Sunday, October 31, 2010

My Monkey Mates

My favorite animals to hang out with at the sanctuary were definitely the monkeys. These were adorable tiny marmoset and squirrel monkeys- very different than the evil vervet monkey in Kroonstad. Marmoset’s and squirrel monkey’s are obviously not indigenous animals. Like many of the animals at Africa Dawn they have been rescued from animal trade and now have permanent homes at the sanctuary. As I mentioned before, laws for owning exotic animals are much more lax in South Africa than America and some try to keep wild animals like monkeys as their pets. Often they realize that these animals are in fact wild and cannot be tamed and abandon them at pet stores or even into the wild. Africa Dawn takes them in and gives them a nice home to live the happily and safely for the rest of their lives.

The marmoset’s mostly kept to themselves when we went in to feed them or clean their cages, except for one very mischievous monkey who was named “monkey boy.” Monkey Boy loves to sit on your shoulder and try and run down your top- especially if you are wearing any type of sweatshirt or jacket. He likes to sit on your lap as well, but does not like to be touched himself and he is a biter! I think the marmoset’s look like old men with big tufts of hair growing out of their ears and I liked to think of monkey boy as a crotchety old man.


The sanctuary has two squirrel monkeys named Chuck and Larry. They are really sweet and also like to sit on shoulders or laps. They never bit me and liked an occasional cuddle, but their one annoying habit was their love of gadgets- especially cameras! It is so hard to get a good photo of them, as all they want to do is sit on the camera’s lens or stare into it to see their own reflection. Anything with a screen they love and they stole my phone multiple times.


Friday, October 29, 2010

Bird Release at African Dawn

African Dawn serves as a rescue and rehabilitation center for many kinds of local wildlife. About 90% of the animals at the sanctuary are local birds or antelope that have been found wounded or have been causing a menace to locals and would be killed if the sanctuary did not remove them. About a month before I arrived there had been a big fight between a local man in Jeffrey’s Bay and local environmental organizations. The man had tall trees in front of his house, which were home to a flock of egrets. The man was frustrated with the noise they made and the bird poop constantly falling on his cars and home. He ended up cutting down all the trees killing or injuring a good number of the birds and dislocating the rest. African Dawn came in and rescued all of the birds and brought them back to the sanctuary. The birds found a happy home at African Dawn and during my first week there a group of the birds were deemed strong enough to be released. The owner and volunteer coordinator wrangled them into a transport box and then we drove out far into the game drive and released the birds. It was amazing to see the beautiful snow-white birds flying above us knowing that they had just escaped a brush with death a month earlier. Watching the beautiful birds soar against the blue sky was representative of the majesty and greatness involved in saving an animal on the brink and releasing it again to freedom. The story of the release even made the local newspaper with one of my photographs in it.

P.S. Although they don't celebrate it over here HAPPY HALLOWEEN to everyone back home!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Conversations with Strangers

I am not usually the type of person who strikes up conversations with strangers. If I’m on line at a starbucks and the person behind me starts chatting I am usually the one to nod politely and look away, or when my cab driver starts up a conversation I smile and quickly switch on my ipod in my pocket. I’m not antisocial or anything, I just don’t really like conversing with strangers knowing I will speak with them for 10 minutes and never see them again. However, when I’m traveling, everything changes. I love speaking to people. I think it’s a symptom of traveling alone and craving a connection to people, but I really love speaking to everyone I meet. From drivers to waiters to fellow tourists some of my favorite moments of this trip have just been listening to other people talk. And it’s amazing what other people will say to a total stranger. In South Africa, where there is so much fresh political and racial tension, people are very eager to talk about race relations with a friendly American girl with a smile on her face. In Cape Town they were more used to Americans and while I had some nice talks with other tourists, no locals really approached me. However, in Port Elizabeth where I guess they don’t see as many Americans, especially young girls traveling alone, waiters, drivers, fellow restaurant patrons all wanted to strike up conversations with me and gauge my feelings about South Africa and its turbulent past. I studied Apartheid in school, but I was only 6 years old when it ended, so by the time I studied Apartheid it already seemed like a thing of the past- no different than all the other history I learned. However, it really wasn’t that long ago and everyone I talked to lived through it, and is now living in the messy aftermath. I was amazed by what strong opinions everyone has on the subject and everyone was very eager to share. Luckily I was fascinated and just as eager to listen.

