Archive | February, 2012

How to Have a Field Trip In Africa

15 Feb

Barely after the dust of registration had cleared last week, I was off on a camping field trip with my Masters class. We had an overnight stay at Silvermine Reserve in Table Mountain National Park. For those of you who don’t know, Cape Town shares a peninsula with a 62,000 acre national park with some of the highest biodiversity in the world. Nine students went on the trip, accompanied by our fearless and intrepid leader and instructor, Dr. Pippin Anderson. The objective was to mainly have all of the Masters class meet prior to courses starting, but also to start putting us in the academic mindset. For most of us, work and other non-school activities have consumed our lives for the past few years, so it was an apt opportunity for us to try to ease back into academia.

Like any good field trip, ours began at the local bottle shop. The particular liquor store we visited was in Steenberg, situated near South Africa’s largest maximum security prison. It was nestled in this cute little strip mall with a grocery store called Pick ‘n Pay (a large chain here equivalent to a Rainbow Foods in MN), a salon, a veterinarian, among others. The prison was basically adjacent to this shopping center and right in the heart of the suburb. The planning in this city keeps me on my toes. We climbed up the mountain in our large VW van and made it to our campsite, complete with a fire area for a nice “braai” (a common social event here centered around the grill), a large kitchen, showers, toilets, and 5 timber huts for sleeping. After settling down, we took off for a nearly 4 hour hike up, down, and around Table Mountain. Pippin led us in ecological explorations of the flora found in the area. During the interpretative hike, I learned about fynbos (pronounced here as “fane-boss”; Afrikaans for “fine bush”), a shrubland vegetation unique to this part of South Africa. The fynbos has been threatened by invasive species from Europe and Australia along with the pressures of human development, and many species that constitute fynbos either extinct or have become endangered. The picture included shows some nice fynbos in the foreground, with the Atlantic Ocean in the background. During the course of the field trip, we looked at ways in which people are trying to foster the growth of fynbos, not only on the mountain within the park but across the cityscape as well.

It didn’t take long to smell the pines. Being from northern Minnesota, where the odor of coniferous sap is analogous to getting warm embrace from nature, my nose is especially calibrated to sense it. The pines I saw were tall and probably pretty old. We were told that the pines we see here are not native and were actually brought by the Dutch to provide material for building and fuel to move their ships as they explored the seas. Now, vast portions of Table Mountain along with some suburbs are covered in pine trees. Many people appreciate the aesthetic benefits they get from the pines; they provide shade in an awfully warm climate and are a nice place to walk your dog. No doubt some ecological benefits come from the trees being a habitat for many other critters. There is also the economic incentive for having the pines through the logging trade. Unfortunately, these plants outcompete indigenous plants for moisture and have the ability to dramatically alter soil chemistry in a region. In a place like the Cape, conservation is a huge issue considering how much biodiversity is located in this relatively small chunk of land. For these reasons, conservationists and citizens alike have called for the mass removal of pines in Cape Town. That is not to say these efforts have not been met with resistance. This city and the surrounding region is widely diverse in so many ways, and this includes diversity in the values we hold in regard to the environment around us. Ongoing efforts are trying to reconcile sound ecology with human value systems. One such compromise is that for every plot of pines removed, a small portion is saved for the pinelands. I have to say, it was rather bizarre to look at these rows and rows of cultivated trees. If you kept the mountain to your back and you squinted just slightly, it looked just like Bemidji, Perham, Park Rapids, or the great, wonderful forests in MN. But it wasn’t. And there is no Paul Bunyan here to manage these larger-than-life forestry issues. It’s up to the people.

After our hike, we had time to read an academic paper and discuss it in our rustic kitchen back at camp. Then, we braai’ed. So the word braaicomes from Afrikaans, and means grill or barbecue (Afrikaans is a language that is spoken in South Africa, Namibia and in small pockets across southern Africa and has its roots in Dutch; 13% of the South African population are native speakers and it is the third most spoken tongue in the country). It was my first and only braai, so I don’t feel quite like I’m the expert on it, but I can say what we ate. Marinated chicken on kabobs and butternut squash cut in half and wrapped in tinfoil. We laid these both over our open fire (braai’ing in also done on a Weber or the like) and then chatted while we waited for everything to cook. It was fabulous! We ended the night singing songs and enjoying some good South African wines.

The following day, we got up and visited the parts of the city we saw the previous day while perched on the mountain. We visited the beach, watched a fishing net come in, stopped by nearby lakes or “vleis”, and checked out some really inventive conversation projects happening in this growing urban area. We shared a lunch underneath, you guessed it, some pines while the winds from the the flats blew dust into our sandwiches. “Boy Scout Salt and Pepper” is what I told my classmates dirt is called when you’re camping “Up North”.

I’m very thankful that this trip was organized and that I had the wherewithal to attend it. We had a great opportunity to meet each other and for me as a totally new addition to Cape Town, it was a wonderful introductory session to life here. I said multiple times that evening that this trip would rival all others as the best field trip ever (I still maintain that my Waste Water Treatment field trip in St. Peter is right up there). Now, classes have started, but I believe we’re all getting together again on Friday for “Sundowners” (an event where people get together to have cocktails and watch the sun sink beneath the horizon). May the legacy of the Silvermine Camping Extravaganza 2012 live on!

Many blessings to you,



Arrived in Cape Town!

