Off to see my honey and some big game

Following a long week (shortened by time in the field, lengthened by the exhaustion from time in the field) and a marine ecosystems test, I have finally made it to the mid-semester vacation (midterm vac as they call it here). Many of my housemates have already vamoosed for Namibia and Botswana. Others are on their way to the Garden Route.

I am flying this afternoon to rendezvous with Fred in Johannesburg. From there, we are launching out on a safari tour of Kruger National Park. Very excited. Yes, I have packed Ben's camera and the charger.

I will likely be out of communication for the better part of the week, but rest assured I am having a glorious time in the wild not working on my term papers and research projects.

So who is this? More on that in the near future...

Waar kom jy vandaan?

It is a problematic question in just about any language. At least, for me it is. Plus, it is a question one gets asked a lot in the context of studying abroad. The inquiry itself is hard for me, but then the implications of the answer also could be.

Where do I come from is a difficult question to answer. Certainly there is my predilection for complicating just about anything, never mind the way I revel in being too complicated for politely brief discourse (exhibit a: this blog). Social intercourse (stop snickering, you!) is already a conscious and calculated effort on my part. When this question is asked, I then also have to size up how polite the other person really is, how curious they seemed to be, and how much time either of us have.

For starters, there  are varying shades of “from” in both English and Afrikaans (and do not get me started on that language’s prepositions).

Waar kom jy vandaan? (Where are you from?)
Waar het jy grootgeword? (Where did you grow up?)
War is jy gebore? (Where were you born?)
Waar woon jy? (Where do you live? - as in a permanent residence)
Waar bly jy? (Where do you stay? - as in where you currently reside)

I suppose I should be grateful that these languages have the flexibility to cover my life history. The fact that each of these questions exists shows that I am in a world where the answer to each need not be the same thing. That is good. The world is an expansive place in which one can move about and accumulate experiences.

Where I was born (in the suburbs of Chicago) is very different from my home (in Joshua Tree), which is amazingly far from where I grew up (in Guam) and even farther from where I currently lay my head to sleep (in Rondebosch). Throw in times spent in Ohio, Wisconsin, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and Brisbane (and then the shorter vacation-type visits) and it can be a lengthy conversation about me (admittedly one of my favourite topics). Actually, that may be the most concise summation I have ever achieved...

While studying abroad both in Australia last term and South Africa presently, I have acquired a new adjective that I rarely had ever used previously. I am an American. 

Besides certain nationalist (or patriotic, if you will) sentiments (please do not play that song "Proud to Be an American"...), I generally grew up with that being a fairly un-PC term. I am from the United States. I am a US citizen. America, as a term for the US, was always rather exclusionary to Canada, Mexico, and the numerous other countries that also occupy the continents collectively named America. It is impolite to exclude these others who reside on an American continent from being American (this is not a polemic on national borders, just a musing on language). In Guam, we never referred to America. We called it the States. In Hawaii, it was called the Mainland.

I was not raised in the mainland United States (or even within the 50 states of the USA). This gave me a rather outsider's perspective on things. We could not vote for US presidents, but we had neighborhood polling stations for elections in Palau, Japan, and the Philippines. In fact, the first presidential election I could participate in was the failed attempt to elect Al Gore in 2000 (and we know how that turned out). 

All in all, I have never been accustomed to referring to myself as American. Certainly I am a US citizen and reside within the States/USA/USofA/etc. But American seems too broad a term.

However, the rest of the world appears to refer to the United States as America. According to some of my classmates here, I am an American. My other classmate is Canadian. When I was in Australia, there was a betting pool among some of the office staff whether I was American or Canadian (thanks to my mongrel accent born in part of the upper Great Lakes states, Guam, and my tendency to pick up components of dialects in which I am immersed). It is an odd adjustment.

I do not have any amazingly insightful conclusions to this. Mostly, it is a way for me to avoid doing the school work I actually have to complete. Hopefully, it can also serve as a heads-up for any other "American" spending time abroad who may find themselves taken aback by the use of the word.

Knersvlakte - May the Quartz Be with You

I returned from the research outing to the Knersvlakte this week. While I ended up missing almost two days of class, the experience was awesome. I am very grateful to Seth for taking me along and hope that I contributed actual assistance. I worked hard and tried not to just be a tag-along tourist. I tried out the camera my friend Ben loaned me, but I also did not want to be interrupting our work with photo-ops. Therefore, the camera only came out in quiet moments that felt like I was not prioritizing my sight-seeing ahead of the research work.

