Make Everyday a Journey

Though I’ve ended my Fran’s Lands 7-month adventure, my spirit of trying new and crazy things is here to stay.

         I’m back!!!!!!!!

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When I was 7-years-old, I dressed up like a princess with a magic carpet for a rabbit costume competition. We could travel anywhere then, and we can travel anywhere now!

I can’t say I was eager to return to America, but life always catches up with us, even when we wish it wouldn’t.

Back to Cornell University. Back to courses and jobs. Back to TAing, Bible study, and conferences. And of course, back to friends and family, who’ve been beside me since before my journey began.

The same ol’ Francine is back. But I insist that being gone for 7 months and in 7 countries has changed me. How could it not?

This post is the final wrap-up to my Fran’s Lands journey. So what could possibly make my ultimate Fran’s Lands list? Read on!

 

 

Things you’d never learn if you were a travel-phobic American homebody:

 

  1. Legitimately spicy food exists… and can make you happy.

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This pic is from my friend Camille’s Instagram post of my spicy noodle eating (and water gulping!) at Satan’s Noodles. The words in the post mean, “Go Francine! You can eat spiciness level 5!”

I’m from the American Midwest, where food is tasty but lacking in the spice department. It took lots of Mexican jalapeño salsa and exploring world cuisines for me to develop taste buds that even accepted mild tang!

During my Fran’s Lands journey, my spice tolerance hit an all-time high. From winning a South African chilli-eating competition against 3 tough guys to downing noodles with 50 cabe peppers at Indonesia’s infamous Satan’s Noodles restaurant, I’ve developed a passion for spice. In fact, when tangy food prods tears down my cheeks, I’m ecstatic!

 

 

  1. Whiteness (and Americanness) is real.

Being abroad was a huge eye opener because I learned that race matters. And as a white person, it’s a position of privilege.

On the streets of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, I can’t tell you how many times women and kids set their hands smack-dab in front of my face begging for money.

I also can’t recall how many people approached me wanting to be friends and, as soon as they learned I lived in New York, would say something like, “Ooooohhh! New York. The city that never sleeps…the city where everyone’s dreams come true.”

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Privilege also means opportunity. During my research in India, my fellowship provided enough funds so that I could give each respondent household some kitchenware.

I would rarely tell them that New York was a state—not only a sprawling urban center—and that there’s challenges there like the rest of the world.

“I’m saving my money so one day I can go to America too,” many of them would say, often mentioning a friend or brother or cousin who had gone through the immigration fiasco to get there. I’m a lucky, white American – I won’t deny it.

 

 

  1. There’s never a good excuse to say ‘no’ to fitness.

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One of my favorite activities is climbing mountains. Here I am on Mount Bromo in Indonesia!

I could have been healthier the last few months, but as a lifelong foodie, how could I resist the decadent international dishes? Besides, it’s part of the experience.

However, as far as exercise goes, I give myself 5 gold stars. Fitness, I learned, can be adapted to wherever you are.

In Indonesia, I took on Muay Thai, a Thai martial art that was perhaps the most intense physical activity I’ve attempted. You use hands, elbows, legs, knees, face…

In South Africa, I got involved in a hiking club and found a few mountains to scale every couple days. When nature’s around, make the most of it!

Most recently in India, I did one of my favorite activities of all: riding bicycles! My research center had plenty of peacocks, so I enjoyed evening rides to watch those awe-inspiring creatures in action.

 

 

  1. Having a bizarre foreign accent is pretty cool.

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I know one thing: I couldn’t have developed my bizarre accent from speaking Indonesian for 2 months! Here I am with Mbak Mei (left) and Mbak Vita (right), my Indonesian language tutors.

I don’t sound American anymore, and I don’t sound British either. People tell me it’s like a fusion of the 2 accents. How did that happen?

Well, most of the countries I’ve been to were formerly British colonies, so I could have picked up their pronunciations.

I also have a habit of speaking clearly and slowly, sometimes over-accentuating words, especially when I’m with people whose first language is not English. That could have contributed too.

Is my voice strange now? Absolutely! But I don’t care – I’m unique!

 

 

  1. Traveling can make you realize, accept, and embrace yourself.

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At Phang Nao Bay in Thailand, I felt as alive as I physically, mentally, and emotionally could be.

I wasn’t very outgoing growing up, but I always had lots on my mind that I wish I had the courage to say.

Traveling, particularly traveling solo, made me rediscover my bubbliness, humor, and other personality traits I had always had but had somewhat closeted.

I figured that for each person I met I could start on an empty slate.  I began living every moment as the best version of myself. In the process, I found people who liked me for me, not for my accomplishments, Americanness, or background. Just plain ol’ Francine.

 

 

***

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Hiking in South Africa with my hiking club! I’m not sure what this look on my face means.

That was my fun final Fran’s Lands list, but since it’s my last post, it’s time for a sentimental closing note.

Throughout my Fran’s Lands journey, many people have told me that I’m living their dream. And I would respond by saying that I’m living my dream.

I had wanted to travel because I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to see and understand people’s needs and use my pen, academic training, and wit to do something about it. I don’t know if I’ve succeeded in that, but I do know that I’ve tried and that whatever career or rabbit hole I end up in, I will do something that positively matters.

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Woah! Zebras on the road. A South African safari never felt so thrilling!

Being internally changed by being abroad was just a side effect of my experiences. I learned that my words are powerful and influential, and when used with authenticity and conviction, there’s little they can’t do.

I also learned that confidence is one of the hardest lessons to pick up but among the most rewarding skills to have.

