Backpacker’s Reflection on European Migrant Crisis

Three months ago I was crossing the Croatian-Hungarian border, just like the thousands of refugees doing so every day.

I was asked where I was coming from and where I was going, & I didn’t give those questions a second thought. I was leaving Budapest, where I had just spent a dozen hours soaking in thermal baths & heading to Zagreb, where I planned to dine in the nicest restaurants because to me, Eastern Europe is the cheapest place I’ve ever been. & I’ve lived in Tanzania.

How thoughtless I feel now.

I answered those questions like a robot as just about everyone – border control, other backpackers, waiters, my mom in emails – was asking me.

Since I’ve been back from nearly six months in Europe (studying & then backpacking solo), I’ve reflected on what a privilege it is to be able to travel. It is a treat to go on vacation two states away, but it is absolute luxury to discover another country or 17.

For migrants rightfully pushing their way into Europe from war-torn Syria, there’s no answer to where are you going? There is an answer to the other one though. They’re coming from communities shattered by violence, corruption & poverty. They left behind their homes. & I thought leaving my home for not even quite six months was difficult.

A majority of the refugees are escaping the civil war in Syria. “The Syrian people have lived through war, they are very traumatized. We cannot go back to Syria, we have spent days on the road and don’t know if at the end we will have a home,” said Iman, a refugee, to VICE news.

On the border of Croatia and Hungary, the same one I crossed three months ago, refugees are being pushed around, given no real information of where to go & what comes next. Most importantly, they’re being given no real help. Croatia initially said refugees could stay for 30 days, then they closed their borders & now they are forcibly shifting all refugees into Hungary, effectively pissing of Hungary in the process & reminding thousands of refugees of an unapologetic sentiment heard all throughout Europe during this crisis – we don’t have room for you here, go somewhere else.

The US is out of the line of fire as far as worrying about Syrian refugees illegally sneaking into the country, but that doesn’t mean President Obama shouldn’t take an active role in alleviating this global crisis. The Church World Service urged Obama to “show the moral leadership that will put the United States on the right side of history,” by welcoming at least 100 thousand Syrian refugees in America as reported by Aljazeera. Accepting 100 thousand refugees is a huge increase from Obama’s promised 10 thousand (which is still a welcomed jump from the previous figure – 1,500 in the past five years), but whether Obama will agree in rolling out America’s welcome mat for such huge numbers is still a question.

Yes, the US has given the most money in aid since the Syrian civil war broke out five years ago, but right now these refugees need a home not bloody dollar bills.

Seeing the same border I recently crossed now submerged with thousands of people escaping war is humbling. I wish I could help with something more than an unorganized post, but unfortunately I spent my life savings on thermal baths & seafood pasta. I can’t change it now & I don’t know that I would, but everyday serves as a reminder that I slept on those same trains refugees are now using to flee a conflict so enduring & destructive, it has been described as hell on earth. & I slept on those trains for fun.

Such a powerful image taken by Harriet Salem of VICE news.

Such a powerful image taken by Harriet Salem of VICE news.

Stone Town, Zanzibar in 48 hours

Approaching Zanzibar for the first time I almost cried. Right below me was an expansive coral reef with ocean water so clear I could practically see straight down from my window seat of the plane. I was in one of those tiny, probably decades old airplanes, with the insanely noisy propellers, which just happened to be right in my line of phone taking making every photo blurry. But that didn’t stop me from trying. Trying to hold my mouth from dropping open in awe, I sat there, coming to the realization that this tropical island was going to be my home for the following two months. I felt at home before the plane even touched land.

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Once I landed I was shuttled off the airplane onto the tarmac – I got to walk down those royal steps like you see in old movies, I think I was way more excited for that than I should be, but whatever — judge me. The “airport” looks like a doctor’s waiting room where I picked up my suitcase and searched through the crowd of locals waiting for my friend Ulrica. Tip: Don’t let locals carry suitcase unless you want to give them some money, it only has to be like 500-1000 shillings (less than $1), but don’t fall for their friendliness if you want to hold onto your cash!

