feel spooked. As is usually the case when I try to meditate, I’m quickly bored, and the tree changes tones and beckons me down its length, which hangs suspended above the ground. With a shoelace hanging precariously untied, I make my way across in fits and starts. My terrible balance feeds grotesque visions of impalement on the many branches shooting up from below. Mercifully, I forgot these visions as I begin to bounce. Well, not at first do I forget. My first reaction is cold fear as I think the tree is trying to throw me off to be stabbed by his friends below. After I realize this isn’t what’s happening, I start to lean into this bounce. Slowly, a rhythm begins to reverberate between me and the tree. Before long the tree and I are in sync and what looked long dead seems to have new life. It’s like my bounces are a CPR that animates the tree for a moment, returning it to vibrant, exuberant life. It’s whole hundred-foot length is vibrating now, looking like a plucked string. My friend comes over and joins the rhythm and now we are really bouncing, shivering up and down with this tree we thought was dead but was actually slumbering, waiting to be awoken. The soles of my feet seemed to connect with that tree and I felt sure it was having fun, too. Life multiplied between us in a beautiful resonance. Here, with this tree, I felt a sense of life, even in death.

A day after my time as an apprentice to Kylan and a few days before I met my tree friend, our potion had sat overnight and finished. Walking to the back porch where it lay, Kylan was a wonderful mix of excited and serious and I was just plain curious. I’m shocked back into the childhood wonder I lost when I grew tall after I get a whiff of the pungent lemony potion. All those ingredients distilled into a smell to savor. It’s not gold, but it’s still remarkable. These plants, a random mishmash of things incorrectly named or nameless, came together to form an experience I will treasure. I can never look at the forest floor the same and while that also isn’t gold, it is priceless. Just as valuable are the lessons I learned: to listen and keep it simple. Through said lessons I heard a lively dead tree with fun on offer, a deadly resonance in roadkill, and the true sound of that artificial buzz of screens. Knowing nature is not easy, but important. Now I ask you: How do you get to know nature? I hope for your sake it doesn’t involve male roadkill.

 

It’s the Climb… or Three

Being surrounded by mountains is something new for me, but here in Cape Town, I have caught the hiking bug. I have really enjoyed spending a morning or a day climbing up one of the mountains here and being rewarded with beautiful views of the city. There are three mountains that are the most well known here and that sit right in the middle of the city. They are Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain, and Lion’s Head. Table Mountain is the most well known of the three due to its unique flat top. The three mountains together, famous for making up Cape Town’s cityscape.

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The three peaks (from left to right: Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain, and Lion’s Head)

Throughout the semester, I have climbed both Table Mountain and Lion’s Head a few times each. Last weekend, however, my friend, Noelle, and I wanted to take the next step. We decided to take on the three peaks challenge. This involves hiking all three mountains in one day. The official challenge requires participants to start in the city center and go back to the starting point to check in between each mountain. Noelle and I took the easy route and did the unofficial version, though, just hiking each mountain back to back.

Our day started early at 6:30am when we got to the Devil’s Peak trail. We had never hiked Devil’s Peak before, so we weren’t sure what was in store, but it was a beautiful hike. There were lots of flowers and bushes along the trail, and once we got closer to the peak they got thicker and the path got narrower, so we had to carefully navigate. It was not as long of a hike as we expected, which meant we got to see the beautiful view quicker than expected. From the top we could see the view of the front of Table Mountain, and if we turned around we looked down to see UCT campus with all of its orange-roofed buildings and rugby fields.

After enjoying the views and taking a quick snack break, we began our descent. About two thirds of the way down Devil’s Peak there is a path, which connects Devil’s Peak and Table Mountain. We turned onto this path and made our way towards Table Mountain’s Platteklip Gorge. We had hiked along this path before, so we knew the route to reach Table Mountain, and once we got here, up we went.

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Hiking from Devil’s Peak to Table Mountain

The climb up Platteklip Gorge is not nearly as enjoyable, as the views from the top. It’s a zig-zag path all the way up with big stair-like rocks. It is also a popular trail, making it crowded and congested at times. Nevertheless, we powered through with a positive attitude and reached the flat top of Table Mountain. The top of Table Mountain is beautiful, with lots of rock formations and various plants. Table Mountain has its own ecosystem of plants living atop it, with flowers, bushes, and other species that are unique just to Table Mountain. Isn’t that neat?

