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Graham is TBB

First blog post

To anyone and everyone reading this post, thank you for visiting. This blog will follow my journey with Thinking Beyond Borders and will serve as a connection and window into my personal reactions to the events happening all around me. I will try to post regularly but as you can understand, access to the internet will be sporadic.

Sitting here, I currently have less than a week until my journey begins. Only recently has it truly dawned on me how much my life will change in such a short amount of time. Not even a month ago it all seemed like the far future or even just a story I had heard, but now I’m beginning to grasp the volume of my adventure.

Up until last summer the farthest I had gone outside of the United States was to the Canadian side of the Niagara Falls borderline. When I traveled to England and Scotland last summer the thrill of being somewhere even slightly different in culture to the US was enough to get me excited. I found myself enjoying the small things like the use of mayonnaise instead of ranch dressing and getting to exchange pounds for goods instead of dollars. While travelling from place to place I was always happy because everything I was currently seeing, I had never seen before. I came to see travelling as a constant adventure and that’s really what inspired me to really consider the idea of a gap year with Thinking Beyond Borders.

This is why I will dedicate my blog not only to the larger picture with what I will be constantly learning, but also to the smaller things. I figure what brings me joy surely will do the same for the readers.

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Blog #4: Holla at me Dharamsala

Since my last post’s events I coasted through yet another country. India was wild. I had my predispositions and they quickly became confirmed or falsified as I experienced the culture firsthand. I’d say anyone who has any minuscule idea about India would say that it’s crowded. Well that’s not wrong, at least where I stayed. My introduction to India was like a slap in the face. Driving out of the New Delhi airport with the tuk tuk drivers was straight out of Fast and Furious and it really accentuated my frequent carsickness. Something else I learned about India was that it has really got to get its priorities in line and straighten its roads, not even Dramamine will save a sorry soul.

Ok so about India and my experiences. First off, the hectic driving and honking is something that took getting used to, but that wasn’t impossible. In fact by the time I left the country, it felt weird not to hear cars honking every other second. Still, Delhi was fascinating, a mixture of old buildings, small side of the road businesses, and lots of greenery that made up the crowded atmosphere. I was only there initially for one day but it left quite the impression, still I’ll get more into Delhi when I talk about my return to the city.

We caught a flight to Dharamsala where we would be spending the next month. As we flew into view of the city, I looked to the distance and thought I saw dark clouds looming about just in view but it became clear they were mountains as we flew closer and descended. I’ve noticed that culture shock comes in different forms, in South Africa I noticed poverty but in India it’s the new tradition/lifestyle. In India, the culture was so strict that everyone I talked to felt as if they were reserving part of their personality. I couldn’t tell the difference between when someone was being genuinely nice and when someone was only being polite because they had to. This was a trend with the older folk, but the younger people I met were more exciting to talk to.

The next few days consisted of the group getting situated in India and learning about our work with the new NGO Cross Cultural Solutions (CCS). CCS is an organization based in India with a focus on childhood and early teen education with hopes to empower them with a valuable education and inspire them to further pursue their education in other ways. Our unit in India is education, which as you would assume integrated work with CCS among other things into our discussions during seminars. The education unit was the one I believed I was most excited about before the trip due to my prior work with young kids at my job during my senior year of high school/summer after. I believed I would have some experience and might be able to carry that into the seminar space and at my work placement. A lot of the readings we did during this unit interested me far more than the Public Health unit’s readings back in South Africa. I definitely feel that’s because they were much more relatable for one, and they tied into our work a bit more than the previous unit’s reading did.

In Dharamsala I roomed with Ben and we stayed with a family living right in the center of town (the market circle) in a quirky house. The family, mom, dad, son, and daughter, was incredibly welcoming and made the stay an interesting experience during our time together. The mother (Rita) and son (Aanch) spoke English well, but the father (Suneil) and sister (Anschel) did not. Much our time spent together was during dinner, watching Bollywood music videos on TV or talking about the differences in our cultures. The mom had been involved with CCS ever since their first year because her daughter was one of the first students to go through the program. The house was tall and funky all connected by small thin corridors. Three levels with the first two being living areas and the third a roof with an amazing view of the surrounding town and mountains. I have to say that it made for a prime sunset viewing area.

