30 July 2007

India Video Up!

Alright, here it is - the illustrious India video! I met some incredible teams doing extraordinary work, and this short hopefully gives you an idea of the great stuff happening in India! Enjoy!

The link, in case this doesn't work:


Also, the India pictures are up too! Find them here:


27 July 2007

My Grandparents Crack Me Up

So my grandparents are now "tracking" my trip on a big map in their Den. Basically, it's hilarious and so are they. Enjoy this, their third installment...

22 July 2007

Taj Mahal? Don’t You Mean Taj MaHOT?

Thankfully, the Youth Venture India team was able to carve out a day for me to visit the famed Taj Mahal. The entire nation was still riding high after the Taj’s recent inception into the “New Wonders of the World” (which, by the way, was determined by internet and text message voting. Wouldn’t that leave, say, oh I don’t know, 3 or 4 BILLION people out of the voting process? How fair does this system seem? Hmm…). As most tourists do, I made it a day trip, which meant I had to be up at 4:30am to get a 5am car in order to catch my 6:15am train. Ish!

I arrived at the train station by 5:30am, only to find that there were no signs indicating what train would be departing from which track. Perfect. Thankfully, the lack of signage seems to have sparked an entire industry built on guiding unbeknownst tourists to their seats en route to Agra. For 25 cents, I said yes. Even at 6:15am, I was sweating. Thankfully, the ride there was in CC, or chair class, which is air-conditioned and includes breakfast.

We pulled into Agra station by 8:30am and I was quickly hassled by every tout in India, all wanting to drive me around the city all day for “best price in town.” I thought I was only 2km from the Taj but it turned out I was actually at some other train station, a good 9km from my destination. Only 8:30am and already I was on fire, yet sopping wet, thanks to the mind-altering humidity. Thankfully, Mustak crossed my path and for $6, I had transportation the entire day.

The Taj was, as you’d expect, brilliant. In one word, it’s perfect. Absolutely symmetrical right down to the scripture carved into all four walls. For someone like me, it was heaven on earth – the same number of shrubs on the left and the right, the same number of fountains in front and in back and an equal distance from one entry to the other. By 11am the heat started getting oppressive, so my two new friends (Maryam and Marloes from The Netherlands) and I decided to take a nap in one of the large decorative cutouts.

Mid-snooze we awoke to find ourselves in the middle of a torrential downpour that was, for whatever reason, not cooling us down at all. Still, it was brilliant.

We decided to tour the rest of the city together (or rather, I decided I was tired of being alone and they didn’t mind if I tagged along). Mustak found a friend who was willing to join our caravan for the afternoon and we were off to lunch, followed by Agra Fort.

From this point forward everything is a bit hazy, not because I was punched in the face or anything, but because it was SO HOT. The big thermometer read 50 degrees Celsius, which is roughly 128 degrees Fahrenheit. Add on 99% humidity and were cruising at a “real” temperature of about 140 degrees. Do you know what 140 degrees feels like? Maryam and Marloes were able to duck under their scarves. Sadly, I was left to roast.

From there we parted ways, email addresses exchanged. They headed home for a nap and I headed with Mustak to have my head shaved, which has easily become the best decision I have EVER made. Mustak took me to his barber and for 75 cents, it all went; my hair, that is.

At this point, Mustak and I said our farewells (phone numbers exchanged) and I boarded my un-air-conditioned train back to New Delhi. Three and a half excessively hot hours (and one cow casualty) later, I arrived back in the city just in time for a Monsoon! Fortunately, a friend of my new friends from the train (did you follow that) helped me into a rickshaw before getting totally drenched.

Unfortunately, the rick had a hole in the roof and was in desperate need of some bailing out. The driver handed me a plastic cup and pointed to the puddle my feet were now floating in. “Scoop,” he said in English, as if he’d said it 100 times. Eager to get home, I did as I was told and he pulled away. The only problem was, his windshield wiper was broken, which meant he had to find his way using some sixth sense that I myself am not in touch with.