Just a little background on the breath-taking island that is Zanzibar. It is a small island off the coast of East Africa and it is an autonomous region of Tanzania. It’s a tropical island known for it’s spices, fruits, and beaches. Zanzibar is a mix between African and Arabic culture, making it a really unique destination. The population is split between Tanzanian nationals and people from Oman. Ninety-nine percent of the island’s population is Muslim so make sure your wardrobe is ready for that. May to August is the best time to travel, during their winter, which is fairly convenient for many tourists as that’s summer in many parts of the world and time for vacationing. November to Feburary is the hottest time of the year during the dry and summer season. The rest of the year is still hot, but it marks their wet season in which it rains for days at a time. Almost everyday of the year you can be guaranteed temperatures above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, because if it went any lower than that every local would be wearing a winter coat (which they still do even at 80).

Stone Town is the biggest and only city on the island making it the ideal location for any tourist. Many honeymooners head off to the remote beaches on the east coast where everything really looks like it could be on a screensaver, but I highly recommend Stone Town as the best spot especially for backpackers.

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Alright now for the fun part —– What to do in Stone Town, Zanzibar:

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Day One – Things start really early in Stone Town as it is an Islamic city so everyone is up at dawn for prayer, so finding things to do early in the morning is not hard. If you’re an early riser this is a good place for you. My favorite thing to do when I woke up early was go to the main square, Forodhani Gardens, and enjoy the view with an omelet and a masala tea. Forodhani Gardens overlooks the ocean offers a wide array of small food stalls and free wifi. These mini-restaurants are a step up from street food and usually open at around 8:00 a.m. I’d go there regularly for breakfast and for my breaks during my school day (as stated in previous blog posts I taught English in Stone Town).  One of my favorite parts about being up and around that early was that I really got to know the locals as no other tourist was awake during that hour. The waiter and I got to know each other very well to the point where my omelet and tea were already there waiting for me at opening. I got to watch all the local Zanzibari women sweep the streets before all the tourists fill the streets.

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After an hour or so of taking in the early morning sights and of course a full breakfast a trip to the beach is a must. Luckily it is only about a two-minute walk from the main square. The Stone Town beach is small in comparison to the rest of Zanzibar’s beaches, but is still equally gorgeous on my standards. I’m also a city-girl at heart so I like the idea that I can walk to civilization if needed. The beach is an advertising hotspot with every local in town wanting you to get on their boat. These boats are generally safe and reliable, taking hourly trips to and from the other nearby islands namely Prison Island (I’ll get to that later). For now, ignore all those tourist traps and set your eyes on the prize – swimming in the Indian Ocean.

A great spot to relax is at the Tembo Hotel, they have chairs free to use for the public except during tourist peak season, which is mostly just June and July (although Zanzibar’s tourism is way down so you could lucky). I used their chairs probably forty times over two months and only had to pay maybe ten times, probably less than that. Of course it is always polite to purchase something – they have a great selection of different drinks, but I do not recommend eating there. Their food is very overpriced and from my experience not very good. Stay there as long as you so please because odds are it will be beautiful all day long. Tip: I recommend lying on your bag (using it as a pillow) especially if you plan to take a nap because there are some sticky fingers of young locals around.

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If you’re looking for more of an adventurous beach time there are some beautiful sights if you keep walking down the coast line mostly old stone walls that barricade the city from the ocean. There are no chairs going this route, but still a great place to spread your towel out and relax.

By this point you’ve probably spent about $5 on breakfast, $6 if you had to purchase something to use the chairs. Now it’s time to roam around. The streets of Stone Town are really something out of this world. They’re the perfect place to get lost because no matter where you end up eventually you’ll recognize something and be able to get yourself back. Right off of the beach and Forodhani Gardens is the main shopping area for tourists perfect for any souvenir shopping complete with the town’s only liquor store (this is important if you plan to drink, although I don’t really recommend it – the liquor store has extremely random hours so plan ahead). Truly exploring these streets can take hours and with some really beautiful handcrafted items except to throw down some cash if you want some of the classic tourist items. Still, compared to anything in the Western world, souvenirs are extremely cheap and if you know what to say they can be even cheaper with haggling.

Let’s say you spend about $10 on souvenirs, so now you’ve spent about $15. Shopping is tiring and in effect you may have worked up quite the appetite. There are so many delicious places to eat, and I recommend sitting down for lunch over a sit-down dinner. Check out Lukmaan’s for true Zanzibari cuisine.