One of my favorite conversations that really stood out to me was with a white middle-aged South African man who had served in the SA army for 20 years. We had a conversation that must have lasted at least two hours about apartheid and then the state of the world and wars in general. When I speak with people back home I am always very honest about sharing my opinions regardless of whether or not the person I’m speaking with agrees with my opinions. However, I have learned here that sometimes getting angry and arguing a point can end a conversation and sometimes it’s more important to hold your tongue and try and convey your point later. The man admits now that apartheid was wrong, but does not seem to be able to comprehend why there is residual anger by the black South Africans. When I brought up the fact that apartheid was an oppressive political regime and dehumanized non-whites he would respond every time with gruesome stories of his experiences from war. I would talk about segregation and the suspension of habeas corpus and he would respond by telling me about witnessing black resistance fighters brutally rape and torture whites. At first I found it really frustrating. I was arguing politics and he was arguing war. I felt like he was arguing a separate point. It took about 4 or 5 of these back and forths for me to realize that for him policy and combat are one in the same. For people growing up in more conservative families in America or for those who have friends and family in the army this may not seem like a great revelation. But for me, it was a gigantic revelation that hit me hard. In America war is not deeply engrained in our every day lives. Even those who do have family in the army- war is not fought on our land. War is something that happens abroad and while we feel the human casualties when our soldiers die, we do not experience the brutal attacks on civilians and feel the fear of constant danger. Speaking with this man made me see that he is still clearly traumatized from his experiences, as are many white South Africans are, that he can't separate politics from war in his head, because for him they are one in the same. There is a saying that one man’s war criminal is another man’s freedom fighter. Some of the freedom fighters, like Nelson Mandela, were non violent and should not have been imprisoned. But some were extremely violent and engaged in acts of guerilla warfare so gruesome and torturous they make murder seem merciful. The soldiers witnessed innocent people being raped, tortured, and disfigured and then the culprits later walk free since it was all in the name of freedom. Those images are so spurned into the mind of this man that he cannot talk about the policy of apartheid without countering with these stories.

I come from a place where war was not engrained into me and can easily see that while the acts of warfare are tragic, they are unrelated to government policy. Just because a few people acted horribly in their fight for justice doesn’t mean an entire race should be blamed. He kept asking me about 9/11 and asking why I didn’t want revenge. I told him that I believe that 9/11 was a tragedy, but I do not blame an entire nation of people for a small group of terrorist’s actions. I used the opportunity to bring up the idea of follow through after war as I think that is a great weakness both America and South Africa have in common. I told him how America armed Afghanistan during the cold war against Russia- training the locals with massive weapons and then just abandoning them afterward. As Charlie Wilson, the man who orchestrated the arming said, “We changed the world, then we blew the end game.” We supplied no economic aid for rebuilding in Afghanistan and a little over a decade later a soldier from those camps named Osama Bin Laden launched the worst attack ever seen on American soil. Now of course I don’t blame America for this, but I used the story as an example of lack of follow through, because I believe that is South Africa’s biggest weakness and their lack of follow through post apartheid has created the imbalanced poverty stricken nation facing us today.

Speaking with him gave me a new level of understanding about the complexities of politics. It also made me all the more despondent towards the situation in the Middle East. Now understanding the mentality of people who cannot separate policy and combat because both are deeply enmeshed in their everyday lives makes me wonder how things will ever get solved. Maybe the simple realization that people see them as the same thing will help people to start separating them? It’s like therapy; the realization of the problem is the first step in solving it.

Great conversations of cultural exchange like these could not happen back home and I am so appreciative of the chance to learn and (as cheesy as it sounds) expand my mind’s horizons. I know this blog is usually dedicated to photographs, but it’s also about what I’m learning on my travels and I just felt I had to share the wonders that can come from speaking with people while traveling. So all you fellow polite nodders and earphone grabbers, next time wait a minute, smile back and listen to what your friendly stranger has to say, because it could change your whole perspective, and isn’t that what travel is about after all?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Volunteering at African Dawn Animal Sanctuary


As I mentioned, after my time at my first placement I was thrilled to be a volunteer at African Dawn. My first week at the sanctuary was absolutely wonderful and exactly what I had hoped for when sitting at home in New York dreaming about the trip. I was doing amazing work with animals in a beautiful setting, with awesome like-minded people and having great intellectually stimulating conversations with the sanctuary’s owner. However the second week things started going downhill.