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The fieldwork we did in Dharamsala was with young children (2-5) teaching them things like the alphabet, nursery rhymes, colors, shapes, numbers, etc. all in English. The catch being they spoke little to no English. I found it interesting how with the handful of Hindi phrases my partner Lexi and I spoke, how much control we had over the classroom. Kids will be kids, and I quickly realized that many of the techniques I picked up at my previous job in the States carried beyond language barriers. The kids were cute, wild, and most definitely eager to have fun while learning. While our work wasn’t necessarily life altering for these kids, we exposed them to our culture at a young age and we learned a little about theirs as well. Still, a common thread of discussion during seminars was how valuable our fieldwork in India (and South Africa) really was. We had to read a speech called “To Hell With Good Intentions” spoken by Ivan Illich, which really put a lot of things into place for me. His view on foreign volunteering such as the fieldwork we are doing was negative, yet didn’t bother me really. Essentially, he says it is useless, futile, whatever word you like, and from my experience that’s not 100% true, yet a lot of the effort we put in does seem fruitless. We discussed with our Program Leaders and came to the conclusion that TBB is not about the work we do, but how we learn about our world and grow as people. It has brought me in touch with who I am and I’m slowly discovering what my passions are and what they aren’t… Fieldwork gave me an inside perspective to the functions of South African clinics and Indian day schools, and what have I learned from that? I know where my interests lie which I believe to be extremely valuable.

In addition to the discussions on our fieldwork, seminars consisted of topics making me review my high school education and work out the dynamics that existed. Who held the power in my various classes, was education equal for everyone and how does that compare to those living in developing nations were some of the many fascinating topics we went over. They related sometimes to my personal education, and sometimes took aim at more worldly issues dealing and moral beliefs. What I’m getting at is that the seminars in India were an improvement on the already complex and interesting discussions in South Africa. Personally, they pushed me further to formulate new opinions on things I had never previously thought about.

With all the time spent at fieldwork and in seminars it’s amazing we had time to do anything else. Still, India was too fascinating to let slip through our fingers so many of the group members often planned to explore the town and local area. Close to us (literally up the mountain 10 minutes from my house) was McLeodGanj, the Tibetan settlement in India and residence of the Dalai Lama after he and his followers fled Tibet in 1959. It was quite touristy but was still beautiful nevertheless. The bustling streets and shops were brightly colored and gave the whole area a magical feel. Adding to the magical feel were the Buddhist temples scattered around the area, one of which was the Dalai Lama’s temple itself. One night, our host family brought us to a traditional Indian wedding. There was great food and lots of dancing. Ben and I actually got in the dance circle with all of the family/friends and had some one on one dance offs while learning the local dance moves (a popular one is holding only your index finger up on both hands and pushing your arms forward one at a time). For our independent student travel weekend, my group and I hiked up a mountain in the Himalayas. The journey up took 5-6 hours and was hard work with a giant 40 lbs bag on my back. Still, the way up was beautiful and full of necessary stops at the checkpoints for food and rest. The whole way up, dogs followed us and let us pet/feed them (seems like a good life to me). At the top we set up camp and explored the summit, which we quickly realised was absolutely beautiful. The sunset on top of the mountain created an effect with the light, casting a bright red coat of light over the mountains beyond us. All in all, the bustling streets, exciting new culture, and beautiful nature left a good impression of Dharamsala. dsc_0878

Blog post numba three… finally

Yoooo,

It’s been way too long since my last post so I’m going to write a two-part blog post to get you all up to date.

After our weekend in Cape Town, coming back to Plett felt almost like returning home. It comes to show how comfortable I’ve become with life in the Western Cape. As we settled back into our original home stays we got right back in the swing of work at the clinics. I actually have begun to do more work at the clinics that isn’t filing and it’s nice. Working behind the desk has both given me a feeling of belonging in the clinic and it’s given me more time to read the required books and do interviews for my media project.