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On average you’ll spend about $8 on lunch, but let’s say you spend $10 so that brings your total cost for the day to $25. After lunch head back to the beach and this time take one of those friendly locals up on their offer to take you to Prison Island. A boat ride should only cost about 20,000 shillings (approximately $12) and they will wait for you at the island. Once on Prison Island head over the main visitor’s center to purchase tickets to see their world-famous turtles, they’re huge and worth the cost to see them. This “cost” is only about $2, but watch out because they do sometimes overcharge tourists. I had my resident permit with me so I got in everywhere dirt cheap, but even without that the tourist attractions are still extremely cheap. Prison Island is completely self-guided and has a presently un-operational hotel so the pool is up for grabs, as far as I could tell (no one told me not to…). Prison Island also features a gorgeous beach that overlooks Stone Town. I was on the island during peak tourist season and I think there were maybe four other people on the island. It’s very open and a delightful little island.

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By now it should be about 4:00 p.m. as you’re coming back to the main island. To round up your touring activities for the day head over to the House of Wonders and the Old Fort for tours of both. House of Wonder’s has a small fee to enter, but the Old Fort is self-guided and free. If you want a real adventure to end your first day of tourist activities walk over to Mkunazini (a seven minute walk inland) – note: this is where I lived – and squeeze your way through the market place. How long can you stand in the fish market? I think I made it twenty seconds. Smells horrible, looks really cool! This a real local place making it an awesome attraction to check out. Be prepared for stares though, make sure you’re really covered up when going through areas like this. At this point you should have spent about $45.

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If you get hungry stop for some street food – my favorite snack is what I call “mango fries” – essentially mangos shaped like fries. They’re probably like $0.50 so I’m not even going to count this in my total…

Head back over to Forodhani Gardens in time for the sun to set. All the local boys do quite a performance off the stonewall into the ocean – flips and backwards somersaults. On the other side of the park, while the sun is setting, all the food stall operators are getting ready for dinner leaving the park smelling delishly fishy. Get ready for dinner. Go all out with seafood anything; I’ve never had a problem eating any of the street-food here, but definitely be precautious. Everyone comes out to Forodhani for dinner in the square, especially during Ramadhan – it’s one big party. Street food will cost you about $3-5 depending on how much food you want. Now you’re at about $50 for the day.

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To end your day do as the locals do and walk around a lot, just be cautious once it starts to get really dark particularly if you’re a single female. If you’re not tired by that point there’s a couple options. One – go to a hookah bar or two – go to a bar and smoke hookah. The nightlife in Stone Town is centered around hookah, or shisha in Arabic, as Muslims traditionally don’t drink alcohol. Because of Stone Town’s status as a popular tourist destination, there are still plenty of places to grab a drink, but I do not recommend ever being publicly sloshed. It’s technically a crime there. One of my favorite hookah bars and also one of the most expensive places in town is the Livingstone Bar. The hookah waiter, I call him, there is super friendly. You might spend $10 here, but if you share with other people you may only spend $2, so let’s say you share because us nomads tend to be fairly social.

You may ask where do I sleep? I stayed in an apartment for the summer, but I had plently of friends that stayed in guesthouses/hostels and said they were all clean and affordable. For backpackers you can get a decent room in a hostel with a private bathroom in some cases for $30, even cheaper for a shared bathroom (that’s usually $20). So let’s say you spring for your own bathroom. That brings your grand total for the day to $82. Not too shabby for a day jam packed full of stuff.

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Day Two – You can’t go to a tropical island without snorkeling! Snorkeling in Africa is even cheaper than anywhere especially in Zanzibar, where they’re actively trying to boost their tourism. Safari Blue is the highest rated and most popular tour out there, and also the one I took myself. It was top notch I must say. Because it’s so highly rated, the price is jacked up to about $100 per person varying slightly based on the season. This price includes basically a full-day excursion snorkeling the coral reef, lunch, tropical fruit tasting, drinks (beer included), and relaxation. I’d say well worth it. The tours start at 9:30am so as far as breakfast goes I’d just snack on a granola bar and drink plenty of water because the tour will provide lots of food (trust me, you want to save room – some of the best seafood I’ve ever had!). The takeoff point is in a small town called Fumba and that taxi ride is also included in the cost (from Stone Town).