The landscape is stark and beautiful. Imagine a desert similar to the Southwest United States, but every small plant you see is actually some sort of succulent. Scattered throughout are seams of quartz gravel (laid down millions of years ago when the area was a shallow sea). At first glance, these seem to be barren strips in an already harsh environment. However, a closer look reveals a vast variety of life in these micro-habitats. In fact, many of the rocks are actually plants.

The Afrikaans settlers of the area certainly had a morose attitude about the region. Knersvlakte translates to fields or flats of gnashing teeth. This could be from frustration or an onomatopoeic description of the sounds wagon wheels made rolling over the gravel substrate. There is an area nearby named Gifberg, which means Poison Mountain. Two of the sites we studied were Groot Grafwater (Great Grave Water) and Moedverloren (strength forsaken).

Despite that, I found the area to be lovely.

Our days were long, though honestly not as hard as I expected. We were up, breakfasted, and in the field before the sun was up. We then spent the day at the four varying study sites as well as driving between them down lengthy dirt roads, passing through numerous gates in the patchwork of private farms and nature reserves.

Afrikaans for "Please shut the gate, thanks"
We collected clippings (which also included GPS waypoints of the clippings, and cataloging that with an ID tag for the sample). We watered plots that will be used for transplant experiments.

The hardest part was seed collecting. Each of the plants under investigation produces seed pods that can contain anywhere from 5-300 seeds at first. However, this is late summer (almost as far from the last rainy season as possible). Seeds may have already been ejected or weevils may have bore into the pods to consume the seeds. Therefore, we had to develop strategies (on our hands and knees on gravel) for identifying fresher, intact seed pods that could supply Seth with the number of seeds he needs. As this required light, this task was also attended to in the hottest parts of the days. Delightful.

We also had to regularly water ourselves and reapply sunscreen.

Seth and I stayed in an abandoned farm house on land donated to Cape Nature by the World Wildlife Fund, who are buying up sheep farms in the area to preserve this ecosystem. It was highly rustic, with not electricity or water. We returned after sunset from our day's work to light some candles and cook dinner over a camp stove. We would sometimes then spend time with dissecting microscopes (lit with head-torches and flashlights) examining our seed collections, chatting about the next day's priorities, or just exchanging movies and webseries worth checking out (check out Suzelle DIY on youtube for some entertaining, useful, and chuckle-worthy home-hacks). At one point, I even spent time with my biology notes by candle-light, trying to put in some prep time for this week's test.

One of our little home-invaders

Conophytum Calculus - one of the cuter species that Seth is researching. The leaves are tiny ball-shaped structures that look like a baby muppet's head. This one was beginning to bloom.
As we would return home from the day, the sunsets that greeted us at the Groot Grafwater house were stunning.

I was always exhausted, but would force myself to stay up a little so I could catch the stars. Being so remote, the sky is just littered with stars. The Milky Way and the Magellanic Clouds (two tiny cluster galaxies that orbit our own) were highly visible. Sadly, I have no pictures of that.

During our time in the field and along the dirt roads, we saw a plethora of animals. In addition to large numbers of birds (Seth is a birder, and was rattling off names left and right as various creatures took flight as we passed, almost none of which I have retained), we saw steenbok, springbok, jackals, meerkats. There were two owls who nested near one of our gates who were unfortunately regularly had to disturb. Pale chanting goshawks were everywhere, as were jackal buzzards and kestrels.

Still, the plants are the superstars of this area. At times, the area looks like a dry land coral reef. Other times, the micro-succulents do a great job hiding among the rocks, and only a close examination of the land will reveal their presence.

Count the plants!

Even the slate breaks in such a way that looks like disintegrating wood.

And yes, this guy came along too.


A quick update

I have been rather busy of late, and yet have not been particularly productive. At least, from my flawed and often skewed perspective.

There are a couple drafts in line for me to post before too long. Interestingly, these are less reporting on specific events or activities in my life. Rather, they are more existential musings on my status as a student abroad (and just about me in general). Naturally, thinking about me allows me to engage in my favorite activity, avoid doing school work, and definitely justify more rigorous editing of my writing.