So at this point, I’m bailing out the back of the rick while water is pouring in through the torn sealing. Meanwhile, the driver has one hand on the wheel and is using the other to brace himself in a contorted standing position that allows his eyes to see around the windshield while his feet are still able to hold down the throttle. Water is pelting me in the face. My bailing isn’t working. Then suddenly, without warning, we bottom out in an enormous puddle and the now-stalled rickshaw comes to a dramatic halt.

The driver tries to kick start us back into motion. The sad little vehicle utters an abrupt “put put” then dies again. I decide to stop bailing. The driver keeps trying. Nothing. Five or six attempts later he turns to me, throws his arms in the air and says “no go.” No truer words have ever been spoken. From there he turned on the cabin light, rolled a cigarette and started to smoke it.

So here we are, in the middle of New Delhi, no street lamps or people to speak of, much less other cars. Water is pouring through the roof directly onto my head. The rickshaw is stalled. My driver is smoking a cigarette. All I can do is laugh, accepting the fact that we can’t possibly be here forever, right?

Twenty minutes and three cigarettes later, a rather dramatic kick start attempt is successful and we bolt back into action. Only now, we can’t stop, or else we’ll stall again, which means we’re zooming through stop signs like it’s our job, me bailing us out, him smoking and puffing without using his hands, neck cranked around the windshield to miss the cars we’re zooming by while running red lights.

We’re careening around the second to last corner before reaching “home” and, without warning, drive straight into another puddle and stall out. I decided to forego the wait and attempt to pay the man with the intention of walking the last two blocks. I pull out the inflated fair and hand it over, to which me replies, “You can’t walk. It’s not safe.” Not safe? You just stalled us out TWICE in the middle of New Delhi then drove through numerous red lights while smoking a cigarette and looking around the windshield because your wiper is broken, but this two-block walk is NOT SAFE?

I thanked him for his concern, gave him the “thumbs up,” and went on my way, thankful for the ride of my life that, if nothing else, cooled me down from my simmering 128-degree body temperature. Long-live the rickshaw.

21 July 2007

“I Felt I Had To Do Something”

“We’re building the next generation of entrepreneurs in India,” Anirban and Nidhi told me, just minutes after arriving at their offices in New Delhi. Quite a mission statement, and quite a vision to back it up.

Anirban and Nidhi are two thirds of Dhriiti’s leadership team, part of Ashoka and Pravah’s Change Looms program. Dhriiti is an organization aimed at combating entrepreneurship from “both sides,” as they explained. On the one hand, they do the education piece, helping to open the minds of young people to the idea of entrepreneurship at a younger age with education programs and training sessions that bring the students into a simulated world where they are guided through the process of both developing and operating their own enterprises.

At the same time, they are working to build real-time enterprises in agricultural areas of India by developing new, eco-friendly products and service that require little start-up yet offer fairly decent profit margins. So far they have supported 17 enterprises, bringing them together under a federation (similar to Fair Trade coffee co-ops) to sell in larger quantities, obtaining significant economies of scale.

With degrees in subjects from Rural Development to Business Administration, the founders of Dhriiti weren’t satisfied with the “traditional” job track in India. “I got a job with GE, which my family loved,” Nidhi told me. “The only problem was, I didn’t love it. The social sector isn’t the most family-friendly career in India,” she told me. “Mom and Dad want you to make money. Still, this has grown on them, and I think it will continue to change the more people do it. Lots of people our age are leaning this way now.”

Indeed, Anand Mishra of “Steps For Change” (also a Change Looms team) had the same inclination. Five years ago he came face-to-face with the education crisis of impoverished youth and street children (there are more than one million young people living on the streets in India). He started with theater and music projects but realized that the real need was in basic subjects like reading, writing and math. Now he oversees an army of teachers who reach out to the poorest shantytowns in New Delhi, attempting to give the children at least a bare minimum entry into the basics. So far it is working. Dozens of kids show up to these lessons each and every day, and his program is growing. They’re planning to be in a dozen communities by the end of the year.

The situation in India is unlike any other place I have ever been. There is a spirit, energy and life in the people that is inspiring and yet, at the same time, there is poverty and heartache like nothing I have ever seen. Thankfully, as seems to be true of the youth in every country I have visited, a sense of duty is brewing inside India’s youth. As the world’s largest democracy, there is no telling where this passion may lead. I, for one, am excited to find out.