And on a personal relationship note, I discovered that even if a guy likes me—maybe even says he loves me—I should never feel obliged to return his feelings.

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Looking silly but feeling amazing! For my final Indonesian presentation, I discussed my research on cats’ tails… and dressed up like my feline friends.

The more I explore and the more I accomplish, the more I understand that the same things are just as important today as they were the day I was born: my inner worth, my family and friends, and God.

Even if your name isn’t Fran and even if you never have had a Fran’s Lands journey, I implore you to not be afraid to do something you’ve never done before. Chances are you’ll fall flat on your face while doing it, and that’s okay. What’s not okay is living your life in your own little nook, torturing yourself under the haunting question: “What if?”

Be a Fran. Make everyday a journey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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If I could marry a country, it would be India.

When I first arrived in India nearly 3 years ago, I thought the country was overrated. But the more time I spent in it, the more I realized that I was developing feelings for it.

India is the only country that I’ve deeply fell in love with.

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A girl drawing special shapes for Pongal. It’s a 10-day Hindu festival in Southern India that commemorates the harvest. It’s a really big deal here, much more than Christmas was!

Did its catchy Bollywood romances, dances, and tunes do me in?

Or perhaps its addictive curried food. It did make me cry not just from zest but also soul-pleasing, tongue-enrapturing flavor!

Or maybe it was their weddings- so time consuming yet beautiful, meaningful, and radically different from the white dress events in my country.

Anyone can explain away love yet fail to pinpoint the real reason behind that buttery feeling.

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Me with my focus group female respondents in Aurepalle Village. Compared to my respondents in Dokur Village, these ladies are feisty!

Yep, I adore India. And these past 2 weeks, collecting socioeconomic data in its villages has made me as fulfilled as a person under love’s spell can be.

While I can’t make you fall in love, I can at least entice you by telling my experiences. Beware: what I’m about to say is not all giddy happy. Besides, love grows both blossoms and thorns!

 

 

India Love Lesson #1:

DON’T get too close to wild animals!

Sometimes lovers need to give each other space. I had to apply that lesson when interacting with a village monkey this week.

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Here’s a monkey, probably the same one that attacked me a couple days after this photo was taken.

He was about the size of an 8-year-old boy, sitting about 10 feet away from me on my village house’s staircase to the roof. As I sat there typing on my laptop, he busily gorged himself on a big ol’ palm fruit. Then suddenly we freaky scary locked eyes.

I stood up, thinking he’d scat after seeing I was bigger than him. How dim-witted that was! The creature charged, jumping on me then vigorously pulling and biting at my cloak. I shrieked horrendously loud as if a murder was in progress, which at the time seemed feasible. He ran away as my language translator sprinted up the stairs to see what on earth happened.

 

India Love Lesson #2:

Don’t be surprised if people have a different definition of toilet.

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At the same school where kids are banned from pooping.

The more lovers know each other, the more they—often the females—realize that their better half’s bathroom habits are insufficient or incomprehensible. So it is with India, where nearly half the population doesn’t use toilets.

 

At one village’s government primary school, I learned that the students aren’t allowed to use toilets if they have to go #2. In fact, they’re commanded to openly defecate because the pit toilets smell bad and water isn’t readily available to clean them. Yet that same school’s science curriculum also teaches students that open defecation is unhealthy and unsafe!

 

India Love Lesson #3

Drink wisely.

Love can (and often does) involve alcohol. It might surprise you that Indians are fond of drinking because they’re already chai masters. But in Southern Indian villages, palm wine, or toddy, is a favorite.

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Here are 3 bottles of toddy, fresh from the palm tree. The drink only lasts 1-2 days before spoiling.

One particular Backward Caste group has passed their toddy tapping secrets from generation to generation. During my village research, I bought a liter of toddy from a household for only 30 rupees (less than .50 USD). A half-sip of the sweet-sour beverage was enough for my exclusively water-conditioned self!

 

 

India Love Lesson #4:

Know that you can’t always change what others think.

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It’s hard to reverse a mentality of throwing waste everywhere. In Dokur Village, this is a common site: trash, murky water, and wild pigs.

We all wish that Romeo and Juliet’s families liked each other so that the lovers didn’t need to commit suicide, but that’s just not how things were. In India, the caste system was outlawed decades ago yet it’s still very much a reality.

The former harijans (untouchables), now part of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, are still generally the most disadvantaged people in the country. When surveying villagers, I found that my upper caste respondents almost always refused waste cleaning jobs. “That’s just not the type of work our people do,” they’d say.

 

India Love Lesson #5:

Following your passion never hurt anyone.

Some lovers express their affection through painting, others through songs or old-fashioned letters. I show India my love by going there to research its villages’ sanitation and waste management, which I believe are among the most under-explored issues in the country—and world—today.

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In Aurepalle Village, the government hires a rickshaw walla (bicycle rickshaw driver) to collect households’ waste.

In one village I surveyed, people toss their waste everywhere because a trash pick-up system simply doesn’t exist. In another village, the government hired a man to drive a bicycle rickshaw to pick up waste from each household. However, he’s a drunkard who appears to take advantage of households’ bribes.

On a whole other note, I’ve developed a huge disdain for plastic bags! They’re everywhere in these remote villages!

***

So ends my love letter. A week from now, I’ll be headed back to the states for the first time in 8 months to finish my junior year at Cornell University. And I’ll go back with the belief that distance can NEVER squash true love. If anything, I’ll return to India even more smitten, with a new Bollywood soundtrack to hum, research to conduct, and of course spicier dishes to kill my tastebuds!