We roamed around the top of the mountain for a bit, admiring what is considered one of the new seven wonders of nature, before sitting down and eating our packed lunches to sustain us for the remainder of our hike. We had more one walk around before starting the trek down the gorge. You would think that climbing down would be a bit faster because you have gravity and momentum on your side, but the steep rocks and their smoothed surfaces from so many hikers make going down a slippery adventure. It took us just as long to hike down as it did to get up there, surprisingly only slipping once.

We then headed over to Lion’s Head to hike the final peak of the challenge. Lion’s Head is the easiest and shortest mountain to climb of the three peaks. Well, that’s if you don’t hike the two other peaks beforehand 🙂 We took the climb slow and steady, taking a long break to have another snack and watch other hikers go bye, cheering them on as they passed. After we had caught our breaths and given our legs a needed break, we continued our climb. A fun part about Lion’s Head is about two thirds of the way up is a fork in the road. You can either take a longer footpath route, or a shorter climbing route that involves chains and staples that have been installed in the rocks. We were feeling adventurous, so we opted for the shorter route, and lifted ourselves up the rocks with the help of the staples. A short while after climbing up and hiking along a bit more of the path, we reached the final peak!

Lion’s Head has one of my favorite views. Because of its location, a little bit separated from Table Mountain and closer to the coast, you get an amazing 360 degree view of Cape Town. On one side you see Table Mountain and Devil’s Peak. On another you get a clear view of the strip of beaches and the water. And in yet another area you get a great view of the city centre. We walked around the perimeter of the top, soaking in the beauty of each view while giving our legs some rest before making the final descent.

We then headed down, steadily and carefully, until we reached the bottom of Lion’s Head to complete the three peaks challenge! After a total of 9 hours out on the mountains, we finally made it. Our legs had turned to jello by the end, but it was definitely worth the great experience and accomplishment. It’ll be a big switch going from this mountainous city back to the flat lands of the Midwest, so it was good to get a full day of hiking in before heading back home!

Love Language

      Of all the barriers I could have expected from this study abroad experience, language was not at the top of my list. I think lots of people asked me about it, but for some reason I just didn’t put too much weight on it. Even throughout the first week or so, I didn’t really see language as a huge separating factor. My new friends, my host family, and all my instructors spoke perfect English. I consider myself someone who values knowing other languages, but I was taking Hindi. With everything else going on, I thought that just going over flashcards and participating in class was plenty of effort on my part. I don’t regret not pouring myself into more Hindi exposure and I don’t think anyone would have encouraged me to do so. However, after giving myself the space to adjust, I began to gain a new perspective on language.

     We were at a Pakistani refugee community in the Rajasthani city of Jodhpur when I first smacked into the barrier. I was sitting in a group of brave women and children who had risked everything to more freely practice their faith. I wanted to affirm them with the poetic voice inside of me and listen fully to their struggles and hardships. I wanted to find my role in their struggle and pour my love into their lives. However well-intended I was, I soon realized that by going into a community expecting to be able to contribute often takes the focus away from those suffering. As Bob Goff often says, “It’s not about you.” I have read all his books, I have preached to my fellow classmates on the importance of sustainable aid, and I have written essays on the “White Savior” complex. However, when language is taken away, I was left undeniably knowing I could not say or do anything for these people besides listen attentively to their voice, gestures, and the translator helping us to communicate.

      This experience helped me to realize how big and bold the language barrier was. In the future, I hope I am the kind of person who always works hard enough to start to move over it. However, I think there is so much to learn when two people stand on either side of the barrier but still try to communicate. There is a language without words that says more than any speech ever could. I see it when my host mom gives me a warm nod when my super-fast blabbering is hard to understand and when I spend five minutes laughing with a woman that speaks an entirely different dialect than I anything I have ever heard. I believe this language is the love language that is more connecting than separating.