Because everyone was working much more on their media projects, the group began to spend much more time in Plett due to the access to internet. My group ended up finishing earlier than most so I had even more time on my hands. Our time in South Africa was beginning to dwindle so everyone wished to spend more and more time on the beach. There was a night where Matt, Benji, and I were there past the sunset and we decided to go on a beach run under the stars. There was no moon that night so the stars were more clear than usual and to our convenience the weather was actually quite warm. Probably a mile down the beach we decided to take a dip, which led to one of my favorite moments of the trip by far. As we coasted into the water it felt strangely warm. The way the bubbles reflected the moonlight under the water looked like a million little jellyfish surrounded my limbs as I glided through the water. After that, night beach runs became more common, but none was as amazing as that first night.

The next week or so was filled with some cloudy days, which really altered the mood. I listened to a lot more music on my own and spent a lot of time on the beach just talking rather than swimming. Strangely, as we approached summertime, the weather was beginning to get colder. I started reading Harry Potter again which began to consume a lot of my time. Everything began to feel more fast-paced yet oddly every day was packed to the brim with cool discussions, trying to Skype our families and friends back home, and nights fooling around on the beach after work and seminars. One day, I got a few friends to head to a local Internet café so we could stream the movie Howl’s Moving Castle because why not?

October ended and we drifted into November. I made the mistake of committing to “No Shave November” and had some gross facial hair for the first few weeks. We approached our last week with our host family and I began dreading the day we had to say goodbye, but also began to feel a nervous excitement like I did before I left for the trip in September. I’m sure the others felt this way because we went to Plett earlier our last weekend just to maximize our time spent in this amazing place. One morning as we were waiting for a cab to Plett, we decided to head over to the Crags playground to pass the time. We ended up playing rugby with a group of kids, 3 of which we played soccer with probably a month back on the same field. None of knew the rules to rugby, but that didn’t stop us from having some fun while we waited.

On Election Day I sat at work waiting anxiously for any news of the results and well, we all know what happened. It felt weird being so disconnected from that world back home knowing all my family and friends probably stayed up late just to watch the results as if it were the Super Bowl. One upside to the outcome is that college will be a whole lot more interesting when I can join all the political protests that’ll be sure to go down in the coming years.

My last full day spent in South Africa was most definitely spent right. Ben, Benji, Matt and I visited Robberg again and spent the majority of the day goofing off and reminiscing on all that has come to pass since the start of this trip. It was hard to believe that we were essentially 1/3 of the way through the whole trip but like I’ve said before, it honestly feels like it’s been a whole year already. At Robberg, we all lost track of time and had to sprint back to the parking lot to catch our cab and only just made it on time to our presentation with Plett Aid. As it turned out we were actually right on time and had a little extra time to have a dance party with some kids outside of the building. The presentation went smooth enough and was a nice way to cap off our experiences together in South Africa.

That next morning we all got picked up after saying goodbye to our host families and started our drive to Addo National Park. On the way to the park we drove by a lot of the landmarks we drove by on our very first ride out of the airport. When we arrived in Addo we were all blown away with how peaceful it was. There were small huts spaced around the property and interspersed between them were other things like an outdoor sitting area, a pool, and enormous trees blossoming with purple flowers. There was quite a lot of space that allowed us time to ourselves when we wished but made for great places to lounge and play with the dogs when we wanted to as well. The few days we spent at Addo were filled with rad activities like sand boarding or wildlife safaris. At a cat sanctuary I was able to pet a cheetah, which was both amazing and terrifying. I managed to snag a selfie with a pig at an animal sanctuary which was rad. When we went sand boarding there was a hill that sloped down to the river below so when you rode a boogieboard down the hill you picked up so much speed that you shot out over the water. I spent my last few hours at Addo being goofy and talking to some of the other students late into the night. My time spent at Addo was a solid conclusion to this leg of our trip and re-sparked my excitement for travelling.

This blog was aight but not up to par with my last few. It was difficult to recall all that happened essentially a month and a half ago but I hope this suffices.

Update #2: Electric Boogaloo

Hey all,

Another few weeks have passed and I’m safe to say a lot has happened. Since I last checked in I began to work in two new locations each equally full of new learning experiences. Following those weeks, our group’s most recent weekend together was spent in Cape Town for our first “Independent Student Travel” experience.

