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 d├ęcor 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!