 

Here’s some extra photos from my village experience:

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Dosa is my favourite Indian breakfast food. Its main ingredients are rice and black gram and it almost always has an accompanying chutney sauce.
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This is bajji, which is fried chillies. Not as spicy as I expected.
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Me with a husband-wife toddy (palm wine) tapping team. Usually the man is the one who goes to the top of the palm tree to get the toddy while the woman sells the beverage.
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Here I am doing a mapping exercise with school kids in Aurepalle Village. I’m interested in knowing where men, women, and kids think the village’s top waste sites are.
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Kabadi walas play huge roles in Indian waste management! This guy goes to 20 villages on a regular basis to buy people’s plastic and glass bottles, which he resells for recycling and scrap purposes.
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After giving birth to 4 girls, this woman succeeded in bearing a son! In India, gender inequality is still very real.
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This lady was elected to the gram panchayat, or village government. However, she only holds the position because it fullfills a government quota stipulating that 4 out of 10 gram panchayat representatives are women. Who’s actually making the decisions? Her husband.
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Here I am with Dokur’s sarpanch, or village mayor.
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Dokur’s open drains are a favourite pecking site for chickens.
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Dokur’s villagers were not afraid to tell me about their go-to dumping spots. This is probably one of them!

 

 

 

 

Holiday Magic, Indian Style

I spent my first Christmas and New Year away from home to get time for a research project. Though I missed my family greatly, I learned what Indian celebrations are all about!

At 21-years-old, I’ve been to 19 countries, almost as many as my age. Traveling has taught me more about myself and others than perhaps anything else.

I’ve been to where shrapnels are shot daily on the Gaza Strip of the Israel-Palestine border. I’ve been threatened by men with AK-47s near the Kenya-Somalia border. I’ve received marriage proposals and avoided countless sexual invitations. And I’ve grown so close to people worlds apart from me, all while knowing that I probably won’t see most of them again.

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Here I am with one of the sanitary officers from the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) I interviewed for my research. He manages 25 waste collectors (trash picker-uppers) in the city.

But at the end of every day and trip, I’m left with 3 things: myself, God, and my family at home. I must love myself and realise that God never wavers in His love for me. And that my mom, dad, and brother support me wherever I am.

My family and I have never spent major holidays apart… until this year. But with me receiving generous funding for my senior thesis research in India, I ended up spending both Christmas and New Year’s away. Boy was it interesting!

 

In Hyderabad, India I learned that Christmas is not a big deal…

  • Many Indians don’t prioritize Christmas because they think it’s only a Christian holiday.

Want to feel strong Indian holiday vibes? I was told to be in the country during Diwali (festival of lights) or Holi (festival of colors) or even Pongal (South Indian harvest festival). That’s when the sales, music, and celebrations really happen!

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For those who don’t celebrate the religious aspects of Christmas, they can still savor these sweet treats! This is my dessert table from my Christmas brunch.

  • Christmas carols do not play on the radio.

This made me somewhat melancholy because I often spend my Decembers humming to every Christmas song I can. When I asked Hyderabadis which Christmas songs they know, the only sure tune they’d recall was Jingle Bells.

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My Christmas Eve church service hosted by Hope Unlimited Church. This was the only place where I sang Christmas carols this year!

 

  • Don’t count on “Christmas entertainment” to actually include holiday material.

I went to a comedy show called Stand Up Santas a couple days before Christmas, and surprise! None of the jokes had anything to do with Christmas. However, I did become the subject of several jokes, perhaps because I was the only foreigner in the 12-person crowd.

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It’s hard to find Christmas treats around Hyderabad. This delectable dish is homemade plum crumble made by my friend Thomas’ wife.

 

  • If you want to get into the Christmas spirit, start celebrating on Christmas Eve.

I don’t know if I’ve ever missed a Christmas Eve church service, and I didn’t want this year to be that year. So I ended up going to a 10 PM-1 AM church service in Hitech City, Hyderabad. There we sang Christmas carols and heard a Christian message, but it bothered me that most of the event involved a soap opera-style play and a jam session!

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I had Christmas Eve dinner at Thomas’ home. Pictured above is me and Aditi, another girl invited to the gathering.

 

  • Many Hyderabadis get Christmas Day off work.

That means that the malls, restaurants, and movie theatres are hopping. I saw a rom-com Bollywood movie, went bowling, had street food, and took a boat ride to see a statue of Buddha. Not exactly Christmas activities!

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The Buddha statue in the middle of Hyderabad’s Hussain Sagar Lake was consecrated by the Dalai Lama and has become a major tourist attraction.

 

  • If you crave something Christmasy, then go out for Christmas brunch.

That’s what I did after having a dosa breakfast at Chutney’s, a touristy Hyderabadi restaurant. I ate my brunch at a fancy hotel, where a saxophonist and pianist serenaded my friend Bhupendra and I with Christmas melodies.

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Me with foods I managed to wolf down at Park Hyatt Hotel’s Christmas brunch in Banjara Hills, Hyderabad.

 

While Hyderabadis don’t fuss over Christmas, they usually make New Year’s plans….

  • Cakes are essential New Year treats.

Not that I bought one. If muffins were sold, you could have counted me in!

  • New Year’s Eve parties are happening left and right.

I almost attended a Hyderabadi New Year’s party because there were so many! Hotels and restaurants were offering buffets with unlimited drinks, dancing, and games. But I instead chose to hang out with my friend Avi, who had other activities and treats in mind.

  • As the clock ticks midnight on New Year’s, the road becomes a chaotic orchestra.

