Dolphin trainer for a day, Jonathan trainer for a lifetime

February 18, 2015 § Leave a comment

Balam, a dark grey bottle nose dolphin, gingerly swam on his back with a colorful container balanced between his fins. He was bringing me a gift, Valerie, his trainer, said. But about halfway across the lagoon, the container rolled off his belly, so he flipped over and started pushing it with his nose. I laughed, delighted, utterly unaware of what was inside.

Balam nosing along

When Jonathan first told me that my Valentine’s day gift was a dolphin “trainer for a day” course, I was ecstatic. I had swam with dolphins once before, but this opportunity seemed even better: a full-day, immersive dolphin experience.

The dolphin experience was scheduled to be on Valentine’s day, sandwiched between two days of drift diving along the reefs of Cozumel and two days of cave diving in the cenotes in Tulum. As soon as we arrived at the facility, I was giddy like a little kid at a candy shop.

After some introductory lectures on how to handle the dolphins, we were escorted to a lagoon to meet the dolphins. Our first activity had Zeus, our first dolphin friend, painting t-shirts for us. We’d hold up a t-shirt and Zeus would paint the shirt by moving his head side to side with a paint brush fixed to his nose. To be honest, it made for some pretty unattractive shirts, although that didn’t stop me from wearing it for the next two days straight!

After painting, we got to swim out and pet Zeus and his buddy Byron. Then one by one, Zeus and Byron took us on a tandem dorsal fin ride. Each ride was pretty short but exhilarating. Throughout the day we also played with Simo and her four-month-old baby, Kai, along with a few other dolphins in the lagoon. We pet and fed them in exchange for being “escorted” by them in various configurations (foot push, belly ride, etc.). The trainers even arranged a scuba diving activity where we descended underwater to hear the dolphins’ noises and interact them in their natural medium.

My favorite activity was the foot push. It was so exciting to feel the dolphin’s nose in my foot and be propelled faster than I could ever swim myself. I envy the dolphin trainers who get to jump, play and learn from them every day. I’m sure it’s exhausting, but I bet it’s so fun.

There were admittedly a few less-than-ideal moments during the day. First, we all got really cold. The sun would play hide and seek behind the clouds, and we were shivering half the time, despite all leaving with a nasty sunburn. (Sunscreen isn’t allowed due to the chemicals it leaks into the water.) Our interactions were also very controlled due to the dolphins’ strict training regimen; for example we were asked not to touch the babies. I had to wheedle my way into being allowed to feed a fish to one of the dolphins. When I finally got the chance, I, in an act of defiance, surreptitiously fed him TWO fish instead of the ONE we were asked to feed (while the trainer gave him 10 in one mouthful!). No dolphins were hurt during my rebellion.

At the end of the day, Valerie, the head trainer, asked Jonathan and me to help her with one last exercise. It was at this moment that I knew Jonathan was going to propose.

How did I know? Throughout the entire day, Jonathan and I moved around in a foursome with a mother and son from Sweden who also purchased the same activity package. The woman was quite obviously a dolphin lover, ooh-ing and aah-ing at every interaction. When Valerie asked us to help her, she explained the absence of the Swedish pair by saying that they didn’t want to do it, but I knew this wasn’t true.  Jonathan had also started acting kind of funny. He had been perfectly normal the entire day, but as soon as Valerie said that, he fakely said, “Oohh I wonder what this is.” I have a sixth sense for Jonathan’s lies and deduced the situation immediately.

Still, I didn’t want to spoil the surprise, and I didn’t know exactly how he was going to do it. (I even had no idea that he was going to propose during this trip; we had agreed to get engaged by September so I thought he might propose later this year). Therefore I played along and pretended not to notice when I saw him fumbling around for the ring. Valerie introduced us to Balam and we took a few pictures with him and gave him the signals to jump. Finally, she told me that Balam had a gift for me and signaled for him to come over with the colorful tub.

