Learning to Face Fear

Two years ago this week I did something my friends and family still don’t believe actually happened.

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I did the highest bungee jump in the world.

The jump was one of the main attractions while travelling along the Garden Route of South Africa, across its beautiful Southern coast. Three of my friends and I hopped in a car after finals to begin our trip – but I had already decided I’d skip the jump.

“I’ll just stay over on the side and take pictures of you as you jump! It will be great!” I told my friends over and over again, explaining my deathly fear of heights. I told them about how I wouldn’t go on rollercoasters or ferris wheels, and how even the escalators at the Metro stops in DC used to paralyze me with fear.

When the day finally came for us to drive to Bloukrans Bridge, Casey called in to make the reservations – and in a move that even surprised myself – I asked her to make the reservation for 4. We arrived at the bridge and I still hadn’t backed out. We paid our R790 fee (~$100 at the time) and signed the minimalistic waivers and I still hadn’t backed out.

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As we waited for our jump group to be called, we waited in the little bar and I sat with my back to the bridge. I didn’t want to think about what I was about to do – much less see it. We played cards to pass the time.

After our group was called everything became a blur.

We met up with about 10 other brave souls and my ears started ringing like they do after a concert or if you witness a large blast. Everything started to fade away and I was lost in my own thoughts. I stopped talking and grasped the bottom of my shorts tightly, as some sort of strange security blanket.

The next thing I remember is standing on the bridge and everyone staring at me. The instructor had just asked for “Jumper #59” and they were pointing to the large “J59” drawn in permanent marker on my outstretched hand.

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He told me I was first.

As I sat down and the instructors started hooking my feet up to the large bungee cable that would later be the only thing keeping me from plunging hundreds of meters into the ground, the rest of the group wondered if I could do it. They saw how scared I was. All of the color had drained from my face.

Will she be able to jump? Is she too scared? What if she doesn’t like it? Is she brave enough? Is she going to get sick? Will she regret it?

As I stood up and slowly crept my toes towards the edge of bridge, I wondered the same things.

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Now, two years later, I’m about to make another daring leap. I am leaving all of my family, friends, and most of my belongings behind to start a new life and a new career on a different continent, in a country I’ve never been to before where I’ll speak a language I’ve barely begun learning.

I don’t know what to expect once I make the leap.

People looking on are still wondering – wondering if I’ll make it, wondering how I’ll react, wondering if I can make it on my own.

This time is different. In the two years since my jump — since I challenged one of my greatest fears in the most literal way possible — I’ve learned how to face fear.

But it’s more than that now. I’ve not only learned how to face fear, but to crave it. To live for the excitement of trying new things and going out of my comfort zone. To setting enormously high goals for myself and having the confidence to know I’ll exceed them. To making changes to my life that hurt and take a lot of time to heal, but knowing it makes me stronger and a better person. I’ve learned that when I feel the most vulnerable, I have the most to gain and grow.

With only two months to go until I move to Morocco with the Peace Corps I feel like I’m back at that bar on the edge of the Bloukrans Bridge, waiting for it to be my turn. Except this time I’m watching everything with eyes wide open, palms outstretched to take everything in, embracing the ambiguity and excitement and preparation.

I don’t know what to expect once I make the leap.

And this time, I’m not afraid.

I’ve never been more ready for the rush.

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Saying Goodbye to Cape Town

I am still in disbelief that I am no longer in South Africa. How did five months fly by so quickly? How is my journey already over?  I’m still working through everything that happened — sometimes I wonder if it even happened at all — and the fact that I will be forever changed .

I spent my last night in Cape Town on top of Table Mountain to watch the sunset. I couldn’t think of a better way to say goodbye to a city that I have come to love so dearly.

 

I can’t wait until the day I get to return to South Africa. I know in my heart that some day I will. I will hold all that I have learned and experienced close to me, and never forget the woman that I have now become because of it.

 

 

My dear Cape Town, I will be thinking of you every day.

Until next time I will remember what you taught me:

Live fully,
face fear,
take advantage of everything,
and always, always have fun. 

One Month ’til USA

Where is home?

College students grapple with new things throughout their years of study – but right now a feeling of displacement is washing over me. It’s hard to create a feeling of home when you rarely stay in the same place for more than four months. I’m now half-way done with my Junior year of college, and yet I have no idea where home is.

I’ve moved so much in my life that I get confused when people ask me where I’m from. “I was born in Massachusetts, but my family lives in Texas now… and I go to school in Washington, DC.” Oh, and I’ve lived in Connecticut and Illinois too. Now I live in Cape Town, but soon I’ll be back in Texas, then to DC again. How will I identify myself when I go there? I’m not actually from either of those places.