11 Feb

Greetings! Thanks for your patience as I am getting this next post to you a bit later than I wanted. On Monday evening, South African time, I arrived in Cape Town. All of my flights (four of them spanning the length of about 27 hours) went very well and were all on time. I met some wonderfully friendly and helpful people on the planes.  One of these angels was a woman named Arifa who was on my flight to Johannesburg. She now lives in Washington D.C. as a nurse but was flying home to Durban to spend a month with her family. When I told her I was on my way to Cape Town, she told me I must meet up with her family that lives there. After minutes of meeting me, she had volunteered her unknowing kin to escort around a newly transplanted American. This had me very touched, and resonated with all that I’ve heard about South Africans. The people are warm, welcoming, and very friendly. And this held true when I finally landed in Cape Town. I was greeted  by my host Rotary District’s Inbound Scholarship Coordinator, Helene Visser, and my host counselor, Bev McDavid. Their bright smiles and warm hugs left me feeling that everything was going to be alright. It was nearly 10 pm by the time I arrived, so Bev took me directly to her home in a suburb of Cape Town called Pinelands. Luckily for me, Bev runs a cute Bed & Breakfast out of her home, so I am living in absolute comfort while I’m here! Her two charming dogs, Holly and Daisy, especially make it feel like home for me! I will be staying with Bev and the dogs until I secure my own flat somewhere closer to the University. But for now, I’m incredibly grateful for the hospitality my host mom has shown me. Since arriving, Bev has been my own personal tour guide, driver, housing consultant, cook, and friend. Having her in my life has been a huge blessing.

First thing Tuesday morning, I had to attend Day 2 (I missed Day 1 for travel) of an orientation session for the Environmental and Geographical Sciences Department. Bev drove me to the college and dropped me off for my first day. Since I arrived at dark the previous evening, I was not able to see the city, including the mountains and the oceans, apart from the lights. On the way to The University of Cape Town campus, I caught a glimpse of Devil’s Peak for the first time. I audibly gasped, causing Bev to lay on the breaks, nearly stopping us in the middle of the road. When she inquired into what in the world was the matter, I said the only the I could, “There’s a mountain!” My surprise at seeing that looming piece of rock must have seemed a bit silly, but even after having been here for a few days with full knowledge of the presence of those mountains, I continue to stop and find myself staring up. It’s a sight that’s hard to get used to.  Cape Town and the surrounding area is absolutely breathtaking. I will post pictures when I blog about my field trip into the mountains. At the orientation, I was able to finally meet my fellow Masters students as well as the Department’s Honours students and faculty. In South Africa, the Honours program is designed for students who have completed their undergraduate work and want to delve deeper into coursework; it’s structured very similar to a Masters program but does not culminate in a dissertation. Plus, since the undergraduate degree is only 3 years, an Honours degree kind of functions as a 4th or senior year in American education terms. It has been such a delight getting to know this fine group of scholars and instructors. UCT is one of the most diverse college campuses on the planet, and at every interaction, I find myself engaging with a totally new culture. There has been so much learning, and I have yet to even step into a classroom! Registering for classes, however, was anything but a delight. Everything, I mean everything, is done on paper during the Registration period. And UCT happens to be snuggled up right alongside that base of those mountains I have been having a love affair with. If you can imagine it, the buildings on campus are oriented in a “stadium seating”. You have three campuses, all separated by altitude. The highest campus, or “Upper Campus”, where the EGS department is located has levels of academic buildings. There is one row of buildings hugging the mountain, and then above that about 2-3 flights of steps is another level, and after that another and so on.  But after many hours in lines queuing, acquiring countless signatures, walking up and down that stunning yet steep mountain, I finally am registered. For my first semester, I will be taking a Geography course called “Urban Food Security” and my first Sociology course ever, titled “Tradition, Environment and Nature”. During the Spring semester (remember we’re in the Southern Hemisphere), I will be taking two Geography courses, “Capital, Politics, and Nature” and one that has yet to be named but deals with sustainability models for cities all over the world. I have also been invited to informally take part in a course led by an instructor in the Geography Department who studied at the University of Minnesota (a classmate of my Gustavus advisor’s). Our classes begin on Monday.

Although the academic year hasn’t officially gotten underway, my Masters class didn’t let that stop us from going on an overnight camping trip up into the mountains last Thursday. I must reserve that for a separate post, however. Just so many pictures! I was such a blast, and we began to scratch the surface  on the serious ecological, socio-economical, and development issues that this city faces.

Today, I attended a pool party luncheon at a Rotarian’s home in Newlands (just south of UCT). It was planned to get all of the Rotary Ambassadorial Scholars along with their host counselors to meet. This year, there are 11 scholars, all attending UCT and all from the United States. It’s not often the Rotary clubs in the Cape Town area get exclusively American students. Still, our group represents a diverse assortment of study interests as well as a nice sampling of the States. We have a photographer/videographer from Seattle, a woman studying conflict resolution from Illinois, and a gender studies scholar from Massachusetts. All, I must say, are extremely nice, intelligent and passionate.  The Rotarians in attendance were so friendly and warm, inviting all of us to come and visit their clubs and to stay in their homes. They have made an incredible investment and taken a great chance with us; it’s an extreme honor to have people so generous have so much faith in you and your ideas to make the world a bit better only after just seconds of talking with you. I can’t wait to get to know all of the scholars and Rotarians better!

It’s the moments when I’m on campus breaking a sweat and busting my calves on those steps when I see the mountain, and I am stopped dead in my tracks. There is a similar sense of awe when I look around me and see the people I am meeting here. This is surely going to be a great year.

Thanks again for your patience. It’s been an extremely busy week, and I promise to be a more faithful blogger after things have slowed down.

Many blessings,