People honk their horns, play music, shout, and wave at strangers. The sky glows with fireworks every couple seconds. Venders remain open, capitalising on the partier mindset. As for me, I brought in the New Year on the backseat of Avi’s motorcycle.

  • People greet each other the first few days after New Year’s.

“Happy New Year,” they say to friends and strangers while shaking hands. It’s like Americans uttering “Merry Christmas” to each other to spread the holiday spirit.

***

While this year’s Christmas season was drastically different from my past holiday celebrations, it certainly was unforgettable. Now as I spend my next couple weeks traveling to villages to research rural waste management, I’m still in the holiday spirit of making a difference. And I’m recognizing that wherever I am, there’s beauty not just in my heritage but also in the diverse traditions of other cultures.

 

Here’s my bonus photos…

First are my miscellaneous fun shots:

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Happy New Year! On January 1, I saw many colorful messages written on sidewalks and driveways.
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A couple days before Christmas, I went to a sufi music festival, which is an annual Muslim festival that involves Urdu singing, poetry, and Egyptian carpet dancers.
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My dear friend and former translator Swathi had me over to her house, where she made me food and gathered her family in my honor.  We also went to the Golconda Fort to see this mosque!
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At Golconda Fort, Swathi’s family and I watched this sound and light show.
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Gulab jamun, a milk-solid-based sweet prepared by Swathi.
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Me with my late night dinner of paneer (Indian cottage cheese) that I shared with my lawyer friend, Bhupendra (pictured in this post’s cover photo).

And here are some takes from my solid waste management research:

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From the left is my translator (his name slips my mind), my other translator Swathi, a waste collector, and me. As I’m learning, the Indian waste collecting profession is very much correlated to caste. Only the lower castes are willing to do that work.
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On the far right is the deputy commissioner, or vice president, of the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC). Since he’s meeting the waste needs of 10 million Hyderabadis, I was fortunate to meet with him.
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I was interviewing just the sanitary officer (to my right), but after a few questions he said that he was afraid of giving away confidential government information. So he called up his boss, who came too (to my left)!
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A cycle rickshaw used by GHMC waste collectors to deposit wet and solid household waste.

 

 

Elephants, Mangoes, Video Games… Zambia and Botswana Have It All

Though the Fran’s Lands journey is nearly over, my wild African experience lives on in my heart. Here’s a taste of my most recent Zambian and Botswanan adventures. 

Sadly, I have only 1 month left before returning to the states, which means my blog is almost finished! As I spend my final 5 weeks in India, this blog is a reflection of last week’s memories in Zambia and Botswana.

Botswana had never peaked my interest until about a month ago when someone told me that the the country’s wildlife and safaris are Africa’s best! During my brief stay there, here’s some facts I learned about the country:

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    Elephants getting a drink at Chobe National Park in Botswana.

    Chobe National Park is an elephant’s dream home- When I did my extended journalism project in South Africa, I learned that Botswana had banned trophy hunting in 2014. This legislation proved beneficial for many Botswanan wildlife populations, particularly elephants, who now number 120,000 within Chobe’s 11,700 km² park.

  • The Zambezi River borders 4 countries- To cross from Zambia to Botswana, I boarded a shipping ferry at the Kazungula border. The cool thing about Kazungula is that it’s on the Zambezi River, where Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Namibia’s borders meet.
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The baobab prison tree in Kasane, Botswana.
  • Baobab trees can live thousands of years- I’m not a huge plant fan, but when I see baobab trees, I go nuts! Baobabs, found intermittently throughout Africa, are known to withstand immense drought conditions. In some African cultures it’s even worshipped. In Kasane, Botswana, I came across a famous baobab tree that formerly served as a prison.
  • Botswana’s political figures deserve kudos- Did you know that since the 1990s, Botswana has had the lowest corruption rating in Africa? It’s at the same level as South Korea and Portugal!

After my Botswanan excursion, I took a long 7-hour bus trip from Livingstone, Zambia’s tourist capital, to Lusaka, its political capital. I came to Lusaka mostly to catch up with old friends I had made when I researched there last year.

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A look at Lusaka from me and my friend Fernando’s favorite city hideaway.

Many things have changed in the country since I was last there, like:

  • My neighbor’s baby had grown- Last year I drove my host mom’s neighbor to the hospital when she was in labor, so it was a proud moment to meet the little munchkin I helped bring to life.
  • Lusaka is vastly updating its airportAnd surprise, surprise! The Chinese are building it. If you want to learn about something the average person has no idea about, look up Chinese development in Africa. It’s quite a conundrum!
  • Zambian technology is moving forward- my friend Fernando took me to a slum in Lusaka’s outskirts called California. While there, we played video games in a little room where there were 10 TVs with Xboxes. Some smart fellow is making money off little boys who spend their weeknight and weekend hours playing video games there. One game costs only 1 kwacha (less than 10 cents)! As I looked around the room, I wondered: Is this all these kids spend their money on?
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My friend Toby and I spent an evening at Lusaka National Park, where we saw one of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen. Just imagine nothing but trees for as far as you can see.