      For the final month of my study abroad experience, I will be completing an internship at Kiran Society in Varanasi, India. Kiran means “ray of light” in Hindi and it serves to be just that for children of different abilities and of marginalized communities in the area. Through targeted educational plans and communal empowerment, they uplift children and those around them to a new point of togetherness and encouragement. I arrived two days ago, and I am filled with awe at the smiles, work, and growth of the children that prove this mission to be undeniably true. However, here I will encounter more language barriers than at any other time in my life before. Without the women I met in at the Pakistani refugee community, my host mom, and the many other people who I have clumsily walked through Hindi with, I would not be open to the value of this opportunity. I don’t want language barriers to ever prevent me from making new friends, loving new people, or learning new things. Here is to the next few weeks of diving into the love language, I will let you know what I find.

Ministerio de Fe

Chile. Venezuela. United States. Peru. Mexico. Dominican Republic. Haiti. Japan. China. El Salvador. Brazil. Spain. Argentina. All of these countries are represented in my church in Valparaíso. It is a Protestant Christian church that truly makes me feel right at home. It has been a wonderful way to make Chilean friends and always have people to turn to when I face the common struggles that come with studying in a foreign country. The people of my church have welcomed me with so much love and support and have truly shaped my semester in Chile.

The diversity within the congregation of Ministerio de Fe is something that I appreciate and value so deeply. Recently, our church organized an intercultural reunion where we focused on praying for the nations and getting a taste of new cultures. When I say taste, I mean taste. Every country created a stand where they decorated, dressed in the typical clothing of the country, and prepared and served traditional foods. After the service, all of the booths opened and the entire congregation could walk around our sanctuary and get a small idea of new cultures and begin to appreciate how distinct and special each one truly is.

I obviously represented the United States. My friend, Katrina, and I proudly wore our flannels, braids, and boots while we served our traditional peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Coke floats (they don’t have root beer here, so Coke had to do). We decorated with red, white, and blue, and tried to give people a tiny glace into our culture.

I was also asked to pray for Mexico, Peru, and the United States. I was able to stand in front of my entire congregation and pray in a foreign language for the deep needs of countries nearby. It was nerve-wracking and I wanted to turn down the opportunity, but at the end, it felt so good, broke so many fears that I had, gave me confidence in my Spanish, and stretched me more than I had imagined.

https://player.vimeo.com/video/299857461

Being a part of a church here in Valparaíso has blessed me tremendously and helps me to better understand Chilean culture as a whole. I have been able to form deep relationships with Chileans, but also with people that come from all over the world. I have been stretched to use my Spanish at all times and to engage with people that come from cultures very different than my own. Diversity is such a beautiful thing and I am so thankful that I get to contribute to the diversity of Ministerio de Fe. There’s not many things better than being welcomed with love into a new community, and having the chance to learn and teach at the same time.

Food Talk

My arrival in September was not my first time in India. I had the opportunity to join Dr. Annie Dandavati of the Political Science Department and fellow Hope student Tristan Tobias (‘19)  at the Global Liberal Arts Alliance (GLAA) Conference in Pune this summer for a week. I knew the traffic, busyness, and smells enough not to be shocked but India has still found ways to continuously surprise me. When I got off the plane and walked out into a dark and busy New Delhi, my system still did a back flip. Everything is entirely different right down to the pigeons and crows. New languages, car horns, and ways of culture seemed to grasp every inch of my attention until it was left over extended. I cried that first night in New Delhi not because I was sad to be there, but just because this seemed to be the only reaction that could summarize my spinning thoughts. However, in the midst of the crazy, I have found a new relationship that has helped me ground me when I needed it most.

I know a lot of people, myself included, have a very complicated relationship with food. I have spent much of my younger energy on criticizing what and how much I was eating. Although my mindset has come a long way, I would say up until arriving here, I still had a hard time appreciating my relationship with food. I never really acknowledged the partnership that it was. However, something about watching my host mom wake before the sun rises to start cooking for the day, tasting the violent spice of Rajasthani food as the desert sun beats down on my face, and actively participating in a society that values the ability to eat fully has greatly changed my outlook. At the end of the day, being able to sit with a family and appreciate a home-cooked meal has been my center as the world spun.