Balam

Balam swam right up to us and gave me the container. I opened it to discover a series of foam alphabet letters strung together to form words. I pulled out each word, one-by-one, spelling in perfect sequence:  “Joanna–will–you–marry–me?” Jonathan knelt down on one knee, looked me in the eyes with a smile, and said, “Today you were a dolphin trainer for a day and now I’m asking you to be Jonathan trainer for life. Will you marry me?” I laughed and exclaimed, “Of course!” We kissed and embraced. Right then, Balam and the other dolphins started jumping into the air, and we turned to watch them celebrate this perfect moment with us.

How was your trip?

November 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

It’s been two days since I’ve returned from Ghana and it’s been a struggle for me to answer that question meaningfully, accurately, and within the socially accepted time constraints of an open ended question like that.

My default answer has been to say something along the lines of, “It was amazing,” and then gauge the person’s interest. If they continue to look at me expectantly then I will elaborate with details about the work I did, a funny anecdote about an incident on the trip, and one or two insights that I think that specific person will be interested in.

But that approach is still somewhat dissatisfying so I’ve decided to blog at length (but with structure so you can pick and choose the sections interesting to you!) and simply send this to people. I leave the decision to read up to them as well as any follow up questions.

So, how was my trip you ask? Let me answer with answers to a series of related and more specific questions.

How does it feel to be back?

It still feels a bit surreal, but in a good way. Removing myself from my life as I knew it for 3.5 weeks has resulted in a renewed sense of purpose, clarity on what I want in terms of my career and an incredible sense of gratitude for everything I have in my life. I need to be careful about how I express my gratitude though because I’m sure the wide-eyed amazement at the plethora of snacks at work and my glee at having a clean bathroom with running water will get old to my colleagues quite soon. But regardless of how I express it, I will still feel it inside and hopefully continue to appreciate how lucky I am long after the sheen of the trip has faded.

What was the best part of the trip?

This is a hard one because there were so many great things about the trip and I’m sure each of the sixteen attendees will say something different and equally compelling. However for me, the best thing was the isolation from distractions which in turn allowed me to hyper-focus on a few core objectives: projects, people and personal development. I feel really good about the impact we had on our organization and the relationships that I developed along the way. I also achieved my personal goals of reading more (Smartcuts, Priceonomics blog, Wikipedia, etc.), challenging myself to think harder and dig deeper into questions that popped up in my head (e.g. Why is there so much trash?), meditating frequently, and carving out time to exercise.

What was the worst part of the trip?

The high temperatures and intermittent lack of electricity and running water were probably the worst things about the trip. After being in the sweltering heat all day, it’s a little soul crushing to come back home to realize that there’s no water and power. It didn’t happen too often though so I suppose in a way I appreciate it because it made showering that much more exciting and made me not take anything for granted.

What did I do in Ghana?

I mainly worked with an organization called CRRECENT on their marketing strategy and execution. The deliverables included a redesigned website built on responsive design principles (via an easy to edit platform called Wix), a marketing toolkit that included brochures, letterhead, presentation templates, photos and videos, and trainings on Google apps, social media, and design. My team also started an Indiegogo campaign for the organization. There are so many worthy causes, all of which are important, so our ask is to donate a small amount and spread the word so that our collective pool of money can add up to the $2K goal. Google also just announced a 2:1 gift match campaign to help fight ebola that you should check out.

I also worked with kids, teaching them about computers and technology. I tried to focus on how to find the answers to their questions using the Internet versus having them memorize terms. I taught lessons like how to write a good search query, how to create a newsletter and how to create an email address and send an email. It was a huge challenge keeping 20 kids engaged with only one computer, a language barrier and lots of hormones (theirs, not mine) flying around but hopefully they learned something.

That’s my trip in a nutshell! To conclude, I’ll leave you with a few choice stories.