Despite surprises, many things remained the same in Lusaka, reminding me of why I fell in love with Zambia in the first place:

  • Hungry Lion if there was a readers’ choice award for top restaurant chain, Zambia’s vote would unquestionably be Hungry Lion. I don’t know what makes it so good—is it the spice in which they marinate their fried chicken? Or their French fries’ perfect size, shape, flexibility, and potato-to-crunch ratio?
  • Minibuses I’m laughably pathetic at navigation, which is why Google Maps and I are particularly tight. Thankfully in Lusaka, Google Maps posts the minibus’ routes! Although I’m always smushed next to other passengers in these vehicles, it’s much cheaper than taxi fares… and makes for a local experience.
  • Sprawling informal markets- I love shopping at informal markets, where I can buy fruits, veggies, and other miscellaneous goodies. Especially mangoes…they are in season here now!
  • 2 annoying words – Whites in Zambia are called muzungus. It’s easy to learn that here because people say it as soon as they see me. As I meander through town, taxi drivers also shout “taxi,” and since 99.99% of the time I don’t need a taxi, the word has become my least favorite word in the English language.

Zambia and Botswana were my last taste of Africa for who knows how long and as I now bid adieu to the continent, its exquisite wildlife, and the people I’ve met here, I venture on to where the wind takes me next. Next stop: Hyderabad, India.

***

Here’s some bonus pictures, first from Botswana:

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A hippo grazing. I’m not sure whether it’s an ugly creature or not!
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A crocodile lazily snoozing under the sun at the Chobe River.
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A bushbuck on the Namibian side of Chobe.
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A troop of baboons.
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A young impala buck. There were literally thousands of these in the park!
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In the distance is a large herd of Cape Buffalo, one of the Big Five.
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I spent an afternoon at The Chobe Crocodile Farm. Did you know that crocodile meat is one of the healthiest meats, especially for people with poor immune systems?
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Some pap (mushy white maize) with a salad and “Botswanan steak.” I made sure that the steak was actually Botswana-sourced before ordering it.

Now from Zambia:

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Me with my good friend, Herbert, at Hungry Lion. Herbert is the spokesperson for Zambia’s Ministry of Home Affairs, and I’m very proud of his hard work.
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Fernando and I have been close friends since we first met in Zambia last year. I love how he makes itineraries for places to go and things to see.
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Vitumbuwa, or fritters, are one of my favorite Zambian treats. But I only ordered them once this time because they’re not an artery pleaser!
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At most Zambian restaurants, the foods available are usually traditional cuisine and this: chicken shawarma. It’s actually one of the most popular street foods on the planet.
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One of my favorite snacks of all time: cassava with ground nuts (peanuts).
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Lusaka National Park’s winning sunset.
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A look at the slum California in Lusaka. Fernando and I spent an afternoon adventuring around here.
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One afternoon, my friend Toby drove me around Lusaka so that I could find all the city’s sites for the Southern African Freedom Trail. Pictured above is the home of Oliver Tambo, the president of the ANC party in South Africa while the apartheid government had banned it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fit to be hunted: Trophy hunting and other South African secrets

Cape Town is great for physical fitness and outdoor adventuring, but few know its trophy hunting (and other) secrets.

The last 6 weeks I interned in Africa’s largest newsroom while getting crazy into fitness and learning about trophy hunting. I was quite surprised by what I encountered.

As a writer for the Sunday Times, I tackled an array of topics:

  • Black Friday- South African-style

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    Toys R Us was the busiest store at the Canal Walk Shopping Centre on Black Friday. The most drama that occurred there was a customer trying to take all 7 boxes of an available doll for themselves. They weren’t allowed.

While Black Friday is American, Africa also adopted it a couple years ago. I was assigned early morning duty for that day at Canal Walk, one of South Africa’s largest malls.

The mall’s biggest draw was Toys R Us, where a line of 75 customers congregated to get 50% off toys. I couldn’t help but snicker while there. South African media was making this day a big deal, but compared to the US this was trifling.

  • Puppies dying from uniquely scented diarrhea

The animal lover in me came out when it became my mission to inform the community about parvo, a puppy virus spreading through Cape Town. I interviewed top clinics in the area as well as the city’s animal carcass disposal service, all of whom confirmed that the parvo outbreak is the worst it’s been in decades.

  • A long-awaited rape trial

I helped contribute to one of South Africa’s most pressing criminal cases about the rape and murder of 21-year-old university student Hannah Cornelius.  The four men accused were all members of gangs and all but one were handed life sentences.

In that tiny court room, I quickly learned to keep my eyes from wandering- the prisoners tried to make eye contact with me a few times! That gave me the strangest feeling…

When I wasn’t writing and reporting, I lived freely outdoors:

  • Hiking Table Mountain and Lion’s Head

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After a sweaty hike to the top of Table Mountain, I took the cable car down. See the view of Cape Town below!

Lion’s Head is the mountain directly across from Table Mountain, considered the easier of the two peaks for hiking. However, it still contains chains, ladders, and obstacles. The view on top is worth the toil: its sunset is breathtaking!

I loved doing Table Mountain’s hardest route: Skeleton Gorge. Though it’s only 3.7 miles (6 kilometers), it’s the hardest hike I’ve done.

  • Biking to Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point

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The view of Cape Point. See the different shades of water on the the left side.

The Cape of Good Hope is Africa’s southwestern-most point, while Cape Point is where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans are believed to meet.  Both sites are located within Table Mountain National Park, and are about 10 miles (15 kilometers) from Simonstown, where there are penguin colonies!

I ended up doing a 40-mile bicycle ride to and from Simonstown and around both capes, with some exploring along the way. I wasn’t ready for pedalling up those mountains though!

  • Doing a Color Run at Sea Point

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    Looking quite blue after Cape Town’s Color Run!

I joined thousands of people to walk (few ran) the scenic promenade along the Sea Point beach, going from color station to color station. An Afrikaans family made sure I was doused in color at the end!

