Tuesday, 11 December 2012

A Drive on the Wild Side: Yellowstone National Park

I know I make a lot of reference to places and occasions from South Africa, but this is like my base of knowledge and so I will use it just to show that there are some brain cells floating in my head. And the great card of reference taken into account now is the “Rainbow Nations’” abundant supply of wildlife. From those pesky lions who most times refrain from wandering well-kept backyards, to those obnoxious things commonly known as Brothers, we have them all and many more. So considering this, I can almost count myself an expert on the ways of the wild. But when you enter the realms of another country, you will surely become as intelligent in this matter as our darling President Zuma and his knowledge on matters of state.

On the vast plains of Yellowstone there are many animals that wanderer about, causing many tourists to ooh and aah. Upon entering this park the bets started flying around the car. Kate was going to see Yogi Bear in his natural habitat, unfortunately she did not realise that Yogi Bear lived on her television screen, but then again we are talking about Kate. Carmen was adamant about seeing a wolf. I was all for seeing an Elk, I liked the sound of the word not the way the animal looked. And Kevin? He wanted to see a deer. Obviously living in New Jersey, where it is more common to have a deer in your backyard then a dog, had not deterred his appreciation of this fine creature.

We had not been in the vicinity of the park for more than five minutes when there sitting like a beast was a creature I had never before seen. It had the most frightening head on this very out of proportion body. So like the tourists we were and almost burning the brake pads out we came to a stop right beside this beast. Out the cameras were whipped, as we clicked away, being careful not to get too close. And while we were having this impromptu photo session cars were passing by with terrible facial expressions and holding up fingers that should have been left down, and not to mention the out of tune honking that was going on with the cars. Maybe they had just not yet seen the beast. I thought, when they see our awesome pictures they will feel deep regret for their unsatisfactory display of drama. So on we drive feeling very chuffed that we had spotted an animal so soon. Lady Luck must be taking a seat in this car. Two minutes up the road was a long line of cars parked on the side of a narrow road, with tourist spilling out of their cars aiming their very expensive foreign cameras far into the distant. So we pull in behind the last car and take our cameras out and start pointing, at what we are not quite sure of yet. And then I spot it, another one of those beast things standing so close by. I yell out excitedly to everyone that I had found it. I was going crazy. And then some kind person went on to inform these naïve souls that what I had just “found” was a Bison. By now I’m going wow, pretty neat. The name even sounds beastly. And then the next words poured out of his mouth, “They’re as common as cows here.” Now all I’m thinking is, I stopped to take a picture of a cow? What levels of tragic tourist had we dropped too that I cow would make an interesting focus for a picture?

The creature we had indeed been looking for that time was a wolf. A man with his ultra this and mega that with a super whatever camera had spotted it many miles away and so we had waited patiently to see it. When we spotted what looked like a movement in the bushes over the mountain, we determined that this was the wolf, snapped a picture of that moving bush and then headed on our way. Carmen’s wolf had not come out into the spotlight that time, but another opportunity would present itself. Driving around the park in the late hours of the night, after coming back from a rodeo, we were rushing along glad not to be travelling at 2 miles an hour. When suddenly in front of us this insane person had not come to the conclusion that he could at least up his speed to 5, so there with brakes leaving fire trails behind us we came to a sudden jolting stop. And what was there right by us, sniffing the very same air we were sniffing? A wolf. A very big and very magnificent wolf.  With the full moon shining down on it, it looked utterly unreal. And if I had not turned my head to make sure Kevin was sitting in the drivers seat, I would have almost thought it was him standing there in his werewolf form. The wolf did kind of strut about like Kevin, with a theme song of “I’m sexy and I know it,” blaring in its head. So Carmen had now really seen her wolf.

The next was Yogi Bear. After trying to inform Kate that Yogi Bear was not really real and failing (everytime we came near to the truth she held this expression on her face as if we had just told her candy was not really good for you and chocolate was not a food group on its own, it was that bad!), we decided to just tell her that he was on vacation and we would see his relatives instead. This made her happy enough. So as all the times before we had spotted this ridiculously long line of cars on the side of the road and so out we jumped cameras in hand rushing to who knows where. People stopped us asking what we were going to see and we very wisely answered, “To see that animal over there,” waving our fingers in every direction. The crowd on the top of the hill was ten feet deep so we wiggled our way through curious about what exactly we would find on the other side. And there was Yogi Bears little niece ambling along the mountainside with a throng of tourist following her like the paparazzi. The very brave or not so wise (depends on how you view this) Kevin and Carmen rushed up to take close ups of the bear. They were so close that when little Yogi’s niece had a tiny sneeze they could feel her blow them away. Kate and I, knowing that our cameras contained a wonderful zoom function opted to stay very far behind. Then the unexpected happened, the bear turned around and started walking towards the people! Kate and I who were 500 000 feet behind the crowd turned tail and quickly sprinted to the opposite side of the road, while Kevin and Carmen moved closer. At that moment if something had happened I was already planning what I would write in their obituaries, “Friends who had temporarily lost use of their brain failed to regain their sanity when they made friends with a bear. They are now living with the spirits of the long departed, and I hope they never regain their sanity because I just know Kevin will be kicking himself that Shana and Kate turned out to be smarter.” They did manage to safely displace themselves from Yogi’s niece and we ended up with some really great pictures in the process.

So I got to see some really unique creatures on this vacation and see the wild side come out in my friends. To all the places I have been to so far, I really did enjoy Yellowstone. It was a place of which I knew nothing so I was like those tourist we all get annoyed of, it was a really invigorating experience to be like that. I’m already booking my next trip there; I hope I will spot some of you with your fancy gadgets popping out of cars on the side of the road when I stop by next time.