  • Point and laugh – Whenever kids saw me they would point and say, “abroni,” which means white man in Twi. One of our drivers, Ben, gave me the advice to point right back at them and say, “obibini,” or brown man. Whenever I did that, the children would collapse in peals of laughter.
  • “Free range” livestock – The goats and chicken in Ghana are much more independent and self sufficient than their counterparts in America. Goats and chickens roam the villages and roads, untethered, and forage for food during the day and return to their homes at night. Goat and chicken theft is very uncommon and I saw no road kill in my time there.
  • Moldy chain – We didn’t have running water at our partner non-profit’s office so every time we went to the bathroom we had to pour water into the back of the toilet with a bucket and manually pull the chain to flush the toilet. One day, I reached into the dirty water in the back of the tank only to discover that what I thought was the metal chain was a string of mold. I used a lot of hand sanitizer that day.

Ballin in Bali

December 27, 2013 § Leave a comment

I just got back from a jam-packed week in Bali and wanted to document my experiences in a useful format so that I can refer future Bali travelers to this post. Be warned that it will be lengthy but hopefully the insights are worth it and I’ll try to make it as colorful as possible.

Before I delve into the main categories (accommodations, transportation, excursions, and food), I wanted to describe the motely crew of characters I traveled with to give context to the names I will be dropping in my stories.

Cast of Characters

  • Debbie: My good college friend who is living and working in Singapore. She enticed me to come visit with her extremely persuasive and winning personality and was the planner extraordinaire behind this vacation. The rest of us just threw out things we wanted to do and Debbie did the research in terms of logistics and pricing and put together a comprehensive itinerary that allowed us to enjoy Bali to the fullest. If you need more information on any of the excursions let me know and I’ll connect you with her as she has spreadsheets full of information.
  • Xavier: Debbie’s boyfriend of three years who also lives and works in Singapore. He was an actor and deejay back in the day (in Singapore) and I’ve been told that you can see his famous mug on a random vending machine in Chinatown. If you want any pictures of the food we ate, let me know and I’ll get them from him as he documented everything on Foursquare.
  • Tuan: Debbie and Xavier’s klutzy friend from Singapore (poor guy slipped at least ten times during our trip but in his defense it was raining and very wet). I think Debbie expected us to get along because he also works for Google (out of the Singapore office). Tuan was often the butt of our jokes during the trip and we grew a rapport similar to that of siblings around the same age.
  • Mykola: Debbie’s Ukrainan born coworker who moved to Minnesota at age fifteen. He regaled us with stories of hog butchering in his village in Ukraine (I now have a strong desire to try salted lard) and impressed us with the fact that his grandmother owned a quarter of the goat population in that same village (there were four goats in the village). It was hilarious as he, this six foot tall, blond, bear of a man, was our de facto tour guide as he had been to Bali three times before and was familiar with most of the areas we were going to. Mykola was extremely chill about everything and balanced the group out very nicely.

Accommodations

I won’t be much help here as our group had fairly unique lodging arrangements. Debbie and Xavier’s have a friend who used to live in Bali with his family and own a five bedroom villa in Pecatu. It was gorgeous and modern as the wife is an interior designer and we were so dazzled by it on our first night. However, we soon discovered that beautiful outdoor living spaces meant that we were also sharing the areas with multitudes of bugs. It was also a bit far from some of the places we went to which meant more time in a car, sometimes sitting in traffic, but it was a small sacrifice to be staying in such a beautiful place.

Transportation

The going rate for a driver is about $35 USD or 400,000 Rupiah. If you acquire a driver at the airport, it will be about double that rate unless you haggle. I recommend setting up a driver to take you around in advance. For each excursion, Debbie arranged with the facility to include a driver for the day. However, feel free to hit up my new friend Agung (transport.agung@yahoo.com or 081-338-383-554). His English is a bit broken but he is extremely nice and knows where all the main spots are.

Excursions

I’m going to list the excursions in the order of most enjoyment to lowest enjoyment, per my standards. Keep in mind that I’m an adrenaline junkie who loves animals but I’ll give additional context so you can get a sense of whether or not you would enjoy this type of activity.

