Mungana Wanga – My Friend

We were driving back to Acacia (our home base) from UNIVEN (work) when Courtney started playing “Space Jam.” All four of us in the car started rocking out, dancing, and singing at full volume. “HOOP! There it is!” We started to approach the guard post, but Oliver temporarily parked the car in the middle of the dirt road. We had to finish enjoying the song before trying to going through the gate, of course.

We drove into our compound (acting semi-normal) after the song ended. Then “I Believe I Can Fly” started playing. We rolled down the windows and pretended to soar as we drove to our chalets… but then we kept driving around. We circled our cul-de-sac just because, and then we saw Sid talking on the phone outside. The new goal was to harass him with our self-confident serenades. As we continued doing über slow doughnuts in the gravel, Sid walked further away to avoid the noise. Persistent as always, we decided to drive right off the road and onto the grass after him. We circled him, belting the lyrics out the open windows, laughing uncontrollably, and flapping our imaginary wings. He eventually gave up on his phone call and just stared at us in laughable acceptance.

It was one of the most spontaneously silly actions I’ve ever seen, especially from a group of over-achieving international development nerds. The REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) group here is seriously something special. Out of the 108 applicants to this program from across the country, the 8 of us were chosen to come here. Six of us live together at Acacia Wildlife Resort (there’s no wildlife other than the pesky monkeys) and have been having more fun together than I could have ever predicted.

The next day (Wednesday, July 10th, I believe) I went with some of these same characters to Tshibvumo (our village research site) to work on their project for a day. [RECAP: Hannah and I work on a project that involves collecting field samples to quantify the effectiveness of paper filters imbibed with silver and copper nanoparticles. The other four REU students at Acacia are doing a pilot intervention study using ceramic filters with silver nanoparticles to create clean drinking water in a local village. They have given 50 filters to households so that the affluent and effluent water can be compared over time.]

I went with this other team to visit 16 houses and collect water samples and IRB-approved survey information. With five of us there, we were a little over-staffed, but there was normally something to keep us busy. I tried to speak and learn as much Tsivenda as possible, and made a friend by doing so. A woman named Agnes decided she liked me, that we would be friends, and that I deserved a small gift. Her daughter (granddaughter?) had beaded some beautiful, traditional, round necklaces, so she gave me one. My new beaded work of art is specifically a vhulungu, or a headdress worn like a hippie headband. My UNIVEN friend Khutji (COO-tchee) suggested I bring back a bottle of honey for Agnes, but so far she has not been available when I’ve back to the village with honey.

I also played with a young kid who could only talk in Tshivenda with me. His happiness seemed directly and linearly correlated with his altitude. If he was on the ground, he was gloomy. When held at waist height, he lighted up, and he laughed intensely when you lifted him overhead. I never found his name, but have taken to calling him the elevation kid in my mind. If I wasn’t paying distinct attention to him, he would pull my hand around him as he turned, enveloping himself in a hug. Needless to say, I didn’t want to leave him, and I hope to see him again next week.

After collecting a total of 30 water samples, we all headed back to UNIVEN to test the samples on membrane filtration. We moved as efficiently as possible just to barely finish everything by 6 PM. The Tshibvumo team’s work regularly goes from 7 AM to 6 PM. Oliver and I returned to Acacia and decided to relax as best we could. We turned on “über chill” music, turned off the lights, and just laid on Hannah’s and my beds until dinner time. It brought to mind the quote from Pulp Fiction about the true friendship of happily enjoying no conversation at all.

The work week ended with a campfire on Friday night and another of many discussions about dreams. Sid and I both have pretty interesting dreams, and I hope to share three of mine on this blog when I find the time. So far they’ve involved harmonicas, cows, primary colors, and giant buckets.

Saturday morning, Hannah made amazing French toast with extra challah from the night before, and we headed off in caravan for Blyde River Canyon. The drive there was pretty fun just because Kate, Sid, and I had good, loud music and great views of South Africa. When we arrived, we went for a short hike down the river canyon and saw some outright disgusting-looking baboons. Afterwards, the whole group raced to the boat docks and started our guided tour of the dam, lake, waterfalls, caves, cliffs, and wildlife, all leading up to a beautiful sunset. Although we didn’t see any live hippos, we did get the chance to see a dead one floating in the water, presumably killed by one of the still-alive crocodiles we spotted.