Growing up, my family would pray before meals, making a point to be grateful for the fact that we had food on our table and recognizing that many people do not. Although I still hold this practice and mindset, I think true appreciation for food goes much deeper. It’s not just seeing and recognizing those without food, but seeing and recognizing all the people and efforts that went into the food. When I lift a bite of a South Indian Dosa to my mouth, I think about the farmers, truckers, factory workers, and cooks that went into the spicy potato and vegetable stuffed lentil crepe. I think of the many steps that went into the exact taste in my mouth. In eating in this way, I am able to see the oil sizzling garlic and onion, the potatoes being roasted and coated in turmeric, mustard seeds being poured over everything, a pinch of cardamom powder bringing all the flavors together, and the final intricate flip of the ballooned Dosa.

A big philosophy in my life is “invite more people to the table.” I think this is what my faith calls me to do and what the world often needs. We don’t need to agree or hold hands all the time, but if we could just sit and share a meal, the world could be a much better place. However, I never really realized the importance of actually inviting food to the table. Each day brings new challenges and learning opportunities, but I now encounter these ups and downs with dedicated time to sit and share a meal with those around me.

Experiencing the History

Throughout my time in South Africa, we have learned a lot about the history of this country, including the struggles it has faced, the most prominent struggle being Apartheid, the system of racial discrimination and segregation. We had the chance to visit the Apartheid Museum, Mandela house, Robben Island, and District Six.

At the Apartheid Museum, we began by receiving a ticket indicating whether we would be white or non-white. This served the purpose of replicating what separation and segregation was like during Apartheid. After the entrance, we regrouped with the people who we were separated from and walked down a pathway with sections of “we are” statements. These included “We are thinkers”, “We are fighters”, “We are storytellers” as a way to display that we are all human despite our race. This was a powerful entrance to the museum that prepared us to learn more about Apartheid and the consequences of it.

The museum was quite large and a bit overwhelming with the amount of information it held. But, it was still a good overview of Apartheid and I learned a lot from it. Racial discrimination and segregation have been present in South Africa since colonists arrived, but Apartheid began in 1948 after the Great Depression and WWII. The ANP political party (made up of whites) won the election and implemented stricter segregation laws throughout the country. They did not only separate whites from non-whites, but divided blacks by their native tribes and coloureds. By the 1950s laws were put in place that separated families of mixed race and interracial marriages were outlawed.

In addition, land was taken from non-whites to give to whites, forcing them out of their homes and into worse neighborhoods and housing. This is what happened to those who lived in the District Six neighborhood in Cape Town. We were able to visit this neighborhood and their museum to learn about the injustices their community had faced.  There were stories shared throughout the museum highlighting the families that had lived in District Six for generations and were forced away from their family’s history. They were given very short notice and often couldn’t carry more than a suitcase, as you can see below.

These forced removals occurred across the country in cities and in rural areas, as well. Because of the constant build up of injustices, like these, there were countless oppositions to the white supremacists and the government, including strikes, protests, and demonstrations against the actions of the government. Nelson Mandela was one of the most influential anti-Apartheid leaders during this time. A member of the African National Congress (ANC), Mandela lead this organization’s campaign by organizing protests and speaking out against the Apartheid laws.

After 69 people were killed by police in a peaceful protest, Mandela formed a new wing of the ANC known as MK. With this new party, he planned a campaign against the government which involved him illegally leaving the country to attend a conference. Upon his return he was sentenced to prison for 5 years. During the first year of his sentence, evidence was found in the ANC hideout that further implicated Mandela, causing him to be sentenced to life imprisonment.

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A memorial at the Nelson Mandela capture site, near Durban, where he was captured after returning from the conference.

The first 18 years of his sentence were spent on Robben Island, which we got the chance to visit. This is an island off of the coast of Cape Town, similar to Alcatraz in California. Most of the political prisoners of this time were imprisoned on Robben Island with Mandela. We were able to see the living conditions the prisoners lived under and were even lead on a tour by a former political prisoner who was there at the same time as Mandela. The cells were tiny and there were no bathrooms, just buckets for the prisoners. Their only access to the outdoors was their cell block’s courtyard. Our tour guide told us that cell blocks would communicate with each other by hiding notes inside of tennis balls and “accidentally” hitting the tennis ball into the next courtyard. This continued until all of the cell blocks had received the message. We also got to see Mandela’s cell specifically, which is where he began writing his autobiography, “A Long Walk to Freedom”.