  • Canyoning: I LOVED this experience. My friend who had traveled to Bali just a few months prior told me about this and it sounded like something right up my alley. We essentially climbed up and down rain forests and rappelled down waterfalls. Sometimes we jumped into pools of water, other times we slid down rocks. I suppose this can be considered a dangerous activity but if you pay attention and watch where you put your feet, you should be fine. We originally were going to do the Double K Sporty package but it was too dangerous that day due to the rain so we did Kerenkali instead. Our guide, Pee-E said that the Aling Gorges (only available from July to November) route is absolutely gorgeous so I plan to one day come back to do that. For our group of five we had two guides (Pee-E and Iman) and they led us though the various obstacles. Afterwards we had lunch together at a small shop in the area and they transferred the pictures they took of us with their GoPro to our SD cards (if you don’t have a SD card they will burn it on a CD for you). Mykola also had a GoPro with him so we have a pretty cool video of him jumping off a waterfall (complete with water immersion). The scenery was breathtakingly beautiful and I often felt like I was in Rivendell.
  • Surfing: I grew up in Socal but for whatever reason, never learned to surf. This was my second most anticipated outing and it did not disappoint. Debbie, Tuan, and I went to Padang Padang beach and approached the lifeguard tent, asking if they gave surf lessons. They had some guys and boards available for roughly $25 USD for a 1 hour lesson which seemed like a pretty good deal to me (I had no real point of reference but it seemed a small price to pay for being able to paddle out into the warm, crystal clear water. My instructor, Wayan, was a burly Balinese man covered in tattoos. I really liked him and thought that he did a fine job of teaching me and pushing me onto the waves but I know that Debbie and Tuan (both have surfed before), were not happy with the quality of their instructor. There definitely was a language barrier but who wants to listen to someone talk when you can be paddling out to sea? I stood up on a few good waves with Wayan’s help but when I tried to paddle through and stand up myself, wasn’t able to find the right rhythm.  We only went for an hour on our last day in Bali but it was a glorious experience nonetheless.
  • White water rafting: I wasn’t originally looking forward to this excursion because of my injuries (to be described in Gili Islands section) but within ten minutes of being on the river, I couldn’t help but feel so lucky that I got to raft down such majestic views. I’ve gone white water rafting in various other places, most recently the American River near Sacramento, but those views don’t even compare to what you can see in Bali. Our group had two boats with one guide each (Wayan and Rambo) and we had fun battling each other for the lead. I was seated next to klutzy Tuan and within minutes of me telling him to be careful and threatening to hurt him if he hit my face with his paddle, he promptly clocked me in the head. Luckily the helmet protected me but let’s just say that I was just as vigilant about his whereabouts as I was about the rocks in the river.
  • Ubud Bike tour: Despite the muddy roads and random trash littered along the trails, I enjoyed the biking tour through Ubud because I felt like I was getting to see how people really lived in Bali. Arga, our guide, took us past his grandfather’s house and we got to ride through rice paddies with men and women planting and harvesting the crops. I was surprised to see that everything was still done manually as more advanced machinery in other industries was prevalent in other parts of Bali but it was fun to interact with the kids and explore the neighborhood.
  • Uluwatu Temple: This temple boasts cliff side views that rival even the newest round of HD screensavers. If you come here, bring some bananas or fruit to feed the monkeys (you can also buy some there but it’s overpriced due to the high density of tourists). The monkeys are cute but aggressive so just be careful. I offered a monkey a piece of fruit and he took his tiny little hand, grabbed it, took a little bite, threw it on the ground, and then jumped up and grabbed the entire bag from my other hand. It was amusing to watch him strut around afterwards, popping fruit in his mouth from the bag as if he were at the movies, eating some popcorn. I considered stealing the bag of fruit back but my friends told me that he would probably bite me so I just let him have it.
  • Massage: In central Ubud you will walk down the street and see a bevy of boutique shops and spas. Our group really enjoyed our experience at Kayma spa as it had a nice ambiance and talented staff. The prices are ridiculously low compared to US standards so it’s worth going if you like getting pampered once in a while. I tried the Volcanic wrap (combination of bath salts and volcanic ash which is supposed to relax your muscles and purify your skin) but I wouldn’t recommend as I was super itchy when they bundled me up like a burrito and left me to dry. My friends highly recommend the traditional Balinese massage.
  • Gili Islands: Oh Gili.  I had a lot of bad luck on Gili. The Gili Islands are located off the coast of Bali and take about 2.5 hours via boat. During this leg of our trip I got stung by jellyfish, cut my feet on coral reefs, was eaten alive by mosquitos, and got extremely seasick. Of the three Gili islands, I only went to Gili Trawangan. Snorkeling was fun at first until the jellyfish started to sting me. I recommend wearing a rash guard if you go. Also, don’t expect any instruction – you essentially pay for just the equipment and a boat ride out. Mykola went scuba diving and had a good time. He said that he saw the biggest sea turtle he’s ever seen which is a significant statement as he has been diving many times before.
  • Outlet shopping: There are stores that sell clothes (mostly surfing brands like Billabong, Hurley, etc.). Enough said.

