Saturday, August 28, 2010

This Week in East London

Photo credit: Diana Pratt. Diana is a photography student and one of my roommates here in South Africa.

East London is wonderful. I arrived Monday evening and have been very busy since then meeting the city and its people. Some highlights of the week, thus far:

As soon as I stepped off the plane I knew I would like East London. It was windy, but just the right kind of windy - the kind with the ocean in it. I am always happiest when I'm near an ocean. The humidity was perfect, the sky blue, the trees green, and the people friendly. And it was so nice to know I didn't have to visit another airport until November. I had flown from San Francisco to South Africa with Brit, one of my fellow Field Studies students; it had been a very long 35 hours. We were met at the airport by Diana, another student who had arrived on Sunday, and Macrae, our facilitator. Macrae has spent a total of seven months in EL so far, and officially graduated from BYU yesterday. We also met Kathy Thomas, our new host mom, who was very talkative and welcoming. She showed us out to the cars, laughed when I almost got in on the wrong side, and drove away.
That first ride through the city was fabulous. It was rush hour, so people were jaywalking and hailing taxis all over the place. The area is absolutely beautiful, and I was stunned by the Buffalo River, which is wide and powerful and lined by incredibly green trees. Then it empties into the Indian ocean, which is an ocean, so of course it's wonderful. Downtown was bustling and the traffic a little frightening, but it was all beautifully real. Then we reached Kathy and Cornelius Thomas' home, where we'll be spending the next three months. The house is beautiful and tastefully decorated. The four of us (Brit, Diana, Macrae and I) have out own section of the house with two bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. We have everything we would at home, except for Wi-fi and a shower. I'll have to get used to taking baths again.

Macrae planned to take us around to familiarize us with East London: the taxis, the major streets, stores, culture. The day did not really go as planned. Diana had a meeting at 9am with a woman named Rachel from the East London Museum. Diana's project focuses around Oxford Street, one of the main streets through town, and she was using Rachel to learn some of the history of the street. Macrae, Diana and I went for the meeting and were told to come back at eleven. When we did, it was another hour before Rachel was able to talk with us. When she did she was very friendly. She showed us pictures of her recent hike through some caves at Nahoon, which were very interesting but didn't have much to do with what we'd come for. Then she showed Diana what she needed - books and pictures of Oxford Street's past. As Diana looked through them, Rachel shared stories and facts about East London's past and present, especially about the mix of cultural influences which have formed the city: English, German, Dutch, Irish, and of course Xhosa. Another staff member came in and talked to us about our projects. He talked to me about the incredible ecosystems within East London and along the coast, which survive largely on account of how inaccessible the coastline is. East London is unique in just how healthy these ecosystems are, despite the influence of the city. He said ecotourism is certainly a nice idea, but that it's all talk with no action; though he also said that the ability of tourists to add value to a natural area can certainly help to protect that area from development. And tourists, he said, are far less destructive than cement rollers. I was also able to talk to Rachel's boss, Geraldine, who said that the greatest thing about EL is that it has remained relatively undiscovered as a tourist destination. This has preserved its identity and integrity.

We visited some of Macrae's old friends in Parkside: Auntie P., her daughter Janie, and her son Jaleel. Parkside is a coloured area, and apparently isn't a place you'd want to be alone or at night. Coloured people are part-black and part-white, and speak Afrikaans. The Thomas's are also coloured. This family was very enthusiastic about meeting us, and Auntie was quite talkative. I think I'll like them. I talked to J- about my project, and he scoffed a bit when I explained ecotourism. He said it couldn't work, where tourism would actually benefit the local environment and people.
Auntie talked to us about the civil service strike which is going on now. So far it has included nurses and teachers, so many of the hospitals are horribly understaffed and the public schools have been closed. She said it has expanded to include some taxi drivers, and may spread to the police force as well. Auntie finds it very exciting. She's a teacher, and believes that it's an outrage how little they are paid. She sees this as a historic time, and that if people keep bonding together, striking and pushing their demands, the government will have to meet them. Her face got more and more excited as she talked about her part in the strike and the rallies, and her conviction that she was contributing to a changed South Africa. It was interesting hearing all this after talking to Kathy, who is also a teacher, about the same issue. Kathy hates the strikes. She thinks they will only hurt the students, and cannot accomplish anything for the teachers. The government will say they are willing to pay teachers more, but it will never happen, and the students will be left behind. She goes to work every day, is unable to do anything, and is sent home early.

Friday, August 27, 2010


This image is of the port in East London, South Africa. I hope to be able to upload my own photos soon; until then I'm relying on Google images. 