In 1980, the “Free Nelson Mandela” campaign began, calling for the government to release Mandela. The government agreed to free him if he was willing to make political compromises, which he declined. After conditions, protests, and demonstrations worsened during the 1980s, South Africa received lots of international attention that negatively affected their economy. This led the party in power to step aside during the election in 1989, and de Klerk was voted into office, where he freed all political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela and worked to end Apartheid.

Once Mandela was freed, he returned to his home in Soweto, which is now open to visit and known as the Mandela House. This small house only contains two small bedrooms, a living area with a gas stove, and a bathroom. Outside the house we were able to see bullet holes from shots taken at his house during Apartheid, and the house was filled with history, from awards Mandela had won, to hand written pages of his autobiography he wrote in prison. Seeing all of his life portrayed throughout his house and walking in the place that he lived was a unique experience and one I am thankful I was able to have.

Nelson Mandela did so much for his country and everybody respected him for being a man with such kind character and passion for justice. Due to his anti-Apartheid leadership and this respect, Nelson Mandela became the first post-Apartheid president of South Africa in 1994 and served one term until 1999, greatly helping his country transition into the post-Apartheid era.

Studying abroad in a country with such a recent history, only being out of Apartheid for just about 25 years, has been a very eye-opening experience. The legacy that Apartheid has left on this country is still very present. Inequality is still prevalent in many aspects of life (education, living conditions, healthcare, just to name a few) and the repercussions of it are very evident in the gap between the poor and the rich. I have learned a lot from how South Africa has been trying to mend the gap and bring equality to its people, despite the poor governmental leadership since Mandela. I hope I can continue to follow South Africa as they continue moving forward past Apartheid.

Nature at Home

Today I’m sharing a piece written by my good friend Will Lake who’s also here at the Oregon Extension. Earlier in the semester we read Annie Dillard, a nature writer, and were asked to copy her style of writing and observation. We each trundled outside and found a spot to sit as still as possible (not very still in my case) for an hour. Then we trundled on back and wrote about our experience.

I loved Will’s piece especially because he connected the idea of nature as home to our family homes. We forgot how well taken care of we are, how much nature does for us. Will’s piece captures well the guilt and remorse I think we should feel for ignoring the nature that takes such good care of us. Without further adieu, here it is:

I come down the valley on the path to the creek. I feel foreign here, alien, in a sense. I feel like a stranger coming into a house at dark, or better, like coming back home after too long away. I stumble, rumble, bumble and fall. I break bushes, I have no heading, I see no path, I make a ruckus. I fall into the creek. My pants are wet, and I sit up on a mossy rock while my socks dry.

It feels like coming home, sort of. Yet, I feel like I never quite lived here. It’s almost like I’m coming to visit my grandma after much time has passed. If I see it in this way, nature is my grandma and her house is wilderness, and today, I am visiting gram at her house: I’ve been away for too long; it’s probably been years. I overlook her house, passing it twice on the street. The lights are on, and the door is always unlocked. I walk right in like I own the place – I mean, I certainly wouldn’t think to knock. I stumble in, bumbling, tripping, slipping on knick-knacks and ancient rugs, knocking a glass bell off the bell shelf on the way in. It shatters, but I don’t care. Besides, there’s a million of them. I sit down at the table on her hard-wooden chair. I find tremendous comfort in the steadfastness of my grandma’s house, like I want to roll in the nostalgia that surrounds me, breathing in the comforts of old – the things here that always have been and probably always will be: the box of toys my mom had, the same kitchen table with water bottles filled with rocks so the dog wouldn’t jump. Don’t forget the smell, oh the smell! Had she bought the same air freshener for 70 years? I find it all deeply familiar. Yet, it is heartbreaking to see the things that have changed and died. No more laughing of grandchildren, no more Christmas mornings with the whole family, no more pierogi from the polish deli down the street. I find joy and sadness all the while. I realize how deeply my life is intertwined IN this very house. My mother, after all, was born here. Half of my genetic being lived here, toiled here, cried here, and yet, I am removed from it. Just a few, small memories are what have connecting me to this place, the place of my ancestry. Soon, grandma will move from the house, and when she does, we will sell it, her grandkids, that is. We will justify it for our college tuition, our needs unmet, and because that’s “the way of life”. After all, nothing lasts forever, not even grandma’s house.