While dinner was being prepared, Hannah and I took a quick break from the group to run a shopping errand and visit the resort’s trampoline park. After 10 minutes of intense bouncing and flipping, we ran back to our lodges like nothing had happened, but I was as happy as could be to practice a few back layouts. After dinner and serious consideration of everyone’s “spirit animals,” I got a chance to swim under the stars in the heated pool before going to bed.

After staying up until 3 AM, I thought it was a good idea to go on a 6 AM waterfall hike. I got up, got dressed, and then became the reigning emperor of the porcelain throne… So much for hiking. After a couple more hours sleep and a very light breakfast, I tested my stomach and decided (once again) to go hiking. This time the group was headed for Hippo Valley, an 18 km (11 mile) hike.

What started as a group hike turned into a chance for individual trail running. We don’t get much personal space, privacy, or alone time here, so I was thrilled to be out in nature all alone! At the opposite end of the 9 km trail route was a fantastic expanse of boulders overlooking a long, rocky, river bend and enclosed by imposing cliffs. I spent more than half an hour just climbing around, lying on the rocks, and looking for hippos until Oliver brought news that it was definitely past time to head back. Together we ran back down the trail and caught up to the other parts of our group, those who had turned around without reaching the end. I don’t think I have felt so physically challenged and simultaneously physically fit since early high school.

Despite feeling like the hike was a personal success, it also had some personal tolls. My ankles are still bruised 6 days later, and I ended up with a decent number of cuts from pesky branches. One such cut happens to be on the upper back side of my ear, close to where the cartilage meets your skull. I never would have been able to see the cut if I hadn’t used my camera to take a little video. I’ve never considered that this is a place that could be cut incidentally, but there I was with dried blood in my hair and a sensitive left ear. Sid got very protective and tried to put a bandage on it (Ha! Like any reasonable bandage is going to stay in the crease of my ear!?), and a tipsy medical student has offered to suture it for me. I turned him down by saying I was going to sew it up myself. [Don’t worry. I’m fine and not being too crazy. Also, this cut becomes relevant later.]

After the hike, we had a much-needed water and ice cream break before hitting the road again. At 2 PM, the ideal plan was for us to begin the four or five hour drive back to Acacia so that we wouldn’t be driving in the dark too late. However, we were so close to the famous “Panorama Drive” that we chose to do a little sightseeing on the return trip. First we stopped at God’s Window, a mountain top rainforest with sprawling views of the area. You could see the mountain’s shadow steadily creeping longer, and the horizon was an obscured mix of haze and clouds. We headed next to Lisbon Falls where we were the absolutely last visitors of the day. Not satisfied with staring from the natural cliff sidelines, Oliver and I ran upstream to where the rocks allowed you to climb into the ancient riverbed. It was hard to tell where exactly these great waterfalls were coming from because the contributing streams flowed through such deep cuts in the ground. Oliver nearly jumped over one of these streams; leaping just four feet across to a lower platform would have traversed a 30 ft. deep crevasse. Sid, Kate, and Hannah joined us on the rocks, climbing all the way to the falls’ edge. The view from lying on your stomach, looking over the edge next to the fall, was astounding and dizzying. The downstream river flowed straight towards the sunset, so there we sat at the top of the falls, with water rushing and falling down on either side of us.

We only left Lisbon Falls after completely soaking up the sunset… which meant our entire drive home would be in the dark. In South Africa, this is considered a major “no-no.” We had to drive slower in order to deal with other drivers’ obnoxious high beams and the unexpected potholes and speed bumps. Approaching the town of Pilgrim’s Rest, we started to see a lot of orange light and smoke. I had initially assumed it was a large waste burn, but it was clearly too big for that. We couldn’t tell what was on fire. The whole mountaintop, the entire town area had lines of bright flame. I guess it had to have been some giant control burn to prevent worse bush fires, but I don’t think I’ve seen a more hellish site. I guess we stumbled across Mordor in South Africa.

We were lectured the next day about arriving home later than we should have. And it’s true; we weren’t prepared to deal with any car issues or other more serious surprises. But on Sunday, I felt closer to my friends here and I felt more perspective than I have in a long time. My friends have winked and whispered it to me, all agreeing that we know it was worth it.


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