During my second week at the sanctuary was also Fashion Week in New York and my parents had gone into the city (completely unrelated to Fashion Week) to see my grandmother and sister and were staying at my apartment. I started to become extremely homesick and doubtful of what I was doing on this trip. I guess the grass always looks greener on the other side, and sitting in my little shack in the middle of nowhere Africa, the grass in New York looked like the friggin’ Emerald City it was so green. I had felt a little homesick missing my family and friends, but until this moment I was doing pretty well. When I started to imagine all my friends in cushy jobs working as assistants in the city I started going down the path of the road not taken and wondering the big “What If.” What if I hadn’t decided to try a career in wildlife photography and socially responsible journalism? What if I had stayed in New York and gone into fashion photography like I originally wanted to when I started college? The what if’s started to pile up and can be hard to deal with. I eventually snapped out of my funk and went back to loving the experience of being here. A big thanks is due to all my family and friends for letting me rant via email about being stuck in a shack in Africa and for all their amazing words of wisdom that really helped me pull through.

On top of my own emotional turmoil the sanctuary’s owner had left for the week to pick up a kudu a few days drive north and there was a veritable strain on the workers and volunteers left at the sanctuary. The feeding schedules for the animals are very complicated and elaborate and I had a hard time understanding them and had to keep asking questions- while these questions were tolerated the first week, my second week of questions was met with hostility and frustration. At American sanctuaries I’ve worked at there seems to be a bit more of a learning curve then was allowed at either of the sanctuaries I worked at in South Africa. I do believe though that this attitude I encountered was unique and more do to timing then the general attitude of how the sanctuary usually is. From speaking with long-term volunteers some who had been there before me I don’t think this somewhat hostile attitude is a true reflection on the temperament that most volunteers experience.

Again at this sanctuary like the one before I dealt surprisingly well with the extremely basic living conditions, constantly being covered in animal pee, poo, and cows blood, but I had trouble with the things I wasn’t expecting like being snapped at for asking questions and not being able to ever fully feel like I knew what I was doing. Eventually by the end of the second week I felt more like I knew what I was doing and I had snapped out of my funk so things got better. Unfortunately during the third week I got a horrible case of bronchitis that lasted till Wednesday, followed almost immediately on Friday by a debilitating case of gastro-enteritis, which left my hospitalized with an IV in my arm and then on a week of bed rest.

You can volunteer at the sanctuary for anywhere from two weeks to years on end. I think three or four weeks is a perfect time at the sanctuary for a casual volunteer. If you are a real bird lover you may want more time, but otherwise I think much longer starts to get a little boring. Two weeks is a little short and you leave just as you are starting to get the hang of things. I am personally used to a very fast paced lifestyle and while I really did enjoy working with all the animals, I got bored after the first week. I think this may have to do with the fact that after the first week things felt tense and I felt a bit rushed to complete all my tasks, and I didn’t get very much animal interaction. I spent most of the time just dropping off food and leaving. Despite all my hang-ups with my first sanctuary, at least I got to spend a lot of time interacting with the lion cubs. I would suggest if you are volunteering here (or anywhere really) to be proactive and if you feel like your not having enough animal interaction simply find more. If you love cats ask if you can help out more with the servals or cheetahs. If you love dogs take the dogs for a walk through the game park and enjoy the beautiful view of rolling hills dotted with antelope and zebras. Use your downtime to sit in with the animals and take moments to enjoy the experience while doing the feeding and cleaning chores because those small moments will make all the difference. I have really learned on this trip that my enjoyment is my responsibility and if I am in a funk or feeling unhappy it is up to be to be proactive to change my circumstances. That lesson is one that I will definitely take home with me and will apply it in the future to my life back home.