I am about to leave for a weekend away. A graduate student at UCT has taken me on as an assistant for his field research in the Knersvlakte. As I tell people where I am going, everyone turns their head to the side like a dog being talked to. I do not know if that is a result of my poor pronunciation of the Afrikaans place-name or if they have never heard of the bloody place. It is a desert several miles north of Cape Town (still not sure whether I will be in the Western Cape Province or Northern Cape Province, but who cares).

Not only will it be an awesome learning experience and chance to make real contacts with people in the field. It will also be a chance to see more of South Africa (in particular, places even South Africans do not get to see) and just to get out of the city. I have been living here amidst the bustle. That bustle is relatively light, granted, but I am someone who volunteered to live in Joshua Tree.

So, I will be incommunicado until I return Monday. I am missing a little bit of class for this, but I think it is worth it. Also, Seth (the grad student) moved it from Tues-Fri to Fri-Mon, so I am missing much less class than I originally would have. So yay.

Busy packing and finishing up some school work before my weekend away (and lest I convince myself it is a vacation, I will be hiking many miles in the desert heat each day and working my ass off collecting samples and measurements).

I have taken the last two weekends, in part, to explore a little more of the city proper. I have a couple pictures to share, since I have been so light lately.

First up, two of my favourite people on the African continent with whom I have the fortune to live as well as my favourite thread-based primate representation at this AMAZING Ethiopian restaurant in the city. The four of us had an outing to get us some Ethiopian and take in some of the museums (the Slave Lodge Museum and the National Gallery).

Paarth, Monkey, and Mandolyn at Addis on the Cape.

Along Green Market Square

One of the few spirit doctor notices that does not also mention abortion issues.


The Joy of Registration

I need to walk through the steps I took to get registered for classes. While the International Academic Programmes Office (IAPO) has a lovely set of student Orientation Leaders (OLs) and professional staff who are always willing to help, they seem to have decided not to put together any literature providing step-by-step instructions for the international student. I cannot claim that my entry will comprehensively resolve this issue, but I can offer what I can (especially as someone for whom this process is not the "normal" one).

The first step is Pre-Registration (Pre-Reg). Essentially, this is a process that ALL international students must go through. Much of it seems redundant in the face of what I had to do to get my student visa. Still, this is the University and not the South African consulate, so I do not expect that they really talked to each other. You stand in one excessively long line (ours was longer due to load-shedding) to have someone verify that you have insurance and fees covered (UC students' fees are paid through UCEAP, so this part is not a big deal for us). The proof of insurance is fun, since the insurance card that UC provides for study abroad students fails to have things like your member id or coverage dates printed on the card. So, essentially, it looks useless. Fortunately, This Is Africa, and no one seemed to hung up on details. I had to mentally work out my coverage dates (starts 15 days before the program and ends 30 days after). After this, you stand in a second line where they verify that you have a passport, study permit, and address. They then scan your passport and visa into their system (one of many sessions they call "data capture" any time it is not actually happening).

Where shoes for standing. Bring water and a book. Come provisioned with snacks. Enjoy conversations with Zimbabwean students in line with you. Thank whichever deities you like for moments of shade on the hot day. Curse Eskom and the South African government for their mismanagement of the electrical infrastructure of the nation that has lead to regular power outages resulting in a limited number of laptops with which they can conduct pre-registration on campus. Whatever passes the time...

At the end of pre-reg data capture, you are given an important sheet of paper that is your pre-reg clearance. This important little sheet of wood pulp is what will allow one to register for classes on the assigned day (although I have encountered numerous people who just registered whenever and completely disregarded the posted dates and times for departmental registration...sheer anarchy!). I then could wander a corridor over and discover what courses I had been pre-cleared to take. This means that the departments had reviewed my transcripts and the courses I selected on my UCT application and then decided for which of the courses I had met the appropriate pre-requisites.

That prepares one to actually register. The key to this process is that there is no key. There is no centralized, homogenized process. Each department is a little different. They also each handle their own registration. What people fail to communicate is that regardless of whicever department/faculty is conducting the course you take, you must register (as well as add/drop courses) with your hosting faculty. Since I applied as a student in the faculty of science, I do my registration there. Later, I ended up dropping one course and adding another. While all of the paperwork for it was managed by an adviser in the humanities faculty, I still had to take the forms to the science faculty for data capture.