Gram is at the table with all her wisdom and ancient beauty. I feel good here, full. I feel for a moment like I am a good grandson (for I have visited her, listened to her stories, acknowledged her teachings, and tried to preserve her in this way). And yet, my belly aches, and I know she has not a crumb I won’t have to rummage for. I start to feel like this is not my home. I feel separate. I get restless after an hour of pinochle. “This was fun,” I say. The sun is setting out her window and I feel even more uncomfortable now in her home. I long to leave. I love her, truly, I do, but night time here depresses me and chills me to my bone. At night mysteries fill her creaky corridors. I tell her I had a great time, and that I’ll be back again soon as I make up an excuse to leave. I stumble, again, towards the door, breaking more bells as I leave. “Never mind it,” she says. She is always giving. I leave with another “grandma check”. She has filled me up, sustained me. She does it, I suppose, because she wants to, or maybe because she wants me to come back. I feel guilty now. I stumble to my car and drive away in silence. I take for granted that she will be there next time I come, whenever I choose to return. I am comfortable again: my feet off the itchy shag, my butt off her hard, wooden chairs, and done tirelessly playing pinochle. I eat. I cash my check. Satisfied, I think of when I might go back.

I see the sun set over the creek. It is cold now, and I put on my jacket. I pick up my bag, put on my stiff-dried socks, and limp my way up the valley towards my cabin. I eat a warm dinner and crawl into bed. I am home.

Must’ve Been a Fairytale

A magical place. Massive green trees and extremely colorful flowers. A stone path leading to every building. Wooden cabins adorned with fire places and jacuzzis. The constant aroma of a campfire.

Our Cabin!

My program, CIEE, planned a trip for us to Pucón (I prefer to call it “Fairytale Town”) where we had the privilege to stay at a charming campsite just outside the city. Our first day there, we visited a Mapuche community (the indigenous people of Chile) and spent the day learning about the their simple lifestyle, their vision of the cosmos, and their deification of nature. The Mapuche women prepared a massive bonfire for us, a common tradition practiced with guests, inside one of their very important buildings. We listened as they shared about their culture and religious beliefs, which seem to be intertwined with each and every part of their daily lives. The experience was incredibly interesting and, as Chile’s roots lie in the Mapuche community, it helped us further value and understand the country, and its indigenous people, as a whole.

Mapuche Community!

On our second day in Pucón, we embarked on a tour of various lakes, rivers, waterfalls, and nature reserves. The most fascinating part of this day, for many reasons, was the Mapocho River. It’s original Mapuche name is Mapu chuco, which means water that penetrates the land. With aggressive rapids and water as clear as glass, this unique river flows in the opposite direction of every other river in Chile. We also toured the Futaleufú River, one of the premier whitewater rivers in the world, where I fulfilled a dream of mine that I will discuss later. It is fed by glacial snow and is often referred to as “a landscape painted by God”. The source of this turquoise river is located across the border in Argentina, but nearly the entire river runs through Chilean land. For years, the two countries have debated about which country owns the river. It once belonged to the Chileans, backed by the argument that it runs primarily through their land and ends in a lake on their side, but it now belongs to the Argentinians because the river’s source is within the borders of their land. (I’m going to be honest, I’m still trying to decide if it is fully valid to say that I was in Argentina because I entered the river… I think I’ll say yes).

In the Futaleufú River, I fulfilled a dream of mine… I went white water rafting! It was exhilarating, terrifying, freezing, and life-changing all at the same time. Despite the freezing rain that decided to make a guest appearance on our journey, it was an unforgettable afternoon. I was slightly nervous due to the fact that all safety procedures were given in Spanish, and I was almost positive that at least one person in my group didn’t understand some crucial part of the explanation. However, no one fell out of the raft, no paddles were lost, and no instances of getting stuck between rocks or trees occurred. We did run into approximately four large rocks and had to assume our emergency position, all the while hoping we wouldn’t die, twice… Yet, we conquered the challenge and it felt incredible. Now I can say that I went rafting in an extremely beautiful and clear river, with powerfully strong rapids, flowing in the opposite direction of all other rivers, located in Chile but belonging to Argentina… I’d say that’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.

