Sunday, July 28, 2013

Part I: Rome if you want to

This post will be in 4 parts: Italy, Ireland, Switzerland, England.

My first slice of pizza in Rome

Airplanes are magical, aren’t they? About 22 flights ago, I am en route from Houston to Dubai. We are about 9 hours in, and at 2 am we begin to dance with a fair amount of turbulence. In my experience, it is a terrifying amount of turbulence that lasted for 2-3 hours…a geologic amount of time when you are in the air. I checked the in-flight route after checking my pulse (120) and we are somewhere over the Alps. My mind goes instantly to the part in the movie, Alive where the God-forsaken survivors finally succumb to eating the frozen butt cheek meat of their fellow downed passengers. Tears well up and I brace myself by gripping the arm rests and putting my feet against the seat in front of me. The cute little boy-child who shouted incessantly for the previous 9 hours is now screaming every time we hit an air pocket. A fleeting thought enters: “If I survive this thing and we’re stranded, I’m gonna bite his little frozen butt cheek first.” It is a low point. Crew members are asked to cease service and batten themselves in several times. I try my mantra: “rutted road, country bus, rutted road, country bus.” Don’t ask. It works often, but not when your stomach feels like it’s touching your uvula.
In love with the rooftops of Rome

When I get to my modern box of a hotel room in Dubai, I genuflect on the floor, face down and cry. I think of how I could make a life for myself in Dubai. I will not fly to Cape Town. There must be another way. A boat perhaps or maybe now is that moment when I decide to ride a bicycle from Dubai to Cape Town. I make international news, say I am riding for world peace or the Tranquilizers for All Association and no one is the wiser that I am just cycling away from my terror.

I still fly. I can’t say I enjoy it, but it is a bit of a necessary component to international adventure. Recently, I went on a sort of unofficial boot camp to face my fear of flying: 10 flights totaling 30 hours in 20 days. The first stop is London, just for the night. I have my first, and what I believe to be the best, tea and scones with clotted cream & preserves. I don’t make a habit of eating anything with the word “clot” in it, but this is exceptional.

The next morning is flight #2 to Rome. I take one bus and one train to meet my Italian friend that I met in the Bahamas in 2009. If I could have a younger Italian sister, Laila would be my first choice. She is sarcastic, loves pizza and coffee as much as I do, and rolls her eyes every time I try to correctly pronounce scordatelo, which roughly translates to “forget it.” Want to wait in a queue of 400 to go inside the Coliseum? Scordatelo. Want to wait in a queue of 1,053 to walk through St. Peter’s? Scordatelo. Want to buy a rose? A pope keychain? A squishy plastic pig that squeals when you throw it on the ground? Scordatelo. My favorite Italian word by far. I am in Rome for 3 days. While Laila works at the Explora Il Museo Dei Bambini Di Roma, I go on a 5-hour walkabout. Piazza del Popolo yields an array of iPhone-weilding tourists, gelato-eating locals, Michael Jackson impersonators, and teens playing tongue hockey under a sculpture that is most certainly judging them. As I roam through Rome, I cannot help but notice all of the graffiti. Is this not a global mecca for art? The graffiti is lifeless, flat and unintelligent. Banksy needs to organize some kind of intervention. I weave through the Piazza di Spagna like a lonely sardine in a shoal of thousands donning fanny packs, big bellies and fat cameras. 
Piazza di Spagna

After climbing several stairs, and going through the guantlet of smiling Pakistani men selling red roses, I stumble into the Villa Borghese and lie down in the grass. I teach myself a few things from my Italian phrase book that I will never be brave enough to use. I feel that I am ultimately wired like David Sedaris when it comes to language. My heart is in it, but my tongue mangles my well-intended pronunciations. As I butcher Italian under my breath, I ponder the landscape and watch people sitting, walking, riding and running. I watch one particular couple, on a pedal-power quad bike go over a bump in the road, which dislodges an object from the back of the bike. They carry on and I look all over the place to see if anyone witnesses it. My instinct is to yell and get their attention, but pride keeps me silent. I don’t want to give away that I am an American. “Hey y’all! Scusi!” never crossed my lips. I get up and walk over to the object. It is her purse. Again, I canvass my surroundings like a monkey about to take a sandwich off a table. I pick up the purse and bring it back to my tree: phone, ID card, wallet. I wait for an hour to see if they backtrack and then walk on to have a glass of wine on a rooftop bar. Just as I pull out their phone, it rings. A phone call from “My Love.” I answer and a man speaks. I reassure him that the bag is in good hands. We agree to meet at the obelisk, which is the equivalent of saying you will meet someone in Manhattan at the tall building. We are both Rome rookies, so I chug the wine, pay the bill and walk to meet them back in the Piazza del Popolo. I find the happy and relieved couple from Portugal. She is in a sweet white dress above the knee and he in a bowtie. They got married in Rome this morning. I give them both big hugs. We are all smiles for a few photos. He buys me a Pakistani rose and we part ways.
Me and the Newlyweds