How To Make It Through The Day On 45 Minutes Sleep, & Other Thoughts on India

I’m four days in and I still have no idea what is going on around me. I thought that 7 months in China would offer some semblance of clarity here in India, but I could not have been more wrong. Minus the whole billion people and booming economy thing, these two nations are worlds apart. That said, I do have some advice and insights for future visitors:

• Cross the street whenever you feel like it. Sometimes, if you raise your hand, cars will stop. Also, don’t be totally shocked if cars are driving on the wrong side of the road. They probably really need to get to where they’re going.
• Stand your ground in lines, as they’re not “official.”
• Remember that 10 Rupees in only 25 cents, so don’t waste too much time bickering with rickshaw drivers who want to charge you 50 rupees instead of 40 to drive you 25 miles across town. At 40 rupees to the dollar, we’re talking about a buck!”
• If someone offers you a “great guesthouse with A/C” make sure you see it before you buy it. Windows, running water, sheets, towels, electrical outlets and A/C may not actually be included. This can result in restless nights of 45 minutes sleep.
• English is not widely spoken, so bring a friend or just be prepared to have no idea what is happening, ever.
• Embrace the cold-water bucket shower. It is an art form. Fill the big bucket then use the little bucket to trickle water over your head, working your way down the body while massaging the water into the skin. Soap, rinse and repeat.
• If someone offers to let you sleep in the office, say yes. Internet works 24 hours and they’ll bring in a cot. Plus, there is no commute!
• In the summer, it’s ungodly hot. Be ready for 128 degrees and 100% humidity. Shave your head. It feels great, and they’ll charge you 75 cents for the whole operation.
• Be prepared to fall in love with the people and the culture, knowing that you’ll probably “go native” within a few days. I’m sitting here typing in my cotton “fabIndia” shirt and linen pants listening to Bollywood music while eating Naan and I couldn’t be happier.

20 July 2007

Giving Voice To An Entire Generation

After 24 hours in Mumbai it was back on a plane, en route to New Delhi. Six highly entertaining hours later (which included a disappearing rickshaw driver, two car accidents, reasonable airport security screenings (do we even know why we have to take our laptops out of the case anymore?), a rather delayed flight, exit row seating on the World’s oldest aircraft and one more go at the whole luggage, x-ray, driver thing) I was at Youth Parliament, a Change Looms (http://www.ashoka.org/changelooms) candidate team working to give a voice to young people across India.

Ishita started Youth Parliament five years ago after being asked at a government forum what young people wanted. “I didn’t know the answer,” she told me. “It seemed that no one knew the answer.” She gathered her closest friends, converted her family garage into an office and began building an organization that could give her generation a voice. “We can’t just sit and complain. We’ve got to prove that we deserve to be heard. It’s about active citizenship.”

Ishita ha built a structure that encourages leadership and entrepreneurship. She oversees the organization as a whole, but each issue or policy area is headed by a different department director. They’re tackling everything from peer mentorship to arts education and transgender rights, all with a passion and a poise that would make you think they’re actually members of Parliament.

Ishita started with 15 people around her; now there are over 800, and the numbers continue to grow. They recently hosted a conference and education session with actual members of India’s parliament, teaching them about HIV/AIDS issues and how they effect young people. Their social interest film competition received dozens of submissions from across the country.

To top it all off, they’re exceptional Hindi teachers! I butchered the two phrases I know (thanks Gunjan and Gunjan’s mom for that knowledge) then managed to butcher another six or seven phrases. Still, their patience was much appreciated, and I was blown away by their commitment to building this organization on a national level over the long-term. “This social activism isn’t a phase that we’re going to grow out of,” Ishita said. “This is who we are as a generation. People better start paying attention.”

I couldn’t agree more.

19 July 2007

Welcome To India! Oh, Did You Want Your Bag?

I hopped on a plane in Joburg and 10 magical hours later (I watched Wild Hogs and a bad Chris Rock movie, ate the “chicken” for lunch and the “lamb” for dinner, read my book, took a nap and watched the sunset from 30,000 feet) I was in Mumbai. My first thought after stepping off the plane: “OH MY GOD, IT’S SO HOT!” Indeed, the temperature is hovering somewhere between 85 and 115 degrees.