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By the time you get back to Stone Town (the takeoff point is about 30 minutes away from downtown) it should be around 3:30p.m. so I’d recommend doing an excellent slave trade tour at Saint Monica’s, which includes a town of the adjoined Catholic church  (one of the few Christian places of worship on the island) and a former slave market. Just a couple bucks for entry and you get your own tour guide! This should take about an hour or so.

Following the slave market tour, which is in Mkunazini, you should check out the surrounding area – Mkunazini as I stated earlier is home to the market. In addition to the market it holds all of Stone Town true local stores; they have a store for everything – clothes, hijabs, jewelry, tuxedos, watches, DVDs, etc. It’s a really cool site to see. Essentially Mkunazini is one big outdoor mall hidden amongst Stone Town’s narrow alleys.

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After some shopping/people watching head to the Green Garden for dinner, which is just a few blocks away, also in Mkunazini. This is my all-time favorite place to eat in all of Stone Town. I went here so much that I started getting free stuff! The owners and the waiters are some of the friendliest people I have ever met. The whole restaurant is outside, but there are covered parts in case of rain. They also have free wifi and delicious freshly squeezed juices, which everyone needs to try once in their life. So amazing. My favorite thing to order here was any of their curries —- literally to die for. Also their tomato soup is spectacular if you’re looking for something on the cheaper side. I’d say an average meal here costs $8, but the juices can be a little pricy so maybe you’d pay $10. If you didn’t spend any money while shopping that brings the total to $113 for the day so far, and $195 for the weekend.

I’d suggest taking another walk around town after dinner and definitely treating yourself to some dessert for your last night in Stone Town. For dessert I recommend either Mercury’s for some ice cream that is not made with powdered milk (yeah… all the other stuff is gross, don’t buy the ice cream unless you like the taste of fake milk, which I gotta say I kind of got used to) or head over to “Mr. Nutella’s” pizza place in Forodhani. First off, the ice cream at Mercury’s is expensive because it’s really the only place in town with real ice cream, but they have some really cool tropical flavors – worth $3! Then “Mr. Nutella’s” pizza is basically a crepe stand where they’ll make the crepe with whatever you want on it. This is about $3 as well. Whichever you chose it’s going to be great. Or go for both — I won’t judge ;).

Lastly you have to pay for another night in the hostel so add $30. Your final total for two days and two nights in Zanzibar is $128! If I would add anything to this itinerary, especially if you’re into nightlife I would take a taxi to Kendwa Beach because this is where the tourist party is every weekend. It’s a fun time, but also fairly expensive – probably costing you $50 for the night if you didn’t go too hard with the drink purchasing, $70 if you did.

Above all have fun and do what sounds good for you. If you want to just soak up the sun all day long, for 48 hours straight – cool, live it up. I love Stone Town and I hope you do too!

Art, Live Music, and Vino – Gallery Night in Pensacola, FL

The second Friday of every month the streets of Pensacola, a small city right on the Gulf of Mexico, transform into a huge party for retirees. Rock and blues bands perform from roof tops and various balconies singing to an excited group of swinging grannies, beer bottle in their hands. Florida is known for its large population of seniors and they all come out to play on a night Pensacola calls Gallery Night. All the local stores open their doors, often hosting a performer of their own, offering free samples and special sales. New exhibits open for this night featuring art that brings together eclectic flavors of nearby cities like New Orleans and Atlanta with the serenity of beach-living. I wanted to buy it all.

Certain areas of the city are blocked off, which makes it impossible to drive, but ideal for gallivanting through every block. Especially when 80% of the people present at this massive event were feeling it, if you know what I mean. It’s kind of like a city-sponsored red solo cup party. The bar scene in Pensacola is massive for such a small city – two whole blocks are dedicated to these well-trafficed bars. It’s like no other business may open on those two blocks. This would be awesome… if I was 21. Still, all I want now is to come back to a Gallery Night when I am 21 so I can party with all these cool old people.

Don’t get me wrong, not everyone was old, I’m kind of exaggerating the circumstances. I saw some adorable new moms with their babies strapped onto to them so they could easily hold shopping bags in one hand and a beer in the other.