We didn’t have time to do everything on our list so here are a few things/places we wanted to visit but couldn’t do.

Food

I didn’t do a good job of paying attention to all the places we ate at but here are a few of my favorites. I’m not a picky eater though so I enjoyed everything I had (including the local Indonesian instant noodle).

  • Fish market: This was my favorite dining experience as it was the most interesting. Essentially you walk around the fish market, choose the type of seafood you want to eat, and then take it to a nearby restaurant to grill. It’s not the cleanest environment though so keep your hygiene expectations low. Our group got some squid, octopus, tiger prawns, and sea bass. Tuan also got 3 kilos of some other fish I can’t remember the name of. Tip: Don’t get 3 kilos of a fish with that order unless you’re rreealllyy hungry.
  • Bebek Bengil: This restaurant serves a famous crispy duck dish that was delicious. The portions could be bigger and it’s pricey compared to other more traditional restaurants but the ambiance is nice and they have an interesting menu.
  • Naughty Nuris: The food was good but the entire time I was eating I kept on wondering who Nuri was and why she was so naughty. My friends thought their ribs were the best they’d ever had but I can’t agree with that statement having eaten at Ribfest. The ribs were really solid though and their pork loin was also quite good.

Hopefully this list is somewhat helpful for you future adventurers. I left off a few things here and there so feel free to reach out to me in person if you want more information. Bali is wonderful and I highly recommend it. If you’re awesome enough maybe I’ll go back with you. 🙂

The Wedding Toast That Never Was

June 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

This past weekend I went to my friend’s wedding in Sonoma. It was the first wedding where I was in the bridal party and probably the only wedding I will serve as a groomsmaid.

When the bride and groom e-mailed the bridal party a few weeks ago, asking who wanted to give a toast, I considered raising my hand but I couldn’t think of anything to say. It had been so long since we had lived together in the dorms and I didn’t even remember what it was like to know the bride and groom apart.

However, listening to the other toasts during the wedding made me reflect upon my relationship with the couple, and more specifically, my friend, Tim. Therefore, I know it’s late but here’s the toast I would have given if I could do it all over again.

Hi everyone,

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Joanna and I am Tim’s, self-proclaimed, Best Woman.

Tim and I met eight years ago when we were freshmen at Cal. We lived on the same floor in the dorms and were somewhat forced to get to know each other through floor dinners and meet and greets but it wasn’t until we had our first one on one conversation that I started to think that we would be good friends.

I still remember that conversation vividly. I was sitting on my bed in my dorm and he sat on a chair in front of me.  We started with the usual perfunctory questions like, “Where are you from” and “What do you want to major in” but quickly went on to things like, “What do you want in life” and “What is your view on relationships.”

I liked Tim right away because he was honest and thoughtful and was comfortable with who he was. He had no qualms about telling me about the challenges of moving around as a child, growing up in China, and the fact that he had never dated anyone prior to college. We had a lot of similarities and clicked in our worldviews so I was hopeful that he would be a good friend to me in college.

Throughout the years I’ve seen many sides of Tim but my view of Brittany was skewed at first. Because Tim and I are so similar, it was hard to understand her point of view when they would get into disagreements and for the longest time I had trouble relating to her. However, slowly but surely I got to see the entire picture and I was able to see Brittany for who she really is, a kind, generous, and loving person who would sacrifice everything for someone she loves.