My second thought, you ask? I wonder if the bags are ever going to come out…We landed at 12:30am and that baggage belt didn’t start spinning until just after 3am. From 1am on a woman would come on every 10 minutes to let us know that “the bags will be out in 10 minutes.” People drove their little baggage carts right up to the belt, leaving absolutely no room for humans. Pilots and patrons alike were peering behind the plastic curtain, attempting to identify the hold-up.

True to form, mine was one of the last bags to emerge. I dropped it on my baggage cart and headed for the door, or so I thought. First, I had to send my bags through an x-ray machine. The line here was a good 20 minutes long and of course, people were standing far too close to each other. Fortunately, I don’t enjoy walking on my own two feet, so the constant railing of carts into my Achilles tendons went only half-noticed. Finally, it was my turn. I flung my bag up onto the conveyor belt and walked to the other side, only to find the x-ray operator asleep under the machine, pillow, blankets and all! Safety first.

Cart reloaded, I headed for the door in search of a sign with my name on it. Thankfully, it was easy to spot, though before I could reach him 3 other guys emerged, all anxious to help with my luggage. One pushed the cart, another cleared a path and a third opened my door. Sadly, I had not been to an ATM, so ended up giving them $5 US – all I had. That converts to roughly 200 rupees. A normal tip in this situation would have been 10 rupees. They were excited.

Forty minutes later we were at the hotel where another three guys were anxiously awaiting my arrival, despite the fact that it was 4am. One carried the suitcase, another hung my sweatshirt in the closet and folded down by bed and a third explained (in extreme detail) how the remote control worked. Immediately my mind was reeling with comparisons between China and India (First below is China, second is India).

Both struggle with a surplus of people to do anything and everything your heart can imagine; things people would just never do at home. Both enjoy absolute chaos in traffic patterns and both are home to people who just love honking their horns. Still, beyond that, these are two very different places, home to very different people. I haven’t wrapped my mind around it completely just yet, but the wheels are spinning…

18 July 2007

Tree Housin’ It Up

Before heading to India I had a few days to hit the bush and explore the “safari” side of Africa. 8 long hours in a bus later, I arrived at Marc’s Tree House for four fun-filled days of sitting, watching and occasionally saying “stop, look, it’s a…[insert awesome animal here].” Basically, you spend 9 hours in an open-air vehicle, your eyes glued to the bushes on both sides, trying to spot that elusive lion, leopard or rhino (though my favorite animal is the giraffe, and there were lots of those, so I was a happy camper). What made the experience even more interesting for me is that I traveled alone, which meant I was surrounded by lots of new people. There was the French family who isn’t actually French [I still don’t get it] and lives in Laos part of the year and on a small island off the coast of Madagascar the rest of the year. Then there were the Mexican girls, who were all diva’ed up each and every morning. Three young Brits joined as well – Tom, Ross & Andy (how British is that?). They’re working their way up the coast of South Africa, surfing at every possible beach. Two Korean fellows were on board as well, one of them being a National Geographic Photographer. He has lived in a tent for five years traveling the world taking pictures! Of course, we had a party pooper also. I named him the “Bitter Brit.” Nothing was right – not the food, not the vehicle, not the temperature, not the other people…PARTY POOPER! Last but not least, there was Ida. Ida was more than 80 years old and, after her husband died, decided to see the world (He didn’t like to travel). She was one tough Irish lady, and we had a ball. Reminded me of my grandma. As words won’t really tell the best Safari story, I decided to make a short little video to a glorious Elton John song. Enjoy!

Cape Town - Fantasy or Reality?

Scheduling left me with a free weekend in Cape Town, and I could not have been “stuck” with time in a more incredible place. Erin and I decided to get up early and drive to Cape Point to watch the sunrise over the Cape of Good Hope, where the Indian and Atlantic Ocean’s collide in a giant upsurge of bubbles and water. Absolutely gorgeous.

We also saw WILD ostriches! How great is that?

After a drive through Chapman’s Peek we stopped at one of the many Camp’