My first week was spent working in Phakamisani Primary School with a class of around 40 fourth graders. The second I stepped into the classroom I felt a surge of focus shift straight to me and knew immediately these kids were as interested in me as I was in each of them. As I walked around helping them, it was frustrating to be bound by the language barrier because it was obvious how badly they wanted to learn. Each answer I marked was often preceded by wide eyes or a quick prayer but quickly turned back to focus and a laugh when they realized they were beginning to understand what I was teaching them. In no way am I critiquing the teacher from the classroom I worked in, but rather I’m acknowledging the difficulties she faced with such a large class forced to learn math in a language they only began learning this same year. The amount of focus I had to put on teaching a student only allowed me to go one at a time and I often finished the hour and a half sessions mentally exhausted. Still, the whole experience at the school was rewarding seeing the immediate satisfaction of the kids and the more long-term results of giving these kids individual attention in school for possibly one of the first times in their lives. Leaving the school on Friday was genuinely upsetting not only because of how much fun I had working with these kids, but also seeing their faces and reading the cards they gave me as I left. Working in the primary school was incredibly rich and fulfilling disparate from the slow, behind the scenes results of a smaller local clinic. I’m now super hyped for the education unit in India.

During this week when I wasn’t working I found myself in Plett enjoying life. I wrote some poetry, drew a lot, and even got my nose pierced. A lot of us went cave exploring after we found some amazing coastal caves on the outskirts of one of the townships students are staying in. The views from the rocky coast were straight out of Pirates of the Caribbean. October 13th this week also marked one month spent in South Africa and away from home. It was an odd realization because one month sounds long relative to the whole six and a half of the trip and had felt filled to the brim with experiences and memories. Still I couldn’t help but feel time had flown by too quickly.

My second week was spent in a different city entirely. The whole group spent a week away from our host families and lived in a hostel in Robertson. The hostel was quirky, colorful, welcoming, and entirely ours for the week (mostly). The time spent working with Breed River Hospice was great. The work I did there was similar to my first week in the Crags clinic where I shadowed a community health worker, but I feel I learned more. I asked lots of questions as we left each house to find out what had happened and what my colleague’s opinion on the situation was. What I gathered if I had to sum it up quickly is that the patients/community have a different outlook on the healthcare system than the workers do. This I feel created a disconnect between the two groups allowing for unnecessary tension and excuses. While I don’t have much of a right to judge the system due to my lack of experience in health care and potential prior bias towards the American healthcare system, I found myself very interested in this topic during the week. On a slight side note, the community health worker I worked with was by far one of the smallest people I’ve ever seen, easily standing a few inches under five feet.DSC_0723.jpg

Spending another full week with the group in close quarters almost 24/7 didn’t go quite the same way as it did during our orientation at Ingwe. I know myself and others as well felt over-saturated with social interactions so new sides to people I had not yet seen began to show. I wouldn’t say it was a bad week, but rather a stressful one that worked itself out and now I feel closer than ever to some of the students. Things like this are inevitable with such a small group spending 6 months with only each other. Some of the highlights of this week were finally watching the movie Boyhood (which was amazing and I highly suggest everyone to watch) and going on lots of runs, one of which was up a literal mountain with Matt and Katy (had to give them props for running it with me).

Our weekend was spent in Cape Town for our Independent Student Travel period. Cape Town is known for its street fashion and I got to see it firsthand which was really cool. The true highlight of this week though was climbing Table Mountain. Benji, Matt, and I cleared the thing in just over an hour, which felt great. But what was even better was the view not only of Cape Town below, but incredibly beautiful mountain ranges, valleys, coastlines, and everything else you could imagine as well. Cape Town is a city I know I’d love to come visit again.DSC_0829.jpg

I wanted to keep these blog posts short and sweet but it’s too hard when so much is happening all the time. Regardless, thanks for reading and I hope you check back for my next post to keep you all updated on my experience with Thinking Beyond Borders.

Almost a month in…

Hi everyone, it’s been a while since my first bog post and since I left the US. In my defense, every last second of these past three weeks has been filled to the brim with learning, exploration, and hanging out with other students. My goal for this blog is to get everybody reading this in the know of what’s up and what went down.