My greatest Cape Town thrill, however, was a trophy hunting story I developed the last couple weeks:

I’m pitching it for international publication, hopefully USA Today or National Geographic. Here are some main points:

  • Trophy hunters are mostly Americans (86%) who come to South Africa to hunt just about any wild animal, which is permissible if they pay for it.

 

  • While trophy hunters are a small percentage of tourists to South Africa (<.1%), they spend about $20,000 per person in country. That’s huge!

 

  • Trophy hunting in South Africa is profitable. In the 1960s, there were no game ranches. Today, partly due to lucrative legislation, almost 10,000 private game reserves exist.

 

  • Hunters say they’re supporting conservation with the big bucks they spend on hunts and only killing old animals that no longer contribute to herds.

 

  • Critics say hunting proceeds rarely go toward local communities or conservation and that often the older males are the most productive and vital for keeping herds together.
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A collection of animal trophies at Buck ‘n Bass Taxidermy in Durbanville in the Cape Winelands. Taxidermy here takes six months per animal.

An objective of my article was to understand why trophy hunters considered killing animals a semi-religious experience. These guys would sometimes ball their eyes out as they shot their prey, and almost always made sure that the creature was taxidermied to display openly in their house. Rarely, however, did they care about getting the animal’s meat. Why? That was one of my many questions…But if the story’s published, I want you still to be surprised!

***

As I leave Cape Town for my next international adventure, I appreciate the opportunities the city gave me to explore my writing passion, encounter land and sea, and develop a deep interest in something I previously had no clue about. Farewell, South Africa!

 

More photos from my last 6 weeks are below:

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Me with Maein, my close Libyan friend. HIs childhood dream was to become a pilot, so he saved his $$$ the last 5 years to come to South Africa so he could learn English and then take pilot training.
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The two Frans meet! Here I am with the other Fran, who owns Fran’s Place, a Simonstown restaurant.
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Another look at me after finishing the Color Run…before my face got doused in blue!
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I’ve been to many church services where nobody even says hi to me. However, at Cape Peninsula Reformed Church, I quickly became a part of a tight-knit, God-fearing family.
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Being away for so long can be draining. That’s why I like to keep in touch with friends. I talk on Skype every week with my Indonesian pals, Mbak Vita and Mbak Mei. It keeps my Bahasa Indonesia skills sharp and gives us an excuse to stay in touch!
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When I reached the Cape Point lighthouse, it was selfie time! My hair is blowing, but I don’t care!
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I’ve always wanted to see penguins in the wild. At last, in Simonstown, here they are.
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Here I am at Cape of Good Hope, Africa’s most southwestern point.
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Kalk Bay, a touristy coastal town where my church friends took me for lunch one Sunday afternoon.
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On the top of Table Mountain is a reservoir with water that is  red-orange.
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My last day in Cape Town, I went with my friend Nell to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela had stayed for 16 of his 27 prison years. While the island is no longer a prison, it’s excellent for birding and turtle viewing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What does Cape Town taste like?

It’s time to look at the greatest hits in Cape Town food, from the healthiest to the most artery-clogging. 

As I bid the Mother City a semi-teary-eyed farewell, I’m doing a special post on food. That’s how delicious Cape Town is!

While it’s developed its own cuisine over the years, it has even more dishes from across the globe. Get ready for your tummy to rumble!

 

  1. Healthy eaters, meet Kauai.

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Kauai’s chocolate protein smoothie bowl.
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Thai Crunch, my favourite Kauai salad. The grilled chicken and cashews make a nice touch on the colorful plate.

Kauai is one of my favorite restaurants in Cape Town and definitely my favorite food franchise in South Africa. It sells breakfast foods, smoothies, wraps, and salads which all have fresh ingredients that you can count on your fingers. It’s popular among gym rats and smoothie lovers due to its quick service, rewards app, and of course delicious tastes.

My go-tos here are the Thai Crunch salad and chocolate protein smoothie bowl. However, if I’m in the Kloof Street franchise in Cape Town, I order the cacao crunch froyo with cacao nibs!

If this place was in the states, how could it not do well?

 

  1. Unhealthy eaters, it’s time you meet Gatsby.

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A half portion of Gatsby I bought at the Food-Inn in Bellville, a 30-minute drive from Cape Town.

Think of all the unhealthy foods you’ve ever had. Now put them in a sandwich. That’s a Gatsby, a Cape Town original. Though there’s many variations of the sandwich, it usually comes down to these ingredients:

  • French fries
  • Ketchup
  • Fried egg
  • Cheese
  • Grease
  • Sausage
  • Steak
  • Basic submarine bun

My first—and and only—time getting it, I ordered a half sub and was shocked to receive a 12-inch beast! I take pride in my stomach’s capacity, but ingesting all that was tough!

 

  1. Butter chicken is Cape Town’s fixin’.

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A healthy portion of butter chicken with brown rice and veggies from a non-Indian restaurant. If this was an Indian place, the rice portion would be doubled… and there wouldn’t be any veggies.

Cape Town’s the only place where I’ve found Indian restaurants thriving on selling butter chicken. That’s flabbergasting because butter chicken has almost no spice. To me, Indian food = spice!

Hoping to understand Capetonian tastes, I’ve ordered butter chicken a few times but still don’t know what all the fuss is.

 

  1. Neon green ice cream: McDonald’s shows new colors.

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McDonald’s Choc Lime McFlurry. Would you try it or take a pass?

Billboard advertisements have no power over me. Unless they show food. After passing a McDonald’s billboard daily for a couple weeks, I decided to try what they were showing: Choc Lime McFlurry.