Safe travels! 

Sunday, 9 December 2012

A Wonder in Time: Yellowstone National Park

When thinking of Yellowstone National Park all I can think of to describe what this place truly is, is out of this world. It is really like nothing else on this earth. So any descriptions made to this unique wonder will be a stand-alone, breathtaking one. I can only give but a glimpse of the awe this place will inspire in you and nothing more. To experience this place unconditionally, you need to be standing there amongst the tall grasses, swim in the contradictory rivers and watch with wonder all the animals that amble along.

With Mount Rushmore behind us, and Yellowstone National Park slowing approaching, I must admit I never knew what to expect from a place such as this. In South Africa the natural beauty of our landscape is quite riveting. Every tiny corner of the country will offer something different, and satisfy all your curiosities. Living in the craziness of New Jersey, and just a mere hour from the sleepless New York City, where a growing green patch of land is hard to come by, I did have my reserves about this park. What could really compare to the beauty of my home?

The drive in to the park was like a sudden and miraculous epiphany. Amidst the smoke of the cities and buried by the stressed out days we live, was a place that could transform and renew. In this country where politics and economics are the rule of the day, was a place where nature ruled in all her glory. Yellowstone was (almost) untouched by anything human. Forests were left to grow as they pleased, bears roamed wherever they wanted and lay down to rest in any place the need struck regardless of the passerby’s gawking stares. Rivers ran crystal clear through valleys and into a giant lake that sparkled with the diamond water drops that filled it. Wolves were not a great mystery seen only by a few, but their commanding presence in this wilderness demanded our attention and respect. It was a site that made you forget, and at the very same time remember. Gone were the memories of how over-worked you were and bone-tired you felt, and in their place were sweet memories of a childhood spent in the very wake of nature.

Yet the most bewildering aspect of this park was in the geysers that shot water at regular intervals high up into the air, the allure of the hot water springs that captured your imagination at all the colours thrown out and the goofiness of the mud pots as they bubbled away like the unappetizing concoctions of children. These are sights that will rarely be seen anywhere else. And it is a place that captures all your senses; the smell of the rotting sulphur burns your nose as you wonder if the egg salad sandwich you wanted for lunch would be the best choice, the heat from the hot springs wrap a warm blanket around you as you walk along, the sounds of the tiny explosions rivet you, and as you feel your feet pound along the hard earth you come to realise that you are living in this moment and not a dream state of artistic fascination.

John Muir, a man who because of his dedication to preserving the magnificence of all the natural exhibits in America and made it possible for me to be standing here today many years later, said, “In every walk with nature one receives far more then he seeks.” During those long walks in the heart of this park, I did find a lot more then I was looking for. I found the beauty in new friendships, the thrill of experiencing something new and the hope that we could still appreciate the untouched and untainted.

Safe travels!

P.S since this was such an amazing trip, more stories to follow about the shenanigans of four young adults and the stories that made this park real for each of us.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

A Day with Murphy

Murphy’s Law. This law was created to make my life that is already challenging- because of slow thought processes- a lot more difficult. I do not like this Murphy who created this useless and unnecessary law, but I live with it. And if I must say, I do come out smiling in the end or something that kind of looks like one if you squint an eye or two. Saturday was that kind of day for us. It started off with the best of intentions to be on top of my game, but because of circumstances it all fell flat.

Kevin is a great friend. He plans all these really wonderful things for us to do like shooting expeditions, camping trips and all sorts of interesting and crazy adventures that I would never even consider. So a couple of months ago Kevin found this amazing Groupon for Spiderman: Turn off the Dark, the Broadway musical. An experience of New York City will never be complete without a turn to see a play on Broadway to refine your cultural sophistication. And according to Kate, plays and such things add a few more brain cells to my brain cell deprived brain. This was definitely a must. The day approached, the excitement was intense. Our show was in the afternoon, but I had work for a couple hours in the morning. With some careful, thoughtful planning we worked out a schedule that would ensure no leeway, but we would get there in time. Now I want to say before I go on that I cannot wake anyone up. It’s a trait I do not have, and one I do not want to acquire either. And it was my job to ensure that Kevin and Kate woke up on time. That’s the first time Murphy’s Law came into play. We left the house like a little late (about half an hour), but things were still going well. Excitement had fallen a few notches by now, replaced by a couple frazzled nerves.

Now there are a couple different ways to get into New York City from New Jersey. You can take a cab and be expected to take out a small college fund to pay for this ride, the advantages are that you can disregard going to college and find another plan for your future. The trains are also another way in, but in the city that never sleeps being expected to go home at 12:30am on the last train really puts a damper on things, I swear this scheduled was created by parents to impose strict curfews on teenagers. But the best options is catching the path train that runs 24 hours a day and leaves every 10 minutes, this fitted more into our lifestyle, it did not leave us on the edge of bankruptcy or deprive us of a great time. So we arrived at Hoboken, paid an arm and two fingers for parking and walked over to the station that was… closed!  Oh boy, Murphy again. Fortunately for us, there was another station very close by, unfortunately for us there was traffic and road works and terrible New Jersey drivers.

So to cut this endless tirade of examples of how Murphy seemed to be throwing these giant obstacles in our path, we made it to New York City, sprinting down ten blocks to reach the theatre and only missed one scene. Not too bad, we earned a free workout and got to experience Broadway Street at another speed.