Actually, now that I think about it, I’m probably one of the few people who can best empathize with Brittany in her grievances with Tim. Tim and I were swing dance partners in college and although it was a wonderful experience, it definitely had its ups and downs. Similar to how Tim approached his relationship with Brittany, he always had the best intentions but somehow those intentions didn’t always materialize.

To give you an example, one time Tim and I were practicing a lift when he forgot to lift before flipping me and ended up giving me a head concussion. Obviously not intentional but very painful to say the least. I really should have logged all those injuries to get credit for free medical advice but to be fair, we didn’t know he would become a doctor back then.

There were so many things we didn’t know back then. In that very first conversation that we had, Tim and I had yet to really discover who we were and what we wanted in our careers but we were both certain of one thing: we both wanted to find that perfect partner in college and hopefully marry that person. The rationale was that we didn’t want to date just to date and would only get into a relationship if we could see a long-term future with that person. At least that was the dream.

It’s always beautiful when a dream is realized. As we grow older, it’s so common to see dreams deferred by the realities of adult life. Yet here we are, eight years later, and Tim is marrying his college sweetheart.

To Tim and Brittany, may your future children be blessed with your insane bodies and kind hearts. I promise to visit you in New York at least once and I wish you all the happiness in the world. Cheers.

Circling Back to 2010

May 6, 2013 § Leave a comment

Stephanie and I had an eventful day today working on our project in the EI offices and planning out every step of the kiln testing process. Around midday we walked over an hour to get to town and had a meal of Periperi fried chicken and chips at Tasty Bites, a local eatery. Periperi is a garlic flavoring and the food was just as good as any diner in the States. After lunch we walked around town and took a mental inventory of where we could source certain supplies – I was actually quite excited at the prospect of improvising a grater by hammering holes into a piece of metal but we found graters galore at a local Chinese operated store. 

The journey home was a bit rough as we were walking uphill on dirt roads with enormous trucks covering us in their exhaust as they passed us by. We did pass a random patch of forest filled with monkeys which completely made my day. Unfortunately, I was not able to capture any pictures this trip as flaunting a DSLR while walking along the dusty roads is an open invitation to get robbed. 

Anyway, I actually started writing so I could share a blog post that Stephanie wrote back in 2010 at the culmination of the last trip to Malawi. It’s very well written and gives a great overview of Malawi and our observations from three years ago. I haven’t had any exposure to the rural villages yet so I’m excited to start going out into the field more these next few days. 

Without further ado, here’s Stephanie circa December 2010:

It is, truly, about the circle of life.

In the beginning, Kyson and I were struck by stark similarities between our project expectations and the humble realities of Malawi. Our project focuses on cutting back on deforestation, but we didn’t expect to see charcoal to be so engrained in everybody’s lives. We sure didn’t expect charcoal traders pushing bicycles toppling with maize bags full of charcoal to be the first thing we see; neither did we expect to be again and again engulfed in smoke from burning trees and forests on the streets by storefronts, by our house in the mountains.

Through our talks with district commissioners, a professor and head of the Department of Forestry, bamboo enthusiasts, charcoal producers, traders and consumers, anti-charcoal law enforcers, farmers, USAID/Emmanuel International employees, small business owners, church congregations, consultants, chiefs of villages, agroforestry groups, and, most importantly, communities, Bamboo Lota has received an overwhelming welcome in Malawi. We are everlastingly thankful for Helen and Paul of Emmanuel International, who has not only let us stay in their home, but allowed us access to their most important resources—to be able to see village projects and to have EI’s credibility of promoting good work behind us.

Our journey to Malawi has brought new insights and further desire to instigate change. You have seen through my camera’s lens, my typed words, a significantly small percentage of what is actually going on in this country. There are many, many more pressing needs than I have presented. Food is scarce—oftentimes, our leftovers are collected, cooked again and fed to those who are less fortunate; some children eat an average of two meals a week; and droughts and flooding ruin many agricultural harvests. Daily nutritional necessities are even categorized as six food groups—things cooked with oil being one. Main agricultural exports include tobacco and tea; neither of which are particularly booming. Other agricultural staples are maize and wheat—not any of these productions are sufficient to feed the 14 million people living in Malawi.