My experience with TBB began Monday night in New York City where we all gathered in the same hotel and got to know each other. While this meeting was brief, everyone seemed to click instantly, which was a great sign. The next morning everyone gathered at the airport, said their farewells, and we were on our way. If I learned anything from the flight down to South Africa, it’s that 16 hours gives you plenty of time to worry and get homesick. Luckily enough, as soon as we landed, my worries left me because the group began chatting away, singing songs, and tossing a Frisbee around. I remembered that these were the people I’d be spending the next half of my year with and that really cheered me up seeing again, how well we got along.

I’ll spare you all the details of the 4 hour drive that followed, but rest assured we ended up at Ingwe (a team building “resort”/lodge), the place we would spend the next week at for TBB’s orientation. I can honestly say my week at Ingwe was one of the most memorable ones of my life (the fact that I began journaling that week certainly helps). The week was filled with a mix of team building exercises, group discussions, and relaxing with friends. Oh and reading as well, lots of reading. I noticed one crazy thing during this week that I came out of my introverted shell and was an extrovert for one of the first times in my life. I feel the reason is that everyone here is so accepting of each other and are overwhelmingly positive. People like that really make you enjoy every second you spend with them. Anyway, because we all got along so well, I quickly found myself staying up late goofing off, or going out in nature to look at the stars and talk about anything and everything. The best thing is that the talks we had as friends transitioned back and forth from goofy topics to ones we discussed in seminars. This trip is teaching me to be open to ideas and to express myself better than I ever have been able to.

When we weren’t in seminars or reading, we were on hikes to spend the afternoon at the ocean, we were cliff diving and zip-lining through a canyon, we were staying up till 2 in the morning playing soccer in the lodge, we were singing in the woods, playing Frisbee, chilling with monkeys, eating ostrich steaks, having giant group hugs, and taking goofy photos. I was exposed to plenty of new things, constantly keeping me on my toes and looking forward to the next day.

When my week at Ingwe finally ended reality hit me that I no longer would be staying in the little slice of paradise outside Plettenberg Bay. Driving by the townships that we would be staying at was definitely a shock. I became more nervous than I should have been now that I look back at it, but the living conditions I was seeing were much different that anything I had previously experienced. The Program Leaders told my homestay partner Benji and I would be staying in a township known as The Crags, one of the three locations all of the students would be placed in. That night all the students met their respective host families during dinner and then left for their new homes. I have to say Benji and I lucked out big time. Everyone in our family has quite a personality and until dark, the house is often bustling with relatives and friends of the family to keep us busy. Sometimes we’d find ourselves sitting around a fire talking about politics or the differences in our cultures, but others we’d be having an impromptu dance party or Benji would bust out the guitar and we’d all sing along. I just feel fortunate to have transitioned so comfortably into such a nice group of people who genuinely wish to learn from us just as much as we wish to learn from them (I’ve already learned a little Afrikaans and the rules of cricket).

Our job in The Crags is working at the local clinic assisting the nurses and carers with whatever may be needed that day. Being honest, the workdays go slowly but I’ve decided that is attributed to the lack of punctuality and organization here. A single doctor comes every Monday to see the locals various needs but only one at a time. I’ve met a few patients who have waited multiple whole days just to be seen by the doctor (each spaced a week apart), which makes me realize how easy it is to for example, have a simple infection spread to something much worse. It’s frustrating to see the lack of efficiency here be one of its largest weaknesses so I feel slightly better when I’m asked to organize files just to make the system slightly speedier. Still, I’m learning how the public health system in South African townships functions and how it relates to the poverty, mass illness, and feeling of hopelessness I’ve seen from many of the patients.

The weekends here are amazing. Various TBB students and I often find ourselves in Plett exploring when we have free time. The coast here is absolutely beautiful, picturesque of a postcard. I often have a reality check when the beach I’m standing on takes me aback. Taking a break from the rigorous schedule TBB has set up for us is necessary for tackling the next full week of new experiences.

I’m incredibly happy with my decision to take a gap year. The sheer amount of new people I’ve met, things I’ve learned, and experiences I’ve had in only 3 weeks is incredible and I can’t express how excited I am to spend the next 6 months with these people. Thank you for taking the time to read this far. Until next time!

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