But maybe that’s what I love so much about myself. I am a product of so many different cities, towns, states, cultures… and now countries. I don’t know where I’m going or where I want to live, but that’s part of the wonder of going into the field of international development. I am becoming a citizen of the world. I’ve never stayed in the same place for long, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

The shock and awe of a new place will never get old for me. I’m living in Cape Town, South Africa, right now, but I’m already looking forward to my next adventure. Where am I going to move to next? I really want to join the Peace Corps after I graduate. Will I come back to Africa? Will I be able to go to South America and finally become fluent in Spanish? Who knows. All I know is that I’m excited to find out.

So maybe I don’t have a home in this world right now. When I try and envision home in my mind all I see are the faces of my family and friends that I hold most dear. I haven’t been “homesick” during my time abroad, but I really miss laughing so hard we start to cry with my mom or being incredibly sarcastic with my dad. I miss endless Sonic happy hour runs and watching stupid TV with my siblings. I miss seeing my dogs’ excited faces when I walk in the door. I miss walking up Mass Ave to school with my girlfriends and I miss holding my boyfriend’s hand through all of the weird adventures we get ourselves into.

So if that’s my home, yeah… I guess I’m homesick. (Are you relieved mom?)

 

 

See y’all in a month.

Things We Could Never Say: Secrets of Living in the “Rainbow Nation”

For our final project in “Culture, Identity, and Globalisation in Africa” we were asked to come up with a presentation outlining how we have come to think differently about Africa. That’s it. No guidelines as to which direction to aim towards, which themes to focus on, or how to express ourselves. Full creative freedom.

Here is what we came up with. Enjoy!

 

The idea for this project was born out of the concept of secrets. What do people choose to share or not? How much do people keep inside about their experiences? And is there a way we can share these secrets, which may be too hurtful or shameful or dishonorable to speak openly about? PostSecret became the obvious solution to this dilemma.

My group members and I decided we wanted to pose a similar structure to our fellow study abroad students about their time here in South Africa. It is clear that we are all having the times of our lives and we love South Africa, but we wanted to dig deeper. So we set up an anonymous electronic survey online and asked:

“Coming to a new country, especially one as diverse and complex as South Africa, leaves all of us international students with some thoughts or feelings that we don’t think we can share. Whether you keep it inside because you’re afraid of offending someone, seeming ignorant or being judged – we all have our secrets. What is a secret that you’ve been keeping about your time in South Africa?”

By now you have seen our video and viewed the responses. The secrets covered a variety of emotions and experiences. By creating such a video, we hoped to create a memorialization or archive of our experiences. Students abroad typically document their travels through photographs and trinkets from markets. But how does the story change with this type of archive? We have focused instead on the people and the emotions experienced, not the places and locations. Additionally, how does viewing these secrets affect those who view them? We believe that this project was not only a process of self-reflection for those who participated in sharing secrets, but also creating self-reflection in those who view the video. We hope that by participating in our project students will learn not only about other experiences of their peers, but also about themselves.

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I would love to hear what you think about our project!

To my fellow study abroad students around the world – how are secrets affecting your time abroad? Do you have any similar feelings to those my peers and I from South Africa expressed?

One of the secrets not included in the video was: “There is no way my friends from home could handle living here. They are too close-minded and naive.” How does that secret make you feel? Do you think it’s true?

Does any secret particularly resonate with you?

As always, thank you for reading and supporting me!
Much love to all.

The Violence of an Image

My favorite class at UCT has been “Culture, Identity and Globalisation in Africa.” Our goal for the semester was simple: think Africa differently.

My professor Siona challenged us to ask questions about our new environment and the dominant discourse surrounding it. We spoke a lot about photography and the impact this particular art form has altered the world’s view on Africa.

When I say I live in Africa right now, most people will think of images like this:

I took each of these pictures myself, but is this the real Africa? What do you think when you see these pictures? And is what you think as a result the way I want to portray my time here? Probably not.

Much of Africa’s history, and the museums regarding that history, has been shaped by those from outside of Africa. Colonial powers came in, took over the land, and subjected the native people to their preferred forms of governance and ways of life. Colonists were fascinated with the “tribal” peoples and continued to poke, prod, and take pictures of the people for the benefit of their home country. Photographers documented what marked Africa as different from what they knew in Europe. Discourse has continued in this manner until today – where we generally view Africa as a poverty-stricken, far off land full of civil wars, exotic animals, and bare chested women.

In an article titled How to Write about Africa Binyavariga Wainaina writes:

Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar,’ ‘Masai,’ ‘Zulu,’ ‘Zambezi,’ ‘Congo,’ ‘Nile,’ ‘Big,’ ‘Sky,’ ‘Shadow,’ ‘Drum,’ ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone.’ Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas,’ ‘Timeless,’ ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal.’ Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book.

This article and our discussions in class makes me think critically about the events that happen in my daily life and how I choose to document them. How will taking a photograph of these events change the way I view Africa? Or change the way my parents or friends view my experience?

Have you ever wondered why the discourse surrounding photography is so violent? Loading the camera with film. Aiming the camera. Shooting a picture. Capturing a moment.

Beyond that, the relationship between photographer and subject is also of a violent nature. In a separate reading for my class Susan Sontag remarks:

To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.