Spiderman is an amazing play for its special effects and props. Spiderman took my breath away when he flew above my head on ropes that were too thin to hold life and limb together. The Green Goblin costume was magnificent with its bold colour and how life like it was. The props on stage were on a whole new level, displaying the scenes on a three dimensional element and actually making you feel as if you’re sitting there viewing the streets and scenes of New York City amidst the hustle and bustle. Yet, I must say that I did expect more from this highly raved about play, the acting although good was not phenomenal. I walked away somehow feeling as if I had missed something, or was still waiting for the dramatic climax. But the play was an experience I really did enjoy.

With the play done, and Kevin still being an extraordinary person, he had booked this extravagant cooking class for us. So with some time to kill we waded our way through a swamp of overly Christmas dosed tourists to see the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. Kate, Kevin and I all managed to get lost at least once each, so counting this as too much of an invasion of personal bubble space we headed downtown to our cooking lesson. Our stomachs having a conversation amongst themselves, we arrived there eager to create our own meal and put the first morsel of food into our bellies for the day. And then Murphy peeked his nasty head in again. Our cooking class should had been more aptly defined as a preparation class, there was no cooking occurring at this location. Our bellies were now loudly declaring their displeasure at this, so managing to rebook we went for a walk to find a place to eat.

“Lasagna,” in Chelsea is the best Italian restaurant. We ordered three different meals wanting to sample a wide variety of their wares and were amazed at the mouthwatering exquisiteness of the food. The pumpkin ravioli was like taking a bite of thanksgiving, and the four cheese lasagna was just right without being too cheesy. And to round off a superb meal we had the most delicious white wine. The staff was really friendly making us feel as if we were sitting at home with a group of friends, very easy going and great atmosphere.
Our next stop was at a local pub called, “The Malting Pot.” It had just recently opened and already was packed. I was scraping shoulders with the person next to me and using the guy behind me as a leaning post. The drinks available were not the typical beverages supplied, but they allowed you to try out your adventurous side for a night. I was not that adventurous, but I really enjoyed meeting Nick and Holly there and catching up.

So in the early hours of Sunday morning deciding it was time to go home, we walked to a path train. And that terrible Murphy person made his presence known yet again. All the paths trains were closed, because of Hurricane Sandy, a few weeks had gone by and she was still making her presence known.  Just our luck. So there went our college fund and the chance to a bright and knowledgeable future as we had to take a cab back to New Jersey. We did make a new friend that night though; the taxi driver was a really interesting person.

So Murphy turned out in full force that night, but we managed to stumble along and have a very memorable night with great friends and wonderful experiences and learning how to be a little more schedule orientated next time.

Safe travels!

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Faces on a Mountain: Mount Rushmore

My biggest dream has always been to see a mountain with larger-than life-size faces protruding so stately out of it. When I was little and this dream took much too long to accomplish, I figured I would create my own version of a mountain with faces. And who would be the model but me. There would be little me, bubbly little thing with curly hair flying wildly to make my mark on a mountain. The world just had to be made aware of awesome little me. Now many years later, I get to see the real thing.

Arriving in South Dakota way too early for the average sane person, we stop off at a local diner to have breakfast. When you’re driving for hours on end the time for proper sit down meals are distorted and you will find yourself eating dinner when you’re suppose to be having breakfast and lunch when you’re suppose to be having afternoon tea. With stomachs singing in tune to the radio blaring in the car, we made the best decision. The diner served some really delicious biscuits and gravy, my wonderful introduction to mouthwatering southern food. Next because of the ungodly hour we had arrived there, and because we had to see this mountain with faces in it in just the correct light, we did some exploring in the light town. We stepped out of the diner looked up the street and then down the street, and had seen the entire town plus some in that two minute turn of the head. Exploring of the town done, and the hour still sitting somewhere between ungodly and insane we made our way to the towns information center, where we were greeted by a lovely lady. She told us all about the town’s history, some fun things to do, and the best hiking trails. The hiking trails seemed like a really brilliant idea, but first we would practice. We were young, fit awesome people; a little incline up a dusty deserted road would pose no threat. So in the middle of nowhere, well in the middle of the parking lot, which considering our location was the middle of nowhere, we stripped down and proudly put on our exercise clothes with our sneakers that looked oddly new. We would wear them out on this vacation. Kevin, Kate, Carmen and I started off on a lovely midmorning/pre-afternoon sprint, which five minutes later turned into a jog, and two minutes after that turned into a fast walked, and thirty seconds after that deciding to give up all pretenses turned into a comfortable stroll. Although Carmen and Kate did manage to do a whole lot better and ignoring signs ran into a park without even paying. Foreigners, you cannot take them anywhere.

Concluding our run we made our way to our very inviting hotel, where we freshened up and declined the beds offer of a tiny little nap. We were too grown up for that. The hour was still not quite right to receive just that perfect amount of light on the mountain, so what else would four young adults do to occupy themselves? Well, wine tasting of course! Driving around sampling the magnificent wares of the area, we were quite inebriated with the wonders we were experiencing all at once. And so impressed by the quality of these fine wines we opted to buy a bottle of “Red Arse”, a truly-out-of this-world specimen of wine, which turned into a standing joke for the vacation.

With the lighting finally playing in our favor we made the drive up the mountain to see those faces I had long since been dreaming of. With everything becoming a reality so soon I was not quite sure I could handle it, but I had come this far, I would just have to go and see it now. The drive up was magical, with evergreen trees and colourful flowers lining the road on both sides, and neither giving any glimpse or hint of the mountain it was hiding. And finally there before us, looming larger than life was the faces of four very famous men on the side of a mountain. And my first thought? My face would have looked a whole lot prettier and amplified their handsome just a little more, but they did a good job.