In my estimation, I believe I rode the train 10 times, rode on a bus 14 times, traveled in a car 3 times, and walked about 11 miles. I attend one Buddhist meeting and watch an episode of Little House on the Prairie, both of which are in Italian and make me smile. Nothing like hearing Laura say: "Bene, ogni volta che ti infili il naso in aria con me, Nellie Oleson, che sta per ottenere un pugno!"  
Laila and I in an ocean of tourists gathered around the Trevi fountain

The food was by far, the best thing about Rome. Yes, yes, the historical architecture isn’t bad either, but when every landmark is literally crawling with tourists and accented with swindlers dressed in everything from mock Hari Krishna costumes to gladiator apparel…it just makes you want to sit on the steps with another gelato and call it a day. In just 4 short days in Rome, Laila assists me in consuming 9 slices of pizza, 3 bowls of pasta, 12 espressos, one lemon gelato, and 2 supplis (foodgasmic fried balls made of rice and cheese).
My free bag of pasta in San Felice
During my short time in Italy, I stay in Sacrofano with 3 lovely ladies and 4 cats. In Sacrafano, it seems everyone has at least a few olive trees, in which they harvest and take somewhere to get processed. Their 6-7 trees provide them with about 35 liters of oil per year. I stay with Laila and her mom in her hometown of San Felice. If you think of the shape of Italy as a boot, this sweet little coastal town is located near the shin. I buy 2 pairs of crocheted earrings that Laila’s mom made and gladly received a free bag of homemade pasta from a sweet old lady in a white coat. The best parting gifts ever. As I hug Laila good-bye and board my 14th and final Roman bus ride, I think, “How about another plane ride?” And as the Italian stone pines whiz past me on my very fast bus, I say under my breath several times to refine my annunciation and animation, “Scordatelo

Monday, May 6, 2013

Fountain of Youth Discovered in South Africa

Bereaville youth, Jayme-Lee hopped over riverbed rocks to catch up with me. She tapped me on the shoulder and smiled without saying a word. We were on a silent hike for the first 30 minutes. She showed me what she had in her hands. Berna-Lee caught up and we muffled our giggles. She knew I was on the hunt for heart-shaped rocks. She had one…another one weighing about 4 kilos. My backpack was already heavy with at least a dozen heart-shaped rocks. Where I come from, heart rocks are a novelty. Here in South Africa…not so much.

I have a history with rocks. I majored in Environmental Earth Resources at university and people often asked, “what kind of major is that?” And I either said: “it’s mostly geology sautéed in biology with a dash of chemistry and computer science” or, “it’s just a euphemism for oil & gas.” It was through this major that I learned to love rocks.  Most of my classmates dreaded our mineralogy tests and I secretly couldn’t wait for them. I longed to cradle bits of sky blue kyanite and vanadanaite the way that Carrie Bradshaw pined after a pair of Jimmy Choo stilettos. On my runs along the Trinity River in Ft. Worth, TX, I would often stuff bits of ammonite and worm fossils into my sports bra. After getting a flat tire on the Mombassa highway in Kenya, I picked up a couple of bits of basalt. A chunk of shale from Ireland, a piece of limestone from the Marshall Islands, a handful of schist from Massachusetts; they are small earthly reminders that I was there, wherever that was. I have two friends (both mentors) who have a collection of heart-shaped rocks and so, along this dry river bed, I decided to follow suit. As an aside, it is a great activity for kids to practice quiet observation.

The group on our first hike
Kim contemplating the landscape
In a twist of fate, I was asked to fill in as a chaperone on a camping trip with 15 youth from Greyton, Genadendal and Bereaville, located in the Western Cape, South Africa. This trip was sponsored by The Cape Leopard Trust in partnership with ARK (Acts of Random Kindness), Greyton Conservation Society, and Greyton Transition Town. The common link, aside from geography, was a budding interest in the environment and taking up the challenge to get out of our comfort zones. After a 5-hour bus journey to the Cederberg, we arrived at The Cape Leopard Trust on a Friday afternoon. Nicky and Sue situated our vegetarian kitchen and the rest of us set up our tents. Some of these kids had never been camping and they embraced the challenge of not only roughing it in the rain, but also voluntarily giving up their sweets, meats and chips in exchange for vegetarian meals. In the last 15 years of working with youth from all walks of life and several different countries, I can honestly say that this was one of the best youth groups (not to mention camping trips) I have ever experienced. And not to brag too much, but I have worked with some incredible youth in my life. I'm lucky that way.