We must always remember the consequences of our actions. Every time I switch on my camera I ask myself:

  • What am I trying to capture with this photograph?
  • What am I trying to say with this photograph?
  • What will viewers think of this photograph? Is that what I want them to think?
  • Is this the way I want someone to take a photo of me or my home?
There are many times that I subsequently turn off my camera after thinking about these questions. I believe some photographs are not meant to be taken. I refuse to present my study abroad experience as that of a “typical” “African” journey. Because there isn’t one.
My hope is that by reading my blog posts, you too have learned how to think about Africa differently. A vast continent that cannot be contained by one description or one stereotype. A place full of bustling cities, up and coming economies and world class thinkers mixed in with the most beautiful landscapes and wildlife I have ever seen. A place that has allowed me to learn and grow into the woman I want to be.

24 days left.

I have a little over 3 weeks left in South Africa… and I am absolutely freaking out. I have some amazing adventures to look forward to after Cape Town, but I can’t help but tear up when I think about leaving this place.

I don’t know how it’s possible to love something so deeply after such a short amount of time. I have lived in South Africa for 102 days and it has touched me more than I could have ever imagined.

My boyfriend Daniel was visiting me here for the past 2 weeks, and being able to share the love and passion I have for my life here with my best friend gave me such joy. It also made me realize how much I have integrated into Cape Town life. I rarely get asked about being American anymore, but Daniel made us stick out like a sore thumb sometimes. I have figured out how to speak with a South African accent and integrate their slang terms into my daily life. I can make all 3 of the clicks used in the Xhosa language. I primarily listen to South African music and I stay up to date with the news. Living here feels like a whole different world sometimes, it’s so easy to feel disconnected from everything that is going on back in the States.

But at the same time there is so much that I have yet to experience here. These next three weeks are going to be a scramble to check everything off my “Cape Town bucket list” all while studying and taking my exams. But I know in my heart that I will come back. I will not be saying “goodbye” to South Africa on November 15… only “see you later.”

I promise to post more frequently in the upcoming days about everything that has happened lately… because I have lots of updates to report! But for now I will leave you with my favorite South African song of the moment. It’s in the language Xhosa and is sung by Zahara. I’m on the hunt for her CD because I can’t get her songs out of my head (even if I don’t know all of the words)!

The “Study” Part of “Study Abroad”

So there are these things called classes that are really getting in the way of my exploration of Cape Town. Here is a post dedicated to academia.

The University of Cape Town is absolutely gorgeous. It is located on Devil’s Peak, one of the three mountains in Cape Town, and the university is built into the mountain which creates three levels of camps: Upper, Middle, and Lower. All of my classes are located on Upper Campus, whereas Middle consists mostly of offices and Lower has the gym and some other dorms.

Here is a video I took while studying on campus yesterday:

UCT has more than 25,000 students, of which nearly 5,000 are international students from all over the world. This is what Upper Campus looks like on a normal school day:

As much as I’d rather be out discovering the city, my classes here are really great. I am taking three courses (which equal to 5 US credits each) that meet at least 4 times a week for 45 minutes each. All classes are taught in a lecture fashion with no less than 75 students enrolled. It is definitely a big adjustment from my school American University back in the USA… which has very small class sizes and a total enrollment of 6,300.

UCT is the #1 ranked university in Africa as well as ranked in the top 150 schools in the world. I definitely feel those vibes of prestige walking around campus. Everyone here works really hard. From what I understand there aren’t enough universities in South Africa for the amount of young people, but the cost discourages many from attending. I feel so blessed for the opportunity to earn such an incredible education in both South Africa and the United States.

It is also great that my classes here are supplementing by goal to immerse myself in this country. I am taking “South African History in the 20th Century” which has been instrumental in understanding all of the changes that have happened here. South Africa only broke free of the apartheid state 17 years ago. It is such a different dynamic than the US, whose constitution was signed way back in 1787. I am taking a course called “Culture, Identity and Globalisation in Africa” which has completely altered my world view on issues. My professor is a fabulous art curator who questions everything. I find myself wondering – “What would Siona think about this?” regularly. We talk about forgiveness, art, archives, the violence of photography, liberation movements throughout Africa, etc. etc. She encourages us to think creatively and out of the box. I love it. My final class is on International Political Economies but, while interesting, I don’t spend too much of my free time discussing it.

It’s hard to believe – and it pains me to write this – but I only have 6 weeks left in South Africa. While everyone else’s school year is finally falling into place, mine is nearly over. Classes at UCT finish on 21 October and I take my last final on 3 November.

I am so in love with this place and right now I don’t want to think about leaving – so I’m not writing about it anymore! Instead all of my efforts are focused on finishing the rest of my schoolwork because my wonderful boyfriend Daniel is flying to Cape Town in 11 days! I can’t wait to show him around my new home.

So on that note, I’d better get back to work! Thanks to everyone for reading :)