Seeing Mount Rushmore for the first time, is indescribable. It is something that is so much a part of American history and the way we as foreigners view this country, that trying to put even some words to it will surely just dimmer the magnificence of this wonder. We spent some hours taking pictures, making sure the world knew we had been there, and the lighting was perfect. And finally to end off our walk among the fathers of the nation, we closed off our glorious day in a typical way. Sampling the best ice cream this world has to offer. Even months later I can still taste that ice cream so smooth and creamy, sparking bright fireworks in my mouth.  And then it was off and goodbye to a place I had dreamed of for so long. It held up to its expectations.

Now before I conclude, I have been asked, well more like threatened, to tell you about the part of seeing Mount Rushmore that had made our trip worthwhile. Not for me that is. But grudgingly I will tell you since it did end off our time there very well.

Mount Rushmore has an amazing lake at the bottom. With crystal clear waters and the most superb view all around you. So being the crazy people we are we decided to go have a dip in the lake. Now if we had stopped at that, I believe our vacation would have run very smoothly without a hitch. But no, we did not stop at that. There above the lake stood this really cool cliff calling out our names and begging us to just jump. Well with Kevin in the lead I decided it would be worth a try. What could possibly be so hard about a little jump off a cliff? So I follow shakily behind him, and as we get to the top I realise I have no idea how to do this. There I am at the top wanting to climb down and forget this idiotic idea, and Kevin is busy explaining the precise details of exactly how cliff jumping is done, with the very clear command of, “Remember don’t look down! Water is as hard as rock when you hit it.” With Kevin getting lots of practice counting to ten, I finally managed to make the plunge off the cliff. The drop felt like an eternity, and I am sad to say I never heeded those very wise words. When landing in the water I had decided that I would try my own technique, and enter the lake sitting. The lake thought this was definitely very silly, and so I emerged with instantly red, blue, black and purple butt and legs. When surfacing, I called out to a very flabbergasted audience that I was in pain, and with a remark of, “Just put your head in the water and swim!”, from the ever sympathetic Kevin, I knew that no one would let me live this down. And so as I emerged and we all oohed and aahed about the damage I had done, and everyone had got their belly full of laughs, I was picturing the next ten hours of driving ahead of me. My face, and butt, twisted in pain. And that bottle of “Red Arse” wine? Well it was used in a very nifty photo op next to my equally red butt. I knew we should have left that specific bottle off our shopping list!

Safe travels!

Sunday, 18 November 2012

World Famous Cody Rodeo

The town of Cody, Wyoming is most famous for its world class rodeos. Cody is a magnificent town full of history and culture surrounded by some exquisite mountains, the Heart Mountain to the north and the Carter Mountain to the south.  In the summer of 2012, with a group of friends I did a road trip to this town and got to witness an event every person on this planet should see at least once in their lifetime. The world famous Cody rodeo. Every night starting from June the first and ending on the night of August thirty first, people are able to watch the participants show their skills off in this acclaimed event. And on a beautiful night in August I was able to share in this.

To start off a point to consider though is that a rodeo is definitely not for the faint of heart or those deeply radical activist fighting for the rights of animals. But if for a night you are able to forget about these qualities to go and participant in and experience a deeply unique event I urge you to grab hold of it and go.

The rodeo started off with us being seated among many avid fans of this event dressed in their typical attire of cowboy hats and boots and shirts that had more tassels than a night sky had stars. I smiled at the sight of them, appreciating the quirkiness they each brought to this event. With the speakers blaring country music, I knew I had found my rightful place in this world.

The night started off with young, aspiring cowboys, and girls, trying to catch an unsuspecting calf let loose from a pen. These children raced around on their horses, swinging their ropes in wide circles with a skill I envied because I was barely able to swing a rope for a game of jump rope and here these children were many years my junior showing me how vastly inadequate I was in this area of my life. No matter as soon as I got home, I would be practicing my rope swinging skills. Many of the children had performed wonderfully, and displayed great horsemanship, wowing the crowd with their performances.

The most fun and anticipated time of the night was when the brave young cowboys climbed onto giant voracious bulls to see how long they were able to withstand the annoyance these beasts were feeling. I am sad to say that none of these cowboys were able to stay on for a significant amount of time, but the ooh’s and ouch’s from the crowd as they each landed with a thud on the ground surely spurred them on to try harder next time. With the night coming to an end all too quickly, we raced to get our pictures taken with the wildly hilarious clown presenters for the night. Their funny jokes and sense of humour kept us all entertained and informed all throughout the night.

The night was extremely successful, giving us a glimpse into the lives of people who live, breathe and eat everything country. We were able to walk away with a cultural experience that was so new and so interesting for each of us, and at the same time so much fun to learn about.

Safe travels!

Saturday, 17 November 2012

A Call to Arms

The power you feel when holding a gun will surpass any imagined power you may wield with another instrument. And today, despite the discomforts of this activity, I shot a gun. Or a number of them really. The one great thing about America is that there is always deals and interesting events to partake in, you just have to be willing to make the effort to search for them and then get out of your comfort zone to actually do it. Today’s very unique experience was at a shooting range in Bayonne, New Jersey.

Guns and shooting has never really been my thing. Being the equal of an extremist for the clumsy and silly brigade, there is this constant fear that this side of me will come out and I will accidently hurt someone (please note the word accidently if you have ever incurred any injuries due to my disorder). So in order for the world to be a safer place, I stay away from dangerous objects. But today, throwing caution to the wind, I picked up a gun… and no one was hurt. People all across the world can now let out a sigh of relief.

The day started off really well. Being an early session, we all had to be up at the crack of daylight to be there on time. At the buzzing of the alarms I was up and out of bed ready to get my game on. And there was Kate; with one eye closed vehemently declaring she was awake, while mumbling about having collected 4000 cans. What the collection of cans had to do with getting out of bed I have yet to figure out. Eventually we were all ready and out of the house on time. It looked as if today we would prove fate wrong about the ability of young adults to keep time, but fate has a way of always coming back to shout at you “I told you so!” With Shaii getting lost somewhere between his house and the dunkin donuts we were meeting at, we were able to start off our adventure in the customary way: late.