The first person I met in East London, outside of my host family, was the desk clerk at the East London Museum. Diana, one of the girls in my field study group, had an appointment with Rachel, one of their historian/librarians (I'm not sure exactly which), at nine on Tuesday morning. The desk clerk called her and she said she had to move the appointment to eleven. 
"Okay," he said, "but they are very disappointed. One of them is crying." We laughed. "The other two are laughing at the one who is crying."
       Before we could leave, he asked us all where we are from, and we told him the U.S.
"So you will send me back there?"
"Well, we won't be there for another three months, and you couldn't go without us."
"Okay, when you go back then, you can bring me with you."
"Well, maybe I can fit you in my luggage. Then you can come." 
He laughed.
"Fine, that's fine. I look forward to it."

Next was a salesman at the Telkom store, where we went to get phone cards. When Macrae, Brit, Diana and I walked in he grinned and spread his arms.
"It is four angels come to visit me!"
"I brought you some new friends!" Macrae had met this man before. He gave us each a hug in turn, then stood looking at us all proudly as Macrae chatted with him. We got our cards, then told him good-bye.
"You must come back to see me soon." We all assured him that we would.
"And then you will bring me with you, to America?"
"I can pack you in my bag," said Macrae, "but I already will have these three in there, so it will be a tight fit."
He grinned wider. "It will be fine. At least I will be traveling with angels."

We returned to the museum at eleven, and waited for Rachel to finish helping another man. He talked to us as she was busy on the computer. Somehow he ended up telling us about his life, his studies, his family, and his efforts to get his degree. Then he asked us about ourselves.
"America, that is a place I would like to see," he said. "Maybe you can take me back with you?"
"My bag is getting pretty full, I don't think there will be room."
He laughed. 
"Oh no. Some other way then. When I was at the University in Capetown, I learned a very good lesson. When you go to a nice restaurant, you know they have wonderful food, and you can see what you want on the menu. You can want it and want it, but until you place your order, you will never have that food. It is the same for anything in life. Whatever you want, you must place your order, and that is the only way that you might get it. So I asked you if you could bring me to America, and even though you cannot give me that, at least I tried, I placed my order, and if I keep trying I will get what I want someday." 

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

An Amazing Eco-lodge and an Airplane Bonus

A few nights ago I was spending a typical evening online, surfing the web for everything related to ecotourism, national parks, and/or South Africa, when I stumbled upon the incredible Bulungula lodge. It’s only a couple hours from East London, where I’ll be spending the next three months, and appears to be a seamless example of ecotourism. They’re environmentally sustainable, using solar, wind and even bicycle power to generate their electricity. They’re very dedicated to the local community, providing them with jobs, educational programs, and training in organic farming. And they teach all visitors about the Nqileni village culture, and about the importance of being environmentally and socially responsible. I was very impressed with the mission of this lodge and their efforts to accomplish it. I contacted the owners (since that’s what I do these days) to express my enthusiasm and ask for more information about the establishment and management of this kind of an operation, and I’ll be adding it to the table as a possible mid-semester retreat. I don’t know about the other girls in my group, but I would love to see this place in action.

I made another happy discovery a couple hours ago, while on the flight to Joburg (which I’m still on, and have been on for 11 hours). Flipping through Sawubona, the South African Airways in-flight magazine (you run out of things to do after 11 hours), I found that they have a regular feature on my favorite kind of tourism! It’s always nice to see that something you think is a current issue in a certain place actually is a current issue. This week’s article is titled “Angels of the Dry Country” and tells the story of the women of Namaqualand, in Richtersveld. These women live in a traditional Nama community, and are very proud of their culture as well as their beautiful natural environment. They became concerned a number of years ago because of the increase of 4X4 traffic on their dirt roads, and the accompanying influx of people who would take cultural artifacts as souvenirs. The community banded together to apply for World Heritage status, the article says, “to protect their way of life and their land” and when they achieved the status as a World Heritage Site in 2007, “they started seeing an uptick in tourism and, even better, a genuine interest in the customs of this isolated population.” In this case, the community itself initiated ecotourism, and through it they have been able to protect their land, generate income and share their culture, while refreshing members of their own community with traditional aspects of their culture which many had forgotten. I love this as an example of how tourism can help and protect a community, and this case is especially pure because there is no third-party to work through: all profits go directly to the community.

Bulungula Lodge and Namaqualand are very different types of ecotourism, but both are great examples where efforts to benefit the environment, local community, and the tourist have been sincere and primarily successful. It’s very encouraging to see these, after many of the articles I’ve been reading have a very pessimistic outlook on the industry as a whole, calling it a lovely fantasy that’s already dying. But as long as I can find these kinds of positive examples, I’ll trust its potential. And I’ll soon be able to see whether South Africans feel the same way.
(3:20 am, Monday, August 23rd)

What Time Is It?