The Choc Lime McFlurry is soft-serve vanilla ice cream with chocolate chunks and a green slimy lime syrup mixed into it. The syrup looked something between ogre snot and the juice from glow sticks, but I tried to not think about that as I had my first bites. Believe it or not, it was good enough to eat again!

 

  1. How do you make the world a more inclusive place? Buy a brownie.

Brownies and DownieS is one of Cape Town’s favourite restaurants and is located in the same building where I worked the last 6 weeks. They serve the richest brownies my tongue has had the privilege of tasting. Here’s their decadent flavours:

  • Chocolate 
  • Blondie
  • Salted caramel (my fave)
  • Vegan 
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My friends Mpriza and Taurick work at Brownies and Downies on Long Sreet. Photo: Natalie Elliott.

The downieS part of Brownies and Downies refers to people with Down Syndrome. You might think that’s an offensive way to talk about them, but in Cape Town it’s not viewed that way. Besides, the employees working there, all of whom have Down Syndrome, learn skills for the hospitality and retail sectors.

 

     6. Burgers, burgers, and more burgers!

 

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My first waffle burger ever, ordered at Mustacchio Caffé on Kloof Street.
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A beet burger (right) served with loaded fries (left) at Hudson’s Burger Joint on Kloof Street.

There’s not many Cape Town restaurants that don’t have a burger on their menu.

But for this post, only one place deserves special mention: Royale Eatery, located on Long Street. They serve about 50 different kinds of burgers as well as double-thick shakes. When I was there, I tried an ostrich burger! You can bring your vegan, gluten-free, and whatever other ingredient-free friends. There’s some version of burger for them too.

 

  1. Taste and experience Bo-Kaap culture.

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This is bobotie, a Cape Malay dish. It’s mince with an egg casserole topping served over yellow rice.
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As you can see, Bo-Kaap is a very colorful place! It’s located on the mountainous outskirts of Cape Town.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bo-Kaap is one of Cape Town’s gems. It’s a section of Cape Town with colourful homes where the Cape Malay community, which consists of Indonesian, Malaysian, Indian, and East African descendants, live. Although their ancestors came to Cape Town as indentured labourers (basically slaves) a couple hundred years ago, most of them have kept their Muslim faith.

However, they have changed up their cuisine. While they still serve flavorful and colorful curries, rotis, and rice dishes, their foods aren’t spicy, partly because the Europeans they’ve catered to generally don’t like spice. Try denning vleis (lamb tenders in brown-onion tamarind sauce) or bobotie (spiced mince with egg-based topping and  yellow rice).

 

  1. Springbok, crocodile, zebra…It’s all game to be eaten.

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At The Raj in Simonstown I ordered springbok tikka masala with spicy naan.

If you want to meet your safari animal friends on a plate, Cape Town would be an excellent place to do it. However, I would caution that you ask where your meat is sourced from first!

I sampled springbok, one of the local types of antelope, at an Indian restaurant in Simonstown, a town 45 minutes outside Cape town. Springbok tikka masala was on the menu, so I thought: why not try it? If you like how game meat tastes, then you’d be happy.

 

  1. Picky eaters have no complaints at Food Lovers Market.

I never was a big fan of the lit-up booths at grocery stores with salad bars, hot food, and other dishes ready to be plopped on your plate and weighed at checkout. Why? Because it wasn’t a buffet! The more I ate, the more I paid. So I’d be stuck with a little plate.

In Cape Town, the weigh-your-food and eat-it-now concept has taken off. Near Cape Town’s city centre, there’s several of these, most notably Food Lovers Market. Every food you can possibly think of is there. It’s also cheap, which could save you from prepping your own lunch every workday.

 

  1. Every cuisine you’ve dreamed (and haven’t yet dreamed) of trying is here.

 

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Empanadas from Picada’s, an Argentinian restaurant on Bree Street.
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Cape Malva pudding, a Capetonian delicacy known for its apricot flavor and spongy carmelized texture. It’s served with custard.

Moroccan. Argentinian. Burmese. Mexican. You name it, the Mother City’s got it. I tried empanadas, curries, chicken livers, puddings, and other concoctions, with many names that I’ve long forgotten. But though words may fail me, I’ll never forget the experiences I had and people I met throughout my food journey.

***

Whether you’re the most selective eater on the planet or you go for (almost) everything like me, Cape Town is calling your name. If you answer with your appetite, you won’t be disappointed.

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Trying Libyan pasta made by my friend, Maein. It tasted like regular pasta, only it had a kick!

Bonus Food Photos

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Ruby chocolate is the 4th chocolate flavor on the planet after milk, dark, and white! It’s fruity but tastes so mild it’s a letdown. I tried it at My Sugar in Sea Point.
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Moroccan fish cake with couscous at Rick’s Cafe Americain in Gardens.
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This is khow suey, a Burmese chicken curry served over rice and noodles, with 12 little spice dishes on the side. I got it at Mojo Market in Sea Point.
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This is labneh, radish, and spring onions served on toast at Clarke’s  on Bree Street. Labneh is a mixture of yogurt and cheese, nearly synonymous with Greek yogurt.
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Nothing beats food and company! Here’s me with Maein, my Libyan friend, at the Eastern Food Bazaar, one of the only places in Cape Town with affordable halaal food.
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I joined my journalism buddies for drinks at the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel. It’s Cape Town’s poshest hotel where all the celebs go. I, of course, had only water.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Musings from the Mother City

Cape Town is an eclectic city. It entertains, challenges, and invigorates me in more way than one.

“You’ll like Cape Town, guaranteed!”