The living conditions at African Dawn are extremely basic and volunteers should be prepared. If you have never traveled in third world countries as a back packer there are certain things that you probably don’t know you need, which are very important! First if you are going anytime other than summer it gets extremely cold at night and you need a warm sleeping bag! I would also suggest warm clothes to sleep in because the sleeping bag alone may not keep you warm. A towel is also very important! Many travelers don’t think to bring a towel and backpacker/hostel accommodations do not provide them. I would also suggest a robe because the bathrooms are not attached to the rooms and it is nice to have something other than a towel to go back and forth between your room and the bathroom. Rubber flip flops or shower shoes are also a good idea because the bathroom floor can be a bit gross as the cats often kill rabbits and mice and leave them as little dead presents for the volunteers in the showers. The housing for the volunteers is just down a big hill from the rest of the sanctuary- literally a 5-minute or less walk to the main entrance, but it is a steep hill and it is a great leg workout as you walk up and down multiple times every day.


Most of the rooms are dormitory style with bunk beds and are lined up next to each other in a little complex with the bathroom attached. There are also three little shacks very near the complex of rooms. The shacks are nice because they are private, but they are very small with no storage space and if you are sharing one no privacy. They also have the problem that they can be locked from both the inside and outside. A few days into the first week my roommate locked me in by mistake and went up to dinner. Everyone was up at dinner and had forgotten about me and I didn’t have the phone number of the sanctuary in my phone yet, I had to call an i-to-i representative to call up to the sanctuary to have someone let me out. Luckily I am not overly claustrophobic, but it was enough of an anxiety-inducing experience for my roommate to move into another shack and I was left with the privacy of my own cabin. The cabins do have a light bulb, a fan, and one electrical outlet.


If you keep your door closed the bugs pretty much stay out, but I did have one tarantula-sized spider visit me one evening. I came back down to my room late in the dark and came inside and closed my door using my flashlight to find the latch and my flashlight shined on the gigantic spider perched on the slatted window blinds on the inside of my door. After screaming and hyperventilating for a few minutes I grabbed my shoe and slammed it against the door (this spider was to big to crush with a tissue). Unfortunately all that happened is the spider slipped between the window and the blind slats. Now this was a major problem because if I just left him there he may have crawled out during the night and could have ended up in my bed, which I swear would have given me a heart attack and killed me. I tried to open the slats from the bottom, determined to still squish him, but they were stuck on the side he was on. I did however get the ones on the other half of the window open. After about five minutes of freaking out I came up with the brilliant idea of gassing him out. I then used almost an entire bottle of bug spray to gas him out of hiding and onto the half of the window that was exposed where I promptly crushed him with my shoe. The whole process took about 30 minutes and I was a nervous wreck afterward, but Rebecca-1, spider-0!

I believe that I had a rather unique confluence of events to create a less than optimal experience, but I would still highly recommend volunteering at the sanctuary. Because of the wonderful time I had the first week, I think that under different circumstances I could have had a much better time and other people thinking of volunteering would really enjoy it. I think it is an amazing opportunity to do great work and really be part of a wonderful sanctuary on the front lines of the battle to save animals in Africa. As for the giant spiders, cold nights, and perpetually being covered in animal excrement- whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and I really think you will leave the sanctuary a stronger more self-aware person.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

African Dawn Animal Sanctuary


The African Dawn Sanctuary located between Jeffrey’s Bay and Port Elizabeth on the garden route was a welcome change after my mixed feelings about African breeding centers. The sanctuary is a true non-profit similar in structure to sanctuary’s I am used to visiting back home. Africa Dawn’s main objectives are:

To rescue and treat all injured or orphaned wildlife brought to our attention.

Rehabilitation of animals to their optimal level of functioning.

To provide a safe and suitable environment for birds and animals who do not have the ability to survive reintroduction to their natural habitat e.g. breeding or educational programs.

To play an active role in cultivating an awareness among the public to try and ensure a future for the conservation of wildlife.

To work in close association with Nature Conservation and other wildlife rescue centers.

During my time at African Dawn I felt like all of those objectives were met with enthusiasm and passion by both the owner of the sanctuary and the many volunteers working there. Unfortunately my time at the sanctuary was cut short by a horrible case of the stomach flu, which left me bed bound for my entire last week in a hotel. I will write more about my experience of being sick in an upcoming post, but I can give you the preview that it was one of the most painful and horrible experiences of my life. I am also sad because I didn’t get a lot of pictures I was planning to take during my last week! I snapped a lot during my first week and then planned on watching the animals for a few weeks and then taking more pictures my final week, but as the saying goes the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. So unfortunately I do not have all the images of the sanctuary that I wish I could share with you.