That isn’t usually a trick question. I’m currently flying over the ocean halfway between New York and Johannesburg, and reality is having a rough time sorting itself out. I left San Francisco at 10:30 last night. Seventeen hours have gone by, and it’s now 12:30 AM. Seventeen does not usually equal two. Or twenty-six. So the plane is dark, everyone around me is fast asleep, and I can’t decide whether I’m exhausted since it’s midnight and I haven’t slept since Friday night – whenever that was – or if I’m wide awake since it’s the middle of Sunday afternoon. This is all very disorienting. Of course, my nerves are all over the place too. I’m very anxious and excited to get to East London to meet my host family, explore the city and begin my project, but at the same time I’m not quite sure what I’ll find when I get there. It doesn’t help that I haven’t been out of the United States since 2002, when I dipped over the border to Canada. Not too great a feat when you live in Washington. As soon as I get to East London I know things will settle down and start to make sense, but for now, on this dark time-traveling plane, it’s hard to believe that I’ll ever make it back to the ground. And with 8 hours to go, I might need a little more Sudoku.
(12:30 am Monday, August 23)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Making it Social

Today I set out to find others interested in and/or involved with ecotourism. What I thought would be a quick task involving a couple emails to some prominent people turned into a nearly all-day endeavor. Once I started looking in the right places I found a flood of blogs, Facebook groups, organizations and programs centered around ecotourism, and I've been trying to contact/contribute to/comment on as many as possible, while of course throwing the address of this blog around like rice at a wedding.

I first wrote an email to Ralph Buckley, the director of Griffith University (Australia)'s International Centre for Ecotourism Research. He's published a wealth of articles and books on ecotourism, so I'm hoping he will take some interest in what I'm doing, or help get me in contact with students majoring in ecotourism at his university.

Next I found Megan Epler Wood, director of The International Ecotourism Society (TIES). Her website, EplerWood International, provides information for the development of sustainable tourism and ecotourism and has all kinds of great links. From there I found my way to a University of Vermont blog that outlines, day by day, the lessons she taught in a course on ecotourism at the university this summer. She'll also be teaching a similar course at Harvard this fall, and the lectures will be streamed online, though I don't know whether I'll be able to access them without being a student. The more I find out about this woman the more impressed I am - she's been all over the world helping tourist operations become more sustainable, and aiding local communities while she's at it. I don't necessarily expect to hear back from her, but I will definitely keep following her blogs and website, from which I've already learned loads.

After these professionals, I tried to find other people like me: students and enthusiasts who have publicly expressed their interests in ecotourism and who I think would genuinely be interested in hearing about what I'm doing. I found the page for TIES on Facebook and responded to a few of the discussions on there, then did the same for a general Ecotourism page. I also found a great blog, Ecotourism: Taking Pictures and Leaving Footprints, by Guillaume Foutry of London, and directed him to my blog as well. I was really impressed by how many discussions and blogs I managed to find where people were asking the same kinds of questions as me. I just hope some of them decide to respond!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What I Plan to Read

After an incredibly busy couple of weeks (moving out of my apartment in Provo, helping my family move from Washington to California, and getting ready to leave the country), I have just three more days to go until I leave for South Africa (so excited!), so now is the time for some last-minute explanations and background on what I'll be doing.

As many of you know, in the three months while I'm in East London, South Africa I'll be completing a Field Study on local perceptions of ecotourism, as I described in an earlier post, and earning University credit through courses from the International and Area Studies, English, and Plant and Wildlife Science departments at BYU. This blog will primarily document my experience for my Travel Writing course, overseen by Gideon Burton.

I'll be completing a number of readings for the Travel Writing course as well as my other courses, and to provide background for my research. Here is my reading list so far:

1. Walden by Henry David Thoreau.
Walden exemplifies many of the most basic principles behind ecotourism, especially separation from man's influence and communion with nature. Also, since it was a part of the American Romantic movement, I expect to find some great examples of the natural sublime that I like so much. I read this one a number of years ago, but feel like it will be beneficial to revisit it and see what from Thoreau I can take and apply to ecotourism.

2. The Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway.
This work of nonfiction documents Hemingway's month on safari in East Africa. This should serve as a great contrast to Walden and the principles of ecotourism, as safaris are exactly the type of destructive tourism that ecotourism seeks to eliminate. At the same time the two are very closely related - they both arise from the desire for an authentic wildlife/nature experience - so I think it will be fun to see what similarities and differences I can find between Hemingway's experience and attitude and that of an eco-tourist.