This was one of my favorite parts of the night – just the idea of this I thought was genius. He really did sit there and write a poem on his typewriter. The little boy pictured would tell the poet what he wanted the story to be about and the poet would swiftly (and remarkably effortlessly) write it. Just like that. Unfortunately the line was hella long and I was unsure if he charged so being the cheap-skate that I am walked away thinking to myself I can write a poem. That’s my one regret from the night! Should have waited…

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The crowds really started to pick up in size and in youthfulness as the night wore on. Time-wise the event ended around 10pm, but the bars continued to press forth all night. One especially beautiful thing about Gallery Night was all the lights strung over different buildings. It felt so welcoming and really set the mood for a great night.

When traveling, finding an event like this is a window into local life. I got to see a whole lot of local flair in a short period of time, while having inexpensive fun. Can’t beat that. The people I got to talk to whether about their art or just about life in Pensacola were so friendly – so friendly that my cheeks hurt after the night from smiling so intensely. I couldn’t help it. I closed out the night with a mango, pineapple, etc. smoothie from this hippie coffee place that also serves “fine wine”… random, but ok I guess the best of both worlds? I sat inside freezing because I stupidly wore shorts not realizing how cold it gets at night-time in Florida, forgetting that they’re just now recovering from their “coldest winter ever.” (It was a whole twenty degrees for two days!!! Oh my goodness! How could they possibly survive?!) As I sat there enjoying my smoothie I people watched and smiled. A lot. Every old couple holding hands melted my heart a little bit more until I just as liquid-y as the smoothie I was enjoying so much. I saw a real community out there – one that loves the sun but loves to party more. I want to be that cool when I’m 75.

Chlorofluorocarbons and Best Friends

IMG_1214I met Ruhaila on my first day of teaching. She was sitting quietly, arms wrapped lovingly around her dictionary, with a sassy smirk across her face. She was intimidating and looked like she was not being challenged. Great, I thought. Here I was, my first day, teaching a class not even listed on my schedule with a know-it-all sitting front and center waiting for me to teach about environmental degradation.  As I am neither an environmental studies major nor studying education this all came very naturally.

I saw her judgmental glances; they made me want to run to the ocean and swim back to the comfortable shores of Delaware. She was on to me – she knew I was clueless.

After hopelessly reading the textbook for thirty minutes I gave them an exercise. Of course she was the first to raise her hand.

“Could you explain chlorofluorocarbons?” she asked.

No I cannot. Seriously girl – figure it out. This is what I wanted to say, but instead I put on a smile and told her I’d do the best I could.

After this question we began talking. Her ambition was to be a doctor and her English was one of the best I had heard thus far. Ruhaila’s smile stopped looking so intimidating and transformed into a kind invitation for friendship. I accepted.

The next day I lent her a Time magazine placing posted it notes on every article medicine related. I knew that even if she couldn’t understand everything, she could see that becoming a doctor was possible. In return for the magazine she invited me to her home. Again, I accepted.

Forty-eight hours later bread was being shoveled down my throat and headscarves being delicately wrapped around my sweaty forehead. Ruhaila proudly introduced me to all the people around her village. She taught me Swahili and orchestrated a full-blown photo shoot with the rest of her family and I.

Hours passed of talking about boys and running around the house giving piggyback rides to her nephews. Ruhaila, a seventeen-year old Muslim girl, had her entire career figured out and she would consider boys after she achieved that.

Somewhere along the five weeks I knew Ruhaila we became best friends. On my last day of school I was given a small party where the school selected a representative from every class to give a speech looking back on our time together. I prepared myself and stashed some toilet paper in my back pocket. I didn’t bring enough.

Ruhaila gave one of the speeches and she was already crying before beginning her speech. After I started crying all the teenage girls in the room started dropping like flies leaving the one male administrator in the room to deal with fifteen teary-eyed girls on his own.

I can’t even remember what she was saying in her speech, maybe because I was so focused on trying to hold back my tears.

Ruhaila and I may come from completely different backgrounds, but our silent thoughts at that moment were identical I will never forget you.

Hiking Through the Medina of Fez

The ancient Medina of Fez is history and culture packed with ornate alleys and cracked yet gorgeous stone walkways. Stairs fill the city making it quite the workout to make your way through Fez. It’s definitely no walk in the park. Walking through the Medina be sure to have a determined look to limit the amount of hassling, but still – expect to be bothered to buy something around every twist and turn.