Tariq sculpting
Over the course of 5 days, we covered a lot of ground…ecologically, historically, creatively, educationally, socially, nutritionally and literally. We hiked over 12 kilometers through rocky riverbeds, meandered through mountain fynbos, scaled incredible sandstone formations and ran along footpaths trying to decipher between types and ages of animal scat. We marveled at rock art, played games, told stories and roasted marshmallows by the fire. On one evening in particular, I was amazed at the dogged patience of 4 youth as they taught me how to count to 20 in Afrikaans. I will forever be working on the proper pronunciation of the number 4. We tried our hands at clay sculpture and using charcoal to depict landscapes and animal skulls. Using our newly acquired compass and orienteering skills, we created a perfect circle, made up of 12 people and 50 meters in diameter. We listened and watched for birds and laughed at the sounds of screaming baboon youth in the cliffs above our camp. We saw signs & tracks of genets, baboons, and klipspringer and learned how to set up a camera trap in hopes of maybe…just maybe catching a glimpse of the ever-elusive cape leopard.  

Desi helping to set the camera trap
The compost toilets, bucket showers, and late night baboon hooting reminded all of us that we were far from home, but close to something special…maybe a moment or two that we will fondly recall decades from now. Who can really know when passions are galvanized, when we make a change in our habits, form lifelong friendships, or a giant collection of rocks? All we can do is work to create these opportunities for challenge, exposure, growth, and character building for youth, and not to mention, adults.

This journey gave me a sorely needed boost of hope. With the recent crime wave in Greyton and Genadendal, I have twice been a victim of burglary in the last 3 months. Everyone seems to have a theory as to why it is happening, who is doing it, and when (if ever) it will die down. A popular theory is that this is the work of youth serving as puppets for older individuals with a tick problem (AKA, meth). It is easy to hand myself over to feelings of negativity, cynicism, and general distrust in my species. And while statistics offer some comfort, the pressing question is, what does it mean for me to feel safe? And how much am I willing/forced to alter and morph my daily operations to create a sense of safety for myself? I got to thinking, a sometimes-dangerous hobby, and I wondered about these kids on my camping trip; not only them, but ALL kids. What does it mean for them to feel safe? Do they feel safe at home? At school? Did they feel safe hiking with me and being far away from what they know as home? What part do I play as an (gasp) adult in creating a safer and more joyful world for children, but especially teens?

Orienteering to build our perfect circle
Drawing skulls is not easy
I heard a recent episode of This American Life about Harper High School in the south side of, Chicago, Illinois. I was listening to the story, happily chopping vegetables while my dog dreamt peacefully on the floor. And there in my little Greyton kitchen, I began to sob. This particular high school, with a population of 506, saw 21 students wounded by gunshot and 8 murders in 2012 alone. And often these shootings are over petty things. If you are a boy living in this 2 square mile neighborhood, you are born into one of 15 gangs based on the street where you live. It isn’t a choice, it is an assignment, whether you want it or not. Even police officers claim that kids do not have the choice to opt out of gang affiliation. “We feel safer like this. We never like to walk past trees and stuff. There’s too much stuff (shootings) goin’ on,” replied a girl when asked why she and her friends walk to school down the middle of the street. I encourage you to listen to this 2-part story, moreover to be a regular listener of TAL. No matter where you come from, this show is incredibly eye opening and educational.

I was taking a walk through the Gobos River the other morning pondering the recent and rampant burglaries on my street. I felt thankful that I wasn’t present for either of my burglaries, but angry at the violation; the poaching of my safe space. And then, in that moment, I stepped on a heart-shaped rock. I found 4 more after that. One of the social workers at Harper High school told the interviewer, “I need to see where education works. And I need to see where success happens.” I could not have expressed it better myself. So far, I have collected 15 heart rocks, one for each teen that was on the trip. 
Last Day
My goal is to collect one heart rock for each young person who gives me hope and create a heart rock sanctuary in my garden. These rocks will serve as a solid reminder that when you look for the good happening in any community, you will find it. Often, these rocks will be extremely hard to find depending on where I am physically and mentally, but I believe that once I’ve trained my heart and mind to look for them, they will become easier to find.

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I am still a newcomer to South Africa and I have so much to learn in terms of history, culture and politics, but one thing I know is that every human being has basic needs. Food, water, and shelter are obvious, but I think safety, moreover community, useful contribution and joy are often seen as luxuries in many communities around the world. I want to be a part of changing this. Because there is a difference between surviving, which is what I feel so many children are trying to do, and thriving, which is what children have the right to do.