Eventually, after trying to make up for lost time, we made it to the shooting range. I stepped inside the doors with the booming sounds and wondered what I had gotten myself into. As the gunshots became louder I was ready to hand out indemnity forms to everyone absolving myself from any injuries they may receive due to me. We quickly signed in, were given a brief talk on gun safety, put on the safety glasses and curiously glanced at the strange ear things that we had to use. Having pity on us the instructor opted to give us who could not quite grasp the concept of squeezing the ear pieces and then putting them in, ear muffs. And then were ushered into the shooting range. There were six instructors inside, all with different guns. At the first sight of the giant shot gun I wanted to tuck my tail between my legs and bolt. The thing was huge, the bang was loud and the holes it made in the paper man beyond any size I could fully comprehend. It was frightening. But sucking it up I made my way to my first gun, a tiny little hand gun that could be compared to a mouse next to the elephant of a shot gun. The experience went well. I kept one eye opened most of the time and managed not to handle the gun inappropriately. I tried some of the others as well, the very big ones. And found that although scary in size, that when you actually get past it they were not all that bad.

Gun shooting is a very unique, and for me daredevil experience. Although I had endless amounts of fun spending the day with an amazing group of friends, I honestly believe that I will do the world justice by staying away from these dangerous objects for a while.

Safe travels!

Sunday, 11 November 2012

A Time to Serve: Zarapeth, New Jersey

Sai Baba, who is regarded by many Indian hindi’s and muslim devotees as a saint, once said, “No joy can equal the joy of serving others.” And this weekend I was lucky enough to have put this to the test. Sometimes we feel that serving others is an obligation, and we go out and do this with a heart half in it. Yet when you see the smiles lighting up the faces of those being served, when you experience their gratitude, and become completely embraced by all the gladness they offer, you will truly find no greater joy then this on earth.

In New Jersey in the town of Zarapheth is a church. This church strives to serve each member in their community in a way that becomes so personal that you find that each person you meet there is a friend regardless if you’ve known them for five minutes or five years. I came to know them because of the great friends I made in the USA. These friends attend school at Raritan Valley and because of their enthusiastic interaction on campus, are now both president and vice president of the business club, Enactus. Over the months both Kevin and Kate have been involved in a number of projects and I have been fortunate enough to be involved in some small way with some of these as well. This past weekend, was an experience like no other. Being able to get a hands on experience about a cause and club that has intrigued me so much these past months.

The day started off relatively warm, considering we had just come out of a hurricane that was hurriedly followed by a freezing snow storm. With preparations under way by members and volunteers of the church, when we had arrived there bright and early on Saturday morning, we lent out a hand here and there wherever we were needed, and got all our eggs in a row for the event that was to start. Before the start we were all called into a simple conference room packed full with the most loving and intriguing people around. They quickly discussed the order of events for the day, bowed heads for a moment of prayer and then lunch was served for those of us who were starving from the very long two hours between breakfast and lunch. With the lunch and friendly banter all done with, it was time for real work.

The event was a turkey drive for the upcoming holiday of thanksgiving, especially for families who could not afford to celebrate this very traditional American past time with families and friends in the way expected. With a juicy turkey, mouthwatering stuffing and all the other trimmings that go along with it. The stations where all up and running, volunteers were in place and we were ready to roll.

The Enactus-RVCC station was an inquiring survey that members of the college were handing out. One of the projects being undertaken by this club is a sustainable community garden which they are working closely with My Neighbors Ministries to get underway. A community garden is a wonderful concept, where the saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” fully explains this endeavor. Plots of land are divided up and willing members of the community are able to come in to plant and harvest their own crops. With the garden just getting started, input from the community was a vital part at this stage. Getting the scope of what was required and what was needed from each person, learning about their very basic essentials, and meeting the people we would become closely involved with in the next few months, was what our day encompassed.

Despite the hours of handing out surveys and speaking to people about the project and founding out how they had faired after two very grueling storms, I grew to be motivated and inspired by many things that day. The simple way people looked forward to rebuild their lives regardless of the tragedies that have struck so many of them. The care and community service so many willing people offer not because it is required or needed of them, but because they truly have a burning passion to do so. And that despite the bad things that happen all around us each day, we can still count on the faith of mankind. This event was an amazing way to learn so much about an area of American that has been my home for over a year, and to give back to a place that has already given me so much.

Safe travels!

Friday, 9 November 2012

Niagara: The Magic Falls

There are many places in this world that will cause you to stare open-mouthed in wonder and contemplate many inspirational paths your life may lead. Yet there are very few places that will show you this magnificence and leave an imprint on you to go out and search for those inspirations. With its crashing waters, and sheer power, Niagara Falls will forever be a place to teach you about the greatness of life, a place to humble you, and a place to motivate you to cross that line and achieve incredible things.

Niagara Falls was a trip I took because of a school obligation. Being an au pair you are required to complete some college credits, and so being as undecided as I am, doing a course where I was able to get the most sleep in during a class seemed like the best option. And it was in New York City so major bonus for shopping trips after. During our three weekend classes, we may have learnt about the history and discovery of Niagara Falls, or I may have been dreaming about all that, I never remember all that too well. After much learning, and napping, it finally came time for us to depart to the wonderful destination of Niagara Falls. As most people know Niagara Falls is shared by both the United States and Canada. But being a foreigner in America and requiring further waiting times in embassy offices for a visa, I opted to stay on the American side instead and look out enviously to the Canadian side with it its dazzling lights and freedom. There were a few others from my class you were also forced into this fate.