There are shops for everything and every side-street or alley has it’s own designated category. Rugs, lamps, textiles, jewelry, and so on are all jammed into the crowded streets of the Medina. The problem is with all this over-crowdedness the streets are near impossible to walk through during the busy times of the day, but I highly recommend walking all throughout the Medina. It’s a great way to really see the city for free.

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Locals will give you those looks. You know, the looks that remind you that ultimately you are a tourist. Cause really you are. Unless you’re living somewhere for a couple months or more, you’re still a tourist because everything is still new. For me I hate owning up to the fact that I’m a tourist so I do everything I can to avoid looking like one. Unfortunately I can’t fool the true locals – it might be my skin color or it might be because I take pictures of lamp stores…

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The tannery is a must see in the Medina – it’s a free tour, which is just what I like but warning: they will tempt you to purchase some truly gorgeous and high quality leather. It’s a fairly informative and quick tour, but just be prepared for the smell and very steep staircases to get up to the top. This tannery tans much of the leather in the world so it’s really interesting to see where it comes from! But boy the smell… They do give you mint leaves to help alleviate the smell, but pull the leaves away from your nose for one second and pheeeww… beware!

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Touring the Medina for cheap is easy because of these storekeepers who just really want to show you their stuff. I went into a perfume shop and smelled everything, like everything for free and it was a blast! They don’t force you purchase anything and it’s a great way to see a lot. This is especially useful on short trips, like the one I had to Fez. It allows you to see the Medina fast.

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Table Mountain

 

Let me introduce you to this beautiful place.

Let me introduce you to this beautiful place.

I’m on top of the world! Those few words explain the feeling of reaching the top of Table Mountain. Now don’t think I’m all tough and hiked the entire mountain, because to be honest I just took the cable car (a small price to pay for saving loads of time).

The “aerial cableway” can take as many as 65 people at a time and has rotating floors – so if you thought being flown in a little cable car hanging from a wire going almost 3,500 feet into the atmosphere was frightening add a lot of people and a constantly moving floor to it. Let’s just say it is not the most relaxing ride, but the views make up for it. Looking out on my way up the mountain completely took my breathe away; I was utterly speechless until I got back on the ground. Immediately below the cable car is the vibrant city of Cape Town and to the left are some of the most stunning beaches in the world like Camps Bay and Clifton.

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Into The “Wild”

Yesterday I had the incredible opportunity to visit Kwantu Elephant Sanctuary, which is part of the larger game reserve, about 30 minutes outside of Grahamstown, South Africa. The reserve is home to 21 elephants (or 5 – the website said 5, but our tour guide said 21) who have almost 15,000 acres of land to spread out on, along with many other animals. Despite the terrain remaining true to what their usual habitat would be like, they are still fenced in and trained – hence the use of quotation marks around “wild”.

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Exploring Grahamstown & Rhodes University

Grahamstown is composed a few main streets flaunting several mouth-watering restaurants and bumpin’ pubs. It’s a college town so although during the day the streets are filled with locals doing their shopping and selling items on the street, at night it is much of a party town especially on Fridays. For some reason, which is unbeknownst to me, Wednesdays (but not Saturdays) are also a huge party night.

Getting to know Grahamstown requires a map or someone who knows where their going because it does have a moderately puzzling street composition. The scenery can change quite rapidly if you’re not paying attention, and although I enjoy seeing all aspects of life in Grahamstown, a mirage of “ay-bay-bay” or “hey sista, coins?” following me to KFC is not my favorite thing.

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First Impressions of Grahamstown

 

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Grahamstown, South Africa is what students call a “bubble” – drastically different from the rest of South Africa and more like a Western college town than anything else. But go a couple blocks away from the main town center and you’ll see the deep disparities between the so-called haves and have-nots. I learned this while getting lost – classic Emma. I also learned that just because most people speak English, slang and accents can sometimes make it utterly impossible to understand even the most basic phrases.

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Unilingual & Still Traveling

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart. – Nelson Mandela

I stopped letting my language skills get in the way of traveling a long time ago as I discovered that, as horribly touristy I feel when I stumble through even a basic greeting, it’s worth it to see the world. When I decide on a new place to travel to I always tell myself that I’m going to magically learn the language before I go, at least to the point where I can order food at a local establishment or tell a taxi driver where I’m going, but that never happens. Studying a language in a country through immersion and really the best way to learn a language so never let language barriers hinder travel.

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