As I said, the trip was magical. Even strolling through Pucón was enchanting. We walked streets full of large ice cream shops and vendors selling handmade crafts. We observed families congregated at the lake with their sweet treats in hand. We saw wooden street signs bearing images of volcanoes and gazed at the city’s backdrop of snowy mountains. As the sun shone down and the scent of bonfire lingered, I couldn’t help but question if I was dreaming. I could live in Pucón, without a doubt. Who knows? Maybe I will…

What to Say, What to Keep

When the voices of friends and family ring through my ear over phone call conversations that fit into the narrow space we have between time differences, I am often at a loss of what I want to sound like. I love being here and I could go on for hours about my sweet and welcoming host family, my intelligent and kind new friends, the deliciously spicy food and elaborate art, and the sounds of car horns, yelling vendors, and religious music that is my new constant background. I have been greeted here with so much love and curiosity that it gives me a whole new perspective on what it means to welcome and to love.

However, there are also things here that make my heart want to throw up and keep me up late into the night without any concrete thought to take them away. My journal is filled with pretty paintings of what I see and words of what I hear, but there are also long trails of thought that don’t seem to point anywhere. There is sadness here and it comes alive for me in poverty and in pollution and in the unmovable systems of hierarchy and caste. I feel okay to share this because this is manifested in different ways everywhere from New Delhi to the greater Hope community.

However, I still don’t know what specifics to vocally bring home. Maybe I won’t until I get there. Maybe it is taking away from being here to think too much about it. Yet, I think the internal conflict I am struggling with is worth bringing to light. What sadness do I share and what do I keep for others to find and observe when and if they come here?

As I began to prepare for my time abroad, I also began to accumulate words to put to the Western perspective of India. People would greet my “I am leaving to study abroad in India!” kind of excitement with worried faces and remarks suggesting that India would never be a place they would want to go to. This mindset is a threat to not only seeing the world in a holistic way, but to how one sees one’s own country as well. I want to share my experience fully with the people I love, but I know there are details that my words could never accurately depict.

So, I suppose my strategy is to share the excitement and the love, and more than anything else, my admiration for the people working to fix the problems that are hardest for me to come to terms with. These people are the hope and the progress I want to share. I have witnessed and gotten to know some of the most intuitive solutions and NGOs. People working not only for their community but for better models for the globe to follow. At the end of the day, I think my words will have to be carefully chosen as I describe my time here, but I am learning that this is a practice I should undertake when I am talking about all people, all places, and even myself. We all deserve the grace of being described with love first. As I struggle with finding the words to represent my time here accurately, I plan to focus on the name of the place that brought me here: Hope.

 

First Program Trip – Berlin and Warsaw

I am going to go out on a limb and guess that you did not get to bed before 10 pm on your 21st birthday, and I am probably right. I, however, had a slightly different experience. For one, the only thing you get in Germany for turning 21 is the ability to legally rent a car, so it is not nearly as significant as in the U.S. In addition, I had to be ready to leave for the Freiburg train station by 5:45 am for our first week-long trip with our program.

Germany has a large Turkish minority, and one of their major contributions to German culture is the introduction of numerous döner kebab places, the best of which is Mustafa’s

The train ride to Berlin took about 6 hours, during which many of us got to get to know each other better, listen to music and read, or (the most popular choice) sleep. After arrival, we were confronted by the extensive public transportation network in Berlin and managed to locate two very important things. 1) Our hostel and 2) The best döner kebab place in town.

The contrast between the base structure and the glass dome on top of the famous parliament building is very representative of the combination of old and new throughout the city.

We then were taken on a two hour walking tour of Berlin which started at the Reichstag, the German parliament building. Our tour guide then took us to see many famous sights in the area including the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. As we made our way through the city, our tour guide stated that during WWII, roughly 80% of Berlin was destroyed. In fact, much of Berlin is filled with modern-looking buildings and looking back, I would argue that it was more similar to most big cities in the US than it was to Freiburg.

We had to go back to check out the Brandenburg Gate again to see it at night. Very impressive.

This line of cobblestones marks where the Berlin Wall once stood. Behind is the Brandenburg Gate.

Checkpoint Charlie. Featuring me.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews, a very powerful monument.