We arrived in Niagara on a miserably raining day at the beginning of June. At the hotel the meager passengers were unloaded before the bus sped away to the border and left us few drifters on the other side. Most of us just had thoughts of what a very long weekend this would turn out to be. But at least we had a weekend respite away from whinnying kids and the crazy adventures and life of being an au pair. My roommates were all from other countries. So it was interesting getting to know each of them. Being as there were so little of us we decided to invade each other’s space and so my group of friends grew from zero to ten in just a few minutes.

We had arrived in Niagara and so the first order of business was obviously to set out and feast our eyes upon this marvel. It was only fitting considering our purpose for being there. So with ten of us all dancing together in a delighted group we slowly made our way down to the falls all while learning some interesting tidbits from the countries we each occupied, and for some of us reminiscing about home from other fellow natives.

The first sight of the falls will be a memory that will stay with you forever. It will be a sight so amazing that it will surely take your breath away. Catching my first glimpse of these magnificent falls I stared in awe at seeing this wonder in its glory. The water was crashing down below and beating down like a violent army of drums in the river. The mist slowly rising was like the most intricate lace curtain ever woven. And the size of this wonder was too huge to contemplate. I looked out at this place thinking of how utterly insignificant I was compared to this majesty in front of me. Niagara Falls is a stunning miracle of nature that despite the many man made boats and scattering of shops and chain restaurants in the area, they do not even take an ounce away from the experience of this place. Niagara Falls stands alone bursting forth with all its splendor without twinkling lights or fine dining establishments to improve it.

The rest of our weekend was spent exploring the town of Niagara and all it had to offer. The aquarium was definitely a treat with all the interesting sea creatures on display, riding below the waterfall on the famous Maid of the Mist boat tour was a ride to remember with an experience that will forever mesmerize no matter how ancient this river ride is. With very little in the way of fine dining establishments or entertainment on the American side, our little group did manage to find an authentic Indian restaurant that offered superb food and value for our outstretched dollar.

Niagara Falls will forever be etched in my memory as a place where I learnt about the most interesting people this planet had to offer, a place where I was truly humbled, and a place where I will forever be inspired to achieve greatness because of the sheer wonder and magic of these thundering falls.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

My Travels with Sandy: A Hurricane of Misfortune

In life you can be very certain of two things: taxes and death. And if you live in America you can be absolutely certain of three things: taxes, death and natural disasters. When discussed in any context these lists are sure to make even the hardiest optimist cower away in fear. But courageous are those that find a means to live with and beat the odds of each of these. By filing that tax return, you no longer have the ominous burden looming over your head. By standing strong in the face of death and carrying on with life, you have overcome the tragedy. And by getting up after a natural disaster, by rebuilding and fixing all that was broken by something so devastating you have overcome the grueling effects of this unexplainable destruction.

Hurricane Sandy was a threat that hung over those that stayed on the east coast of America for many days before she even declared her presence. Preparations were being made well in advance; houses were stocking up with all the basic necessities like un-perishable food items and loads of water, cars were being filled to the brim with gas, and blankets were occupying every available space for a cold that was sure to follow. Windows were boarded up and sand bags packed tightly against outside walls for the flooding and howling winds that were to pay an expected but unwanted visit. Many people living on the coast of New Jersey and in high flood areas in New York were scurrying out of their homes because of mandatory evacuation orders from governors, senators, mayors and anybody that even held an ounce of authority. This hurricane would hit, but we would be ready for her. Or at least everybody else would be, I on the other hand was solely unprepared for a storm of this magnitude.
In South Africa, and in particular where I come from, a small town in the inlands of the province of KwaZulu Natal, hurricane is a word found in a dictionary with no real life experience attached to it for most of us. I did not know what to expect or even what would happen during this storm. And no amount of explaining from any person could quite drift all the way to my mind and make it any clearer for me.  So for those of us where the teachings have to be done with practicalities, I had to live through it to completely understand what it really boiled down to. And live through it I did.
Monday morning broke with a suspenseful foreboding in the air. The wind outside my window was whipping around as if some lunatic was out there intent on destruction and menace. The sky above was a dark, coal black color, and the roads did not have a single soul or lonely driver passing by on it. Inside our house life was going on as normally as it possibly could. When you live in the same place you work, a hurricane will have little effect on you in that capacity. Thinking on it now I am thankful for the distraction work and energetic toddlers provided. Toddlers can make you forget a whole lot of things any time, most of the time I find myself in a complete fray because of this, but on this day I welcomed it with open arms. Our playroom window became our replacement television set, with the scenes outside playing like that of a horror movie. Thankfully it had no age restrictions so the boys could watch too.  By late afternoon, into the early evening hours the lunatic wind was really beginning to pick up. Whipping around, bending trees over and tossing branches this way and that not even giving a thought to where they landed. And then the inevitable occurred, the power we had hoped would not go out, but we had slowly counted down the minutes until its expected demise had finally left us in pitch black darkness. Standing in my room not knowing what next, was probably the scariest moment I have ever had to experience. At that moment I would have rather confronted any devil familiar to me, than this unknown one. Yet like most often will happen, you will set aside your feelings of misfortune and carry on with what needs to be done.  Blankets and torches were found and distributed to all to bring a little comfort and familiarity to the situation. With warmth and light taken care of there was nothing left but to snuggle deep down in the blankets and drift off to a restless night. The howling wind and rain were too much of a noise for any sleep to follow willingly, so on my iPod went with the sounds of Josh Groban and Daughtry drifting out. I figured that if the trees outside my wind were to come crashing down during the night, Groban and Daughtry would be singing in their harmoniously perfect voices and make everything better anyway. Together they did well to soothe the frantic worrying’s of the voices in my head.