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Here I am with 4 other students doing journalism internships. They are (from the left) Kelly, Corey, Saam, Natalie, and me.

“Cape Town is South Africa’s gem.”

“Oh, the Mother City!”

“Eish, Cape Town is paradise.”

“Cape Town, it’s like Africa and Europe pieced together.”

When I told local South Africans I’d be spending 2 months in Cape Town, these were the responses I got. South Africans love Cape Town. And that’s an underestimation. Yet I wondered whether the place was overhyped. Like the Frozen movie. It was good, but was it worth the constant rehashing of songs and scenes? Maybe not.

My first 2 weeks in Cape Town proved to me that Cape Town is spectacular, and in many senses of the word.

It’s South Africa’s answer to California.

Many people compare it to LA or San Francisco.

It’s a liberal, cosmopolitan, and modern coastal city with chic streets selling burgers, shakes, smoothies, and local fare. And its mountain scenery is breath-taking. Table Mountain and Lion’s Head overlook the entire city.

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This is Camps Bay, just outside of Cape Town. It’s one of the most beautiful spots on the planet, in my humble opinion.

The area is also relaxed, I imagine especially since the legalization of weed in September.

Need more proof of its similarities to Cali? The 2018 romcom film The Kissing Booth was shot both in LA and Cape Town. Watch the movie and tell me what you see!

It’s a case study in race and language.

I spent my first 2 months in South Africa in Durban, where most residents are black Africans and know isiZulu as their first language. Here in Cape Town racial categories and breakdowns are:

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My friend Craig and I making mutton curry. This guy is an Indian cooking mastermind!  And he happens to have a very mixed racial history.
  • Coloured (mixed racial descent)- 42.4%
  • Black African- 38.6%
  • White- 15.7%
  • Asian or Indian- 1.4%
  • Other- 1.9%

The term coloured has a bad connotation in the US, but in South Africa it’s more accepted. Racial categories are remnants of apartheid now used for affirmative action and other government purposes.

Here in Cape Town, most people’s first language is Afrikaans. Although Afrikaans was the language of the oppressor during apartheid, it’s almost universally spoken by whites, coloureds, and blacks here. Thankfully most people know English though!

Its media scene is up-and-coming.

The reason I’m in Cape Town is a journalism internship. However, I’m not aspiring to be a journalist. I just want to become the best writer possible!

I’m writing for the Sunday Times, the largest newspaper not only in South Africa but also on the continent. I’m assigned specific stories, and have already published 3. They’re about:

  • Pregnant women drinking fertilizers when they can’t get abortions- based on a recently published University of Pretoria study
  • Transport challenges for Capetonians with disabilities- involved me paying a visit to the Cape Town Society for the Blind
  • Mrs. Deaf South Africa I hung out with the pageant queen, learning how she seeks to empower the deaf community through her fitness and deaf confidence platform

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    Here I am with Mrs. Deaf South Africa. Believe it or not, our interview did not involve a translator. Although she’s “profoundly deaf,” she learned to lip read at age 2.

Fitness freaks are welcome.

I love leading a healthy lifestyle, and thankfully Cape Town makes that easy! Lions Head, a mountain directly across from Table Mountain, is a killer 2-hour hike involving ladders and stairs. Table Mountain is itself a hiking hotspot, but it’s not just one trail. The mountain is absolutely massive and could take days depending on the paths you choose.

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Running my first half marathon in South Africa was very cool…but those hills were tough!

And of course there’s running here! I do the parkrun 5K every Saturday at 8 AM, which is a cool South Africa initiative where you:

  • 1. Sign up for the parkrun online- you’ll then be able to download a free barcode
  • 2. Go to a location near you where a parkrun is hosted
  • 3. Wear your barcode and run- you’ll be sent your time after the run so you can improve next time

Since there’s hundreds of people who go to each parkrun, it’s like a race. Yet you don’t have to pay anything!

You have 0 chance of boredom.

Whenever I travel, I always try to befriend locals. Here I’ve already had some successes.

Once a week, my friend Craig teaches me to cook Indian food. Last week we made lamb bunny chow, and this week we prepped mutton curry with roti. He now calls me “Spice Queen.”

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I hiked Woodstock Cave on Table Mountain with my hiking club! Cape Town is in the background.

I also have a church family. Cape Peninsula Reformed Church is one of the most diverse churches I’ve ever attended, with whites, coloureds, and blacks; rich, middle class, and even beggars. And it’s only a 3-minute walk from my place!

That’s not all. I’ve got pals at Meridian Hiking Club and am looking forward to starting FREE tango and kizomba dance lessons this week.

 

So…if you’re looking for a city to explore, see a different side of Africa, and embrace your wild side, look no further than the Mother City. Take my word for it!

 

Now, in the spirit of my blog’s photo tradition, here’s some special moments from my last 2 weeks:

First, a new friend of mine…

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When I hiked at Kirstenbosch National Botannical Garden, I came across this creature bathing in the sun.

Now for the food…

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Here’s the bunny chow me, Craig, and my fellow journalism intern Saam made. It’s with carrot salad, a traditional side for bunny chow. We ate it all with our hands!
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Mutton curry made by Craig and I, served with roti and carrot salad.
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This is a koe’sister, a traditional Cape Malay pastry sprinkled with coconut. You can just call it a donut!
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Denning vleis is a popular Cape Malay dish among the Indonesian descendants in Bo-Kaap, Cape Town. It’s lamb loin chops in a sweet-sour, brown onion tamarind sauce and served with rice and several sides (as shown above). Thanks to Biesmiellah Restaurant for the meal!