The need for a recycling program is duly noted for plastics and compost—but much of what people buy is reused over, and over and over and over, in a way that would put Americans to utter shame. A child once came up to me and asked, “Can I have your plastic?” and smiled delightedly when I handed my bottle to him. Where a bottle would otherwise be tossed, helping create that awful Texas-sized plastic island in the Pacific Ocean, here it is used for Tippy Taps or refilled over again. Plastic is not waste to the impoverished. Even our food at home was wrapped in their bowls by reusable shower caps that were probably tens of years old.

Helaine, Pezo and the Govala community taught us about the importance of education, which has always been the first priority in my life, my family’s, my friends and neighbors. It is through education that poverty can be alleviated, yet the programs in Malawi are so unorganized and unenforced that the future of Malawi is further compromised.  It is not necessary for children to go to school—some children have never stepped in school at ages 9 or 10, because there is no pressure insisting the importance of education in the big picture. There is a shortage of teachers—classes of 4-year-olds in public primary schools have sizes up to 200 students. Just imagine the outrage if this occurred in ANY other country!

I’ve talked about the state of water sanitation in the country for Blog Action Day, and facts about how the predicted spike in population growth combined with declining resources will lead to increased strife. Kyson and I are sure to return back to the States with changed perceptions of waste and consumption. Americans are about 4% of the entire world’s population, but consume about 40% of the earth’s resources. If you can personally decrease your water and carbon footprints, be conscious of what you consume, encourage others to do the same, you can move the Earth.

Electricity is rare, most nights are spent in complete darkness as blackouts are more common than not. Blackouts during the day are much like when there is poop in the kiddie pool where I worked as a lifeguard—you cheer and get to take the day off; how unproductive is that? Inefficiency is frustrating even to patient individuals like Kyson and myself—we are used to America’s pressure to multitask efficiently. Here, one cooks one pot at a time, spends eight hours on a project that could be done in an hour. It is entirely different, but slow is the way of life out here.

As we watched Aunt Mary’s wedding video from the 90s, she pointed out at various moments family members or friends who have passed; what struck me the most was that it seemed like most of her relatives and friends (who were all so young, even children who would have been my age at that time) were gone. Malaria and sexually transmitted diseases plague the lives of many, and many do not even see the ripe age of 20.

All in all, Malawians are tied together through their united faith in God. There are differences between churches, yes, there are Catholics, Muslims, Presbytarians, Baptists, etc. But diversity ends there—the smiling faces clearly dictate that life, to them, is by their standards manageable. Albeit living in tattered rags, unemployed and sitting on dirt streets picking through trash, there is chitter-chatter and laughter to be heard everywhere. No where else in the world have I ever encountered such bright smiles from people biking, the “Muli bwanje”s and “Zikomo”s are abundant, their praises for the little they have humble me to my knees. So there is hope, faith that God provides well for the poor in Heaven. And there is, at least, the reassurance that Malawi is, for now, still the “Warm Heart of Africa.” But what can we do to prevent it from a future heart attack, a failure in existing systems, the complete deterioration of a country?

Kyson, Joanna and I have been working hard to process all of our information regarding Malawian culture to best see where we should lead Bamboo Lota in the near future. There are extreme needs that need to be attacked, and we want to face this head on. Westernization is spinning into Malawi slowly, with an increase of cars and pop culture, yet no aid to jump the price gap. The circle of life is such—deforestation leads to drying rivers, soil erosion, increased pollution, climate change, and the consumption of wood charcoal leads also to respiratory illnesses, decreased participation in schooling for children, thus spiraling Malawians further into the poverty trap, increasing the gap between the rich and the poor.

Bamboo Lota is continuing on this project. If you are in any way moved by what we are doing, please help us spread the word on what you have learned about Malawi from our project. You can add us on Facebook,donate to us, connect us to grant donors or any other compassionate friends.