The night had passed by and as my alarm went off to annoyingly announce that the hour for work was near, I grudgingly edged the blankets off my body. I peered out to see that my bed, actually my whole entire room, was still standing in the exact same place I had left it the night before. There were no trees lying about adding some naturalistic element of décor to my room either. Things were looking as good as could be expected. I wearily touched my toe to the floor so I could make that giant leap out of bed to turn on the light. At the switch I flipped it up and down about fifty times before finally coming to terms with the fact that no amount of flipping would give me a little light. So Tuesday dawned cold, dark and with screaming toddlers. What a way to welcome a new day in.
Tuesday was a day for assessing damages, checking to see that the neighbor next door was still living and that you had not accidently been blown away or drifted into some other county. In all those counts we were unbelievably lucky. There was no flooding to a basement that was still under construction, all our neighbors that had stuck around to weather out the storm were all still here, (with some added features like disgruntled tempers and big frowns covering their faces) and we were still in the same spot we were in the day before. Down the street enormous trees had blown over landing in people’s yards, on power lines and some on cars. Roads were blocked, traffic lights were out and a huge panic was beginning to fill the air. The radio was on the whole day giving hourly updates on the horrific destruction that happened in many places, some of them so nearby to us, it was beginning to frighten me. And in our little white house amidst all this disaster, everything was still going on as usual. The boys were still evading my polite begging of joining the 21st century and eating with a spoon instead of with their tiny, grubby hands. I still felt as if I was taking care of escaped monkeys from a local zoo, instead of two human boys. And they still made me smile and laugh at their silly antics and wise old ways. A hurricane had hit, there was destruction and damage untold, and things were beginning to look bleak. But I had two crazy toddler boys to look after, who did not quite grasp the concept of a storm or see the importance of anything beyond what was happening in their own lives. It showed you that after something like this life went on, as much as I wanted to sit in limbo processing the devastation that had just happened in the past twenty four hours, these boys forced me to see that life needed to move forward.
Venturing out the house late Friday morning, after sitting inside for so long had played a toll on all our minds, was met with an unrealistic scene of a town that had once been the hub of social life and now stood bare and deserted. Downtown Westfield was a ghost town except for the few zombies checking through the window of the Starbucks periodically hoping for it to spring to life with the aroma of brewing coffee and freshly baked goods. But move out just a little further to the nearest gas station that actually had a little gas to offer and you would find a line a mile long of people standing with containers in every shape imaginable to fill, and just to the side was the line of cars waiting for gas. It was a sight to behold that truly amplified the severity of the situation, the line of cars was so long it carried on all the way into the next town and the wait was anywhere between two to six hours! Many houses were sitting without power and as night fell we could really feel the consequence of this. With winter fast approaching, the idea of heat in a time like this seems like a farfetched reality. We had managed to spend the week at the house, but with the cold becoming an unbearable burden, seeking out anyone with even a little power to spare was our next logical move. So on a freezing Friday night, with the greatly appreciated hospitality of friends we now know what true warmth feels like again. It is a marvel I will forever be grateful for.
Looking at the damages that had occurred right outside our house, and hearing about the destruction to places I had visited so often, I was immeasurably blessed about my circumstances. Yes I had no power, I was getting as cold as someone stranded in the North Pole in the middle of winter, the toddlers were getting way too cranky and driving me so insane I feared I had to go book my room in an asylum any minute, and I was beginning to have withdrawal symptom from a lack of Starbuck’s coffee. Our power is still off, our street is still looking like a war zone and I am still freezing. But I can proudly look forward and say I overcame this storm. Sandy struck and I got up again to carry on life like normal. Things are difficult now, sometimes even challenging, but we all have the ability to find solutions, to mend all that was broken and then to move forward after it is all done. Sandy knocked us off course a little, but we can surely find our way back onto the road.
Safe travels!

Monday, 29 October 2012

Rides and Sails along the Delaware River

On a day when the clouds knitted tightly together to form a dark blanket in the sky above, four brave souls set off on the adventure that was unique and exhilarating, and for me, one I will never forget.  In a car packed to the brim with all the supplies necessary for a great time, and three of the most wonderful friends I have met along my way, we set off to leave our mark on the famous Delaware River area. As the car started and the miles slowly rolled by, the time for napping had begun. With four young adults and the highly demanding lives we lead it was expected, well for three of us anyway, the driver had to keep her eyes wide open, for safety reasons and such.

With a couple of miles behind us and stomachs rumbling for food to occupy the empty void we made a stop at a local burger joint in Pennsylvania. When stomachs begin to speak to you, which mine will often do, it will do you well to give in to the demands that it requires of you. If food is what it wants, food is what it will get. The local burger joint proved to have a supply of outstandingly delicious food, which satisfied all my cravings. I must confess though that while here, I did not have the typical burger and fries but opted for something really different. The owner of this fine establishment was Polish and so some of the dishes offered on the menu where ones I had never heard of in my life. Being the daredevil that I am, notice how this is the over statement of the century, I tried the traditional Pieroggies. Kate, one of the friends who came along and who is also from the Czech Republic gave me a lesson on this spectacular food item and so sealed my choice and my lunch time meal. If you ever have the chance to try Pieroggies I suggest you run out and try them as fast as you can, this is one choice you will never regret.

