Welcome to the blog site for our Elmira College travel class to South Africa. We will update this blog regularly with posts about our travels and experiences. We'll upload photos when we have the chance. Check back regularly to follow our adventures!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

An Amazing Day!

Today has been a truly wonderful experience. We started this morning by going to the market, which was quite large and fabulously interesting. The market place was located inside and around a modern shopping mall, stalls snuggling haphazardly in between chain stores, out in the parking lot, and all along the back and sides of the mall. The inside stores were everything from banks (with long lines), to hair places, to clothing stores. The outside stalls were an interesting mix of food, homemade objects, random household items, and oddities like dried bugs (huge baskets of dried crickets, mopani worms, and termites--you could even get them spiced in different varieties!). We walked through the market to get a sense of everything that was sold there, and the people were so friendly! A number of people just came up to talk with us, shake our hands, ask about the United States, or tell us something about what we were looking at. One guy shook some hands and then said "down with Bin Laden!" Another elderly church man asked Jade for a few American coins for his kids. He seemed thrilled with some pennies and nickles, and she seemed thrilled to give them to him. Brendan got a lot of attention from the local ladies, with them asking him for photographs. One girl actually placed his hand on her waist for a rather saucy photograph!

After the marketplace, we didn't have enough time to walk out to the waterfall, so we went straight to the tiny village where they are trying to build an arts center. The local chief has allowed this village of about 20 houses to build a one-room building that will hopefully someday become a place to showcase the beading work of some of the local women. They use tiny seed beads to make intricate patterns, especially on belts. The local beading pattern of the women from this village is a scene from the Domba dance (the dance that moves through the life cycle of women; girls become women once they learn the whole dance). Our bus couldn't get us all the way into the village because the packed dirt road was so bad. We walked in, and as we got there, we saw that this building they were so proud of was basically a small square (maybe 25 by 25 feet) with a tin roof and windows on each side. There were some additional low brick walls that were being constructed, but this building was in no way nearly finished. (We learning that they are slowly raising money, and that construction has been going on since 1998; they build as they can pay for it).

We had brought paint and other materials, and our plan was to spend the afternoon helping the people work on the building. So that's what we did. It was a warm sunny day, and we were way way way out in the country. The kids of the village came by to watch us (they were much shier than the kids yesterday, although a few of them would smile and wave at us from a distance). We got to work scraping the iron frames on the windows, taping on the glass, and painting the metal a bright happy green. There were a lot of small panes of glass, so this took pretty much the entire afternoon. We also had the chance to help with some brickwork. None of our students had ever done anything like this, so the group that was working on the bricks was actually learning how to do basic concrete mixing and brick laying. First they picked through the pile of bricks looking for the best ones. They chased out the giant spiders and other scary animals (judging from the screams). They stacked the bricks, and mixed up some concrete in a big wheel barrow. Then they started laying the brick, using a level and a lot of concrete to get the walls straight. They actually got a fair amount of brick put down.

We brought our own lunch to the site, but for dinner, the ladies of the little village cooked us their specialties. We were fed stewed chicken in spices, a green vegetable mix that had been stewed and the slightly dried, some very spicy beef, some grits (dry and thick, which they call 'pap') and of course, a big bowl of roasted and spiced mopani worms! These mopani worms aren't actually worms at all; they are caterpillars. And they are big and fat, almost the size of a pinky finger. They are black and grey, and they are eaten whole, complete with heads and legs. A lot of our students sampled them, as did the professors! There was some drama of course, but most of us agreed that they tasted kind of smoky, a bit like chicken, perhaps with a bit of spinach. And they were both crunchy (that exoskeleton!) and soft and chewy. They did not taste bad, but the chewing had a bit of the sensation of crunching on a piece of shrimp with the shell still on it. A bit off-putting indeed, but a real experience!

The most amazing part of the day, however, was the singing and dancing. Betty, the healer and religious leader we met yesterday, came to the arts center and brought her choir with her. They were all teens, both male and female. The girls were wearing long white blue skirts with white trim, white blouses, and a wide blue cloth collar with embroidered designs. Their hair was covered in white scarves. The boys were wearing white lab-style coats with blue embroidery. All of them were wearing heavily decorated sashes with the name of the church on it. They were very serious when they first arrived, and quite shy as well.

First, before the choir sang, it was traditional to let the hosts from the local village welcome us. The children of the village (from about age 2 to age 16 or so), brought out their drums, which they played by sitting on them sideways. As they drummed and sang local songs, each kid took a turn doing the dance that went with each song. They clapped for each other, and we clapped with them. The kids were so enthusiastic, and it was so much fun to see it. Then the choir sang for us, and it was AMAZING! They sang incredibly beautiful songs with multi-part harmony, and the experience was almost trance-inducing in its power. They danced slowly as they sang, and they played a few instruments, including a giant skin drum and some maraca-style shakers that looked like they were made out of cans with handles stuck on. After they were finished singing us a number of songs, some of the local village kids asked if they could dance, and suddenly all of the choir kids and the local kids were singing and dancing spontaneously. Some of us were pulled up to join them (yes, our two guys, Brendan and Rashan were quite popular! Kasey and Megan and Sarah got in there pretty well too). The whole thing was filled with such joy and fun, with everyone laughing and singing and dancing, it was such a powerful thing to be there and get to experience it! It was really a once-in-a-lifetime event, something that could never have been staged.

On the bus on the way back, we gave the choir a lift home and packed the bus full. The choir kids started to sing on the bus as we drove through the dark night of the countryside into the lights of the city. It was really lovely.

This truly was an amazing day.

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