The next day we took a visit to the former Stasi prison, where the GDR (former East Germany) held many political prisoners and dissenters for interrogations. This ruthless prison was hidden from the public and many forms of psychological torture were used by the Stasi to get what they wanted from their prisoners.

The basement of the Stasi prison nicknamed The Submarine because it was all underground and prisoners never knew what time it was. Prisoners were crammed so tight into these cells that they had to stand to have enough space.

After eating another kebab for lunch, we heard from a political analyst on Germany’s role in the European Union and went to the East Side Gallery to check out the artwork displayed along a long stretch of a remaining portion of the Berlin Wall. The following are some of the highlights I saw

In English: “You have learned what freedom is, never again forget it”
The famous picture of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev giving the East Germany President Erich Honecker a massive smooch.
This section in particular seemed to be very popular amongst the instagrammers…

After hearing from a German professor from Stanford University about the German perspective on the migration crisis, we had plenty of free time to spend around the city. Another aspect of Berlin’s rich history is the plethora of fantastic museums located right in the city.  Though it has been going through major renovations, the Pergamon Museum has incredible displays of historical architecture and artifacts from the times of ancient Babylon to the Roman Empire. The Neues Museum was another museum I visited, and it is the home of the famous bust of Nefertiti.

The Ishtar Gate was a gate to the inner city of Babylon built during the time of King Nebuchadnezzar II.

 

You are not allowed to take pictures of the Nefertiti bust from any closer than I was, but this artist found a loophole by making a beautiful drawing instead. Unfortunately he didn’t leave the room while I was there, so I could not take a picture of his art either.

After our time in Berlin came to a close, we took another train out to Warsaw, where we would be for the next two days. Upon our arrival, we made a quick stop at our hotel and headed straight to the city center for a walking tour with our hilarious Polish tour guide who went by the name Jack. For some reason I had a hard time believing that this was his given name, but he was funny so we just went along with it.

If you walk to the front of this tower you will be in the main city center of Warsaw where you can find a statue of a significant figure in the city’s history above a fountain.

By the time we finished our city tour it was dark outside, and we made our way to another beautiful square for dinner. Most of the city was destroyed in WWII, so almost all of the buildings around us had been built (or rebuilt) in the last 70 or so years. Thanks to some precise artwork from an artist before the war, the buildings in this square were intricately repaired to appear almost identical to what they were before. In the center of this square, you will also find a statue of a mermaid who was said to have lived in the waters of the Vistula river that runs through the city. Some claim that this same mermaid is also the inspiration for the story of the Little Mermaid, though the mermaid statue in Copenhagen generally gets credit for being the true source of the tale. Unfortunately this is the extent of my mermaid knowledge, so I’ll leave you to re-watch the Little Mermaid and decide for yourself…

The old town market square – the mermaid statue is slightly visible in the bottom left of the photo.
A classic Polish dish of pierogies and a local beer was a delicious way to finish off our first day in Warsaw.

Much of the next day and a half in Poland was spent doing class-related activities, like meeting with experts on Poland and it’s relations with the European Union. One of the most common topics was the ‘immigration crisis,’ and we heard from both sides about why Poland should or should not be doing more to help refugees looking for help. We heard the Polish perspective from representatives from The Polish Institute of International Affairs, who supported a very strict immigration policy for their extremely homogeneous nation, and for the first time in our program were confronted with lots of ideas that went against the EU’s opinions and goals.

We also got to visit the Museum of the History of Polish Jews and the Warsaw Rising Museum, which was about a resistance uprising led by the local citizens in Warsaw to try to oust the Nazi troops near the end of the war. The idea was for them to revolt in time to take the city just before the Russians arrived to ease the Russian push west, but the plan failed. Allies managed to send in bombers with care packages, but the Russians never got there in time and after a month or two of Polish resistance members controlling parts of the city, the rebellion was suppressed.

The center attraction of the Warsaw Rising Museum was this RAF Liberator – one of the types of bombers used during the dangerous missions the Allies sent out to supply Polish resistance members.

Just like in Berlin, there was not enough time to see everything I would have liked to, but both museums were fantastic. On our last day we made sure to eat even more pierogies, capping off a full week of incredible food. By the end, however, we were all looking forward to getting back to Freiburg and sleep in our beds again.

A group of IES students I got to explore the city with during our time in Warsaw.