The sanctuary is home to over 200 species of birds and a mix of other animals including many antelope like the kudu, grysbok, duikers and cats like the caracal, serval and cheetah. Around 90% of the animals at the sanctuary are local animals and birds that have been injured or abandoned and have been taken in to the sanctuary for rehabilitation; the other 10% end up at the sanctuary as a result of foreign animal trade. Laws in South Africa about owning wild animals are very lax and people often take in wild animals as pets and then realize they can’t handle them and will abandon them on the streets or drop them back at the pet stores. African Dawn takes in those animals too and has ended up with a rather exotic collection of birds from all over the world including parrots, emus, and macaws as well as marmoset and squirrel monkeys both originally from South and Central America.


Africa Dawn also runs a breeding center for the endangered cheetah and serval. The Serval is not actually an endangered species because it is still found in the wild in many places throughout Africa, but it has been almost completely displaced from South Africa and is considered endangered by locals. Both the serval and caracal are considered “Least Concern” by the IUCN list, but are both very scarce in the wild in the Eastern Cape because they are trapped and killed by farmers. The caracal is often referred to as a lynx (as it was at the sanctuary), but they are actually no longer classified as lynx’s and are closely related to the serval despite their vastly different appearances. Below find the serval and caracal respectively.


One of my favorite things to do at the sanctuary was just speak with the owner for hours on end about the sanctuary and conservation in Africa. After feeling completely overwhelmed during my stay at the breeding center dealing with the conflicting issues of conservation and animal rights vs. profit and human involvement it was wonderful to be at a place where the people working there truly cared about the animals and were dedicating their lives to making a real difference. The sanctuary is not very publicized and you will not find pamphlets for it at all the hotels around the area with all the other pamphlets for stops along the Garden Route, but for an authentic non-touristy experience I highly recommend a visit if you are driving the Garden Route or staying in Port Elizabeth. As a visitor you can tour the sanctuary and even interact with some of the animals. If you want a more in depth experience you can also volunteer at the sanctuary. African Dawn is dependent on its volunteers as its workforce to feed and care for all the animals. I will write more about being a volunteer in my next post. For more information on the sanctuary check out their website here.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Cape Town Day Trip: Stellenbosch


A fun day trip to do just outside of Cape Town is the wine lands region known as Stellenbosch. The trip is only about 45 minutes from the city and is well worth the drive. There are a few towns in the region that you can explore and many vineyards to do tastings at. You can do this as either a full day our half-day depending on how many tastings you want to do. I did a half-day tour and stopped at two vineyards. The landscape of the area is very beautiful rolling hills and blue sky as far as the eye can see. Many of the tastings also will do cheese or chocolate tastings to go along with the wine. I suggest doing a little research before going if you are very into wine so you get the maximum enjoyment out of the experience. I decided to tack it on as a half day on my last day there and did not do much planning ahead. I really enjoyed the scenery, but did not love the first vineyard I went to, and would have planned it differently had I thought about it more ahead of time. I went with Ilios Tours, who I did many tours with, and although I enjoyed the tour, I did not like the first vineyard we went to named Anura. We were able to do a tour there, which was nice and I would recommend going to at least one vineyard that gives tours of its property, but I did not like Anura’s wines and found their tasting a bit rushed and the woman leading it not very helpful or interested in explaining the wines and their differences.


The second vineyard named Dieu Donné had much better wines, but did not offer a tour of their facilities. Since I planned a half-day with Ilios I did not do lunch in Stellenbosch, but if you go on your own or with a private driver so you have flexibility (which I would suggest doing) you should definitely have a meal in town as some of the best rated restaurants in South Africa are in that area.


The area has an interesting history and it is worth taking the time to either drive or walk around a bit. The monument to the Huguenots, one of the founders of the area, is very pretty and worth a quick stop at. If you have a few days in Cape Town this excursion is worth your time and can easily be done in half a day, just be careful not to be too sloshed for the rest of your day’s activities.

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