Stomachs fed and satisfied we made our way to our lodgings for the night. A campsite near the river. After checking in and ensuring we were all set for our stay, we headed over to the site to make our humble abode for the night. I was ready, with sleeves rolled up and prepared for a long time of getting a tent all set up. The sky above us looked rather ominous, but with three South Africans we were sure to have a tent set up in no time. As we got to our site, there in the clearing between the trees sits a beautifully, completely erected tent. What?! What magical fairy had appeared to do all this work, not that I’m complaining, but this sure was something different. I am never first in line for setting up tents on family vacations back home, rather I will find anything, and I mean anything else to do. But far away from family and among friends, you kind of want to prove that your parents did actually teach you a thing or two about camping. Being from South Africa this is very important, when family holidays are spent along bodies of water with fishing poles and tents that seem to outdo the houses we live in, we have to know when given a huge sheet of canvas and some poles that what is required of us is a tent that will stand tall and withstand all the elements of nature. This was a little different for me, but I could get use to someone doing all my dirty work. We unloaded the packed car of bags of clothes, blankets and food to feed the entire army and some. And then set off to find the nearest grocery store. Yes we had food, but you could never have too much of it. You just never know what could happen out there in the wild; we had to be prepared for anything.

As the late afternoon approached, we made our way back to camp and a fun hour of bike riding in the local area. This was supposed to be an easy, relaxing ride, but if the only exercise you get is lifting your bum out of bed in the morning, this will prove a tad more difficult than expected. It did however strengthen my resolve to put in those gym hours I had been promising my poor body for months. The ride along the empty roads was really scenic with a small forest lining the road on either side. You could really forget that you were far away from the bustle and chaos of the big city life in a place like this. The bike ride was such a fun time of my day, where I got to see some of the local area in close proximity and meet a little turtle friend who had crawled all the way onto the road. Like all good things, the bike ride had to come to an end.

It was supper time. With hot dogs on the menu for the night I couldn’t wait to dig in. But one small problem presented itself, how were we going to warm these hot dogs up? I am all for trying new things, but cold hot dogs will definitely not be one of those. With Nadia and Kevin’s great fire making skills we quickly had a toasty fire up and running. And then came Kate’s genius idea. We all found sticks and cleaned them up as best we could to roast our hot dogs on. I must admit I acted like a real snob, preferring to buy sticks rather than find my own. I quickly got over it when the price of a stick in a shop was almost the equivalent to buying a small country in Africa, well almost. With Kate’s great idea we got closer to nature and more in tune with our ancestors of the primitive ages. All in all it was a fun experience. And we managed to get done just before the heavens opened and unleashed her heavy load of rain. When the rains subsided for a while we made our way to the communal area, we had our showers and then joined the kids for movie time. Alvin and the Chipmunks proved to engross us just as much as it did the little kids. I guess all it takes for our inner child to come out is a couple of chipmunks shaking their booty’s on a stage and singing in squeaky voices.
The next day broke clear, with the sun shining down gloriously. It seemed that our water rafting adventure would be hailed in with magnificent weather.  We all got ready for the adventure in wetsuits that seemed to suck the very air out of you, which I did not understand quite so much. If I was going to drown, shouldn’t there be air in me so I could at least float a little? After getting all the dressed up in wetsuits and life jackets, we were on our way in this movie-style, yellow school buses, down to the river and the start of our rafting expedition. Most rafts required at least six people on it, so as there were only four of us we had to make friends with two other people. The lucky people who got to spend a wonderful couple of hours in the presence of three South Africans and a Czech was a mom and her college aged son from New Jersey. They proved to be really interesting companions for our ride down the river.
It started off as a truly mesmerizing ride, with the clear water below, the blue sky above and the trees surrounding us on all sides. I surely could not have imagined a more wonderful place. The ride downstream was challenging at times, what with having to figure out how exactly to use my paddle to row forward and backward. When the thinking of this got too much for my poor brain I would have to stop and rest for a while, much to the annoyance of everyone else. With many of the people doing this tour being first time novices we had many stops along the way. So with those of us who could not quite wait patiently and behave ourselves, we armed ourselves with buckets and declared war on ships of rafting victims passing by. There was a war and no one was getting out unscathed in this one. We had our last stop before lunch as we were awaiting the arrivals of the troops that had taken the time to appreciate nature rather than make a speedy trip down river. Sitting in that little raft I had a thought. I have a bunch of thoughts all the time, most often not to brilliant. Would we end up in the same spot, with our rafts, which we had begun in? I made the momentous mistake of voicing this thought out loud. With a reply of, “Rivers don’t run in circles!” I was quickly thrown overboard. Here’s a time for another confession, it took me months to figure out my comment and the reply to it, but when my aha moment came and I realized the stupidity of my ways, I vowed to become a smarter person. I am still working on this. Our lunch spot was on this great big rock on the side of the river and proved to test our steering and rafting abilities to the limit. In the end we all made it with few mishaps. Lunch was over before it had ever really begun and we were back on our rafts and on our way to finishing up our long day on the river. To my surprise we never did end up where we started off, but a great deal of things will surprise me in life. As we ended our journey on the long Delaware River we said excited farewells to this fantastic place that had granted us a day of wonderful memories and loads of fun. Back at camp we packed up our belongings, climbed into our car and made the unwanted drive back home. With such an exciting adventure coming to an end, who would ever want to think about the practicalities of work the next day?
Richard Bangs once said this about rivers, “Wild rivers are earth’s renegades, defying gravity, dancing to their own tunes, resisting the authority of humans, always chipping away and eventually always winning.”  This river, the Delaware, surely had a mind all its own. We never told her how fast or slow we wanted her to go, she told us exactly what she was going to do and we could do nothing about it. But I felt that at the end of that day with a troop of wet humans emerging from the river, we had conquered a small piece of that Delaware River.

Safe travels!