Thank you for coming along with us for our adventure :) We thoroughly enjoyed talking to all of you about our experience in Malawi, and we welcome any more questions!

Why Zomba

May 5, 2013 § 1 Comment

We’re here! After 40 grueling hours of travel, we spotted Helen’s bright, smiling face as we exited the Blantyre airport and breathed a sigh of relief. We were finally in Malawi.

I’m sure a lot of people are wondering where the team is staying and why we chose Zomba, instead of another region in Malawi, to work on the project. Like many business origin stories, it all came down to knowing the right connections.

Back in 2009 when we were in our class at Berkeley and finalizing the business plan, we reached out to a plethora of organizations that were on the ground in Malawi. We wanted to learn about their programs, the challenges they were facing, and what they thought of our idea. One of the first organizations to reciprocate interest and lend its support was Emmanuel International (EI).

I arranged a Skype call (this was pre Google Hangouts, mind you) with a man named Alan in their main office in Canada. He asked me to send him a copy of our proposal and forwarded it to their contacts in Malawi which led to the fortutitous meeting between Bamboo Lota and Helen and Paul. Helen and Paul are missionaries and have lived in Malawi for the last 25 years, working on projects ranging from agriculture training, food assitance, clean water, and more. And while religion is what drives them, their day to day work is very much centered around bettering the standard of living and sustainability for the communities around them. And back in 2009 when we mentioned that we wanted to make a trip out to Malawi to conduct a feasibility study, they not only offered to host Stephanie and Kyson, but also opened up the network of contacts they had developed over the last 20+ years. They arranged meetings with everyone from the charcoal producers in the villages to government officials to forestry experts at the University of Malawi which is located right here in Zomba.

I’ve exchanged so many emails with Helen over the years and I was so excited to finally meet her in person. Helen and Paul are hosting the Bamboo Lota team once again and allowing us to use their infrastructure as well (yay for Internet access!) in a region where these services are not always readily available. This time around we plan to spend some time giving back and lending our technical skills as needed in addition to the other project tasks we hope to complete during this trip.

Questions about Malawi

May 3, 2013 § 1 Comment

It wasn’t until I started packing for this trip that I realized how little I knew about Malawi. Through working on Bamboo Lota I’ve come to learn things like: the state of their economy, the country’s main exports, GDP, deforestation rate, etc. but I knew very little about the kinds of things we take for granted in America. Things like: will I be taking hot or cold showers, do I need an umbrella, can I buy shampoo there? And although the Internet is filled with information about living in Africa, there isn’t very much about Zomba, Malawi, specifically.

Clothing was surprisingly an issue. I’m a pretty conservative dresser in my opinion so I didn’t think anything I had would be considered too risque for Malawi. However, it turns out that jeans and tight fitting pants are quite the anomaly in Malawi and long skirts and dresses are more the norm. I have never in my life casually worn a skirt or dress that goes to my feet so I had to go out and buy a few. I didn’t really think clothing would be an expense for this trip but I spent a fair amount of money making sure I had appropriate outfits.

It’s funny how quickly fashion trends change though (this is inevitably where the men stop reading, haha). I was just talking with a friend about how in high school, low slung jeans and crop tops were so cool in our teens whereas in your twenties and thirties, you try your best to cover all that up (high waisted jeans, jeggings, and long shirts ftw).

Beyond clothing I had trouble packing toiletries. Because of TSA regulations I couldn’t fit enough shampoo and conditioner for the 2+ weeks I am traveling. I ended up just bringing one little bottle of shampoo and hoping that I would be able to buy some in Zomba (there is supposed to be a store in town). And while I thought it was surprising that Zomba did have a convenience store I guess it should be more surprising that you wouldn’t be able to find one in today’s day and age.

To many people, Africa is still a black box shrouded in mystery, including myself. And Malawi is like the needle in the stack of hay in the black box (no joke – no one in my social circle can locate Malawi on a map). I’m excited to finally travel first hand and learn about the culture and see how much it has developed over the years. A lot can change in three years so I’m sure that there will be many new developments from the last Bamboo Lota trip when Stephanie and Kyson conducted the feasibility study.

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