Even once you have registered, that does not mean you automatically are bestowed with the knowledge of where and when the courses meet. They publish the lecture period (1st, 2nd, etc.) in the faculty handbooks (the equivalent of our course catalogs), but not every course meets every day (except for mine). That information will eventually be posted on a site called PeopleSoft where you must verify that they performed the data capture correctly. However, it can take 24 hours. They say it like it is a minimum amount of wait time rather than "within 24 hours."

Since my registration was scheduled for the day before class, this was not really an option. So, I had to run around to the different departments (a subdivision of the faculty based on the specific discipline) to inquire. This meant running to the Biology faculty for my marine ecosystems class, the Archaeology department (in the Humanities faculty) for my archaeology course, and then the Molecular and Cellular Biology department for my chemical biology class. That last class ended up being dropped, and I then had to find out from the African Languages and/or Nederland/Afrikaans studies Departments where my Afrikaans language class met. Many of those visits yielded me a class time and location, but did not necessarily bestow knowledge of text books.

It was a frantic and frustrating experience, but it was by no means not survivable. My case was somewhat special. My registration through the Science Faculty, for whatever reason, was almost a full week after the registration for the Humanities Faculty. Therefore, they had a full week to track down details before classes started. I had about 20 hours. Then, I have to admit that I spent several days in Zimbabwe that I could have spent settling myself with some details of the process.

Future students: be patient. stay calm. Remember: You're in Africa! :)


Oh, wait, they all burned...

I have not been able to get to posting of late. It is symptomatic of my troubles staying connected of late.

I am referring to the internet. It has prevented me from staying in touch with Fred, family, and friends across the globe. Using the campus wifi sparingly (there is a monthly data limit for students), I am able to sneak off a few emails here and there, but on the whole I have been pretty cut off. Additionally, it has happened right as I need to finish filing taxes, FAFSA, and other financial aid bits and bobs.

On the flip side, this has encouraged me to put more effort into fostering my connections here. I have spent more time sitting at the kitchen table chatting with housemates. I got to more meetings and spend more time in fellowship with the absolutely beautiful people I have met there. I have even forged some acquaintances on campus, which makes the campus a friendlier place for me.

And then there is studying. The academic load can be pretty fierce. I feel as though I should be doing more studying than I have been. Taking notes for one of my classmates with a learning disability has provided the necessary motivation to review and summarize my archaeology notes. Some Afrikaaners I have met on and off campus have supplied some opportunities to practice some of the random sentences I now know in Afrikaans...

Kom gerus binne. Jy moet in die park nie slaap nie.
(Please come inside. You do not need to sleep in the park)
Ek wil jou waarsku. Ons is studente aan die universiteit van Kaapstad.
(I want to warn you. We are students at the University of Cape Town.)

Rivetting. Maybe I am somewhat ready for the quiz I have to take in the next hour.

Over all, I am happy. South Africa is an amazing albeit intense place. People are very friendly. There are incredible extremes in wealth and poverty, urbanity and natural splendor, hot and cold (both in terms of air temperature and interpersonal connection). And yet many people I meet are quick with a smile, ready to laugh, inquisitive, and generous.

Alright. I know I have promised some write-ups on registration and life in Cape Town. Soon, I hope.

At least this guy is always smiling:

Sorry for the dearth of pictures as well. My days are such where it is neither prudent nor practical to carry a camera around. I do hope to go and tourist it up in the near future, and I will make sure the camera comes along to capture something vicarious for the lot of you.

I mentioned burning crickets because of the wildfire. While most national news outlets are content to focus on the domestic trifles and ignore the rest of the world, there is a wildfire burning in Muizenberg, about 12 miles south of me on the cape. There have been some reports in international news agencies of a wildfire ravaging Cape Town. European friends have received calls from family making sure their children are not becoming South African charcoal. The fact that few if any of us Americans are receiving such calls leads me to believe that such reports are not getting to the U.S. Just in case, however, the fire has not torn through the actual city. While the air is smoky and the plume to the south is horrendously huge, I have not been in any immediate danger. Besides the fact that the fire is now mostly under control, there are wealthier suburbs between the fire and me, so you know it will not reach me...