3. Selections by Bruce Chatwin
Chatwin and his writing has caught my interest lately. I'd like to read some more of his works primarily to look at his style of travel writing, though I'm sure I'll find elements of ecotourism and the sublime and all that, too.

4. Ecotourism and Sustainable Development: Who Owns Paradise? by Martha Honey.
This will be my primary textbook while in the field. It provides background information on ecotourism and describes the principles, future potential, and controversies of the industry. It should help me keep my facts straight and has great case studies, including a major section on South Africa.

5. Scholarly Articles
So that my project actually has merit in the academic world, I have been and will continue to be reading many (many many) scholarly articles on ecotourism, sustainability, South African parks and reserves, etc. These are what provide the background for what I'm doing and reassure me that someone cares about these things other than myself.

These are what I have so far; I'm sure the list will change and grow with time. If anyone has any feedback or suggestions I'd love to hear them!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Road Trip Wisdom

As many of you know, I attend Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, but my home is Olympia, the beautiful, green, and very liberal capital of Washington State. The photo above is one I took in downtown Oly. I spent the past few weeks there and in the surrounding area, enjoying all that the Great Northwest has to offer, then last weekend returned (reluctantly, as always) to Provo. This return trip was actually much more complicated than it should have been. I’m used to being creative with my methods of travel between Washington and Utah, since I don’t have a car and don’t like to always have to depend on flights (which take a lot of coordination, what with rides to and from the airport, plus all the baggage restrictions, wait times and stress). I’ve had a lot of experiences with Greyhound, city buses, ride shares and bumming rides off friends. This time I had a ride set up with someone from school, but just three days before we were supposed to leave she texted me, letting me know that her plans had fallen through, and I had to somehow find a new way to get back to Provo. I didn’t expect to find much at such short notice, but I turned to a ride-share website with my fingers crossed, and at six the next morning I found myself on a bus to Seattle to meet David, who would be my companion for the 16-hour drive to Salt Lake City.

Despite my somewhat questionable method of finding David (though it is a step up from hitchhiking – at least we talked and I saw his Facebook before leaving), it was really a great drive. David is from Mexico City and has done quite a bit of traveling, so he had a lot of experiences and advice to share. We ended up talking about a lot of the things we covered in the prep class for my Field Study (which is explained in this post), like differences between cultures (especially Mexican and American) and the kinds of cultural misunderstandings that can come from something simple, like smiling at someone in a grocery store. It was really enlightening talking to him about his experiences with foreign cultures, especially since I have yet to travel far outside of the U.S. (does Canada count?), and it made me wonder how my experience in South Africa will compare with his in Canada and the U.S.

I was especially excited when David started talking about one of his favorite vacation spots in Mexico, because I could immediately relate what he was saying to both ecotourism (again, explained here) and the sublime. This place had clearly had a profound effect on him: he lit up as he talked about it, and even told me he hopes to someday get married there. What made this place so amazing, he said, wasn’t just its unsurpassed beauty, but its authenticity. This was no Cancun (pictured), no American resort which just happens to be a little further south. This was a true Mexican spot, free from the commercialism that quickly invades so many beautiful places. Going there, you could experience a real community and the true, natural beauty of the place. David described to me in vivid detail the view possible from one hill in the city, on a peninsula jutting into the ocean, from which, surrounded on three sides by water, visitors could gather with members of the community to watch the breathtaking sunset. This, he said, was one of the most incredible things he had experienced – the beautiful view, away from the lights of the city, surrounded by others sharing the wonder of the moment. David found something sublime there, in that image and the feel of the place which still awes and inspires him months (or years) and thousands of miles later.

Much of the wonder David felt came from the seclusion and realness of the place and the experience. He told me how, as the years go by, this place is slowly gaining more attention and attracting more tourists, which makes him concerned for its future. The more people arrive, the more focus will be placed on quantity rather than quality, the more tire marks will scar the hills, and the more it will become just another commercial gimmick, losing the soul of the place. This is one of the inevitable results of tourism, though one of the major things that advocates of ecotourism wish to avoid. When a place becomes a tourist destination, it stops existing for its own sake, instead gearing itself toward the tourists, shaping itself to fit them, and gradually becoming just a shadowy reflection of what it once was.

This is when David encouraged me, as I went to South Africa, to experience the true South Africa, not some version created for tourists or others who don’t call it home. He left me excited to go out there and discover just that, while being aware of my role as an outsider, learning from the locals, and continuing to explore this idea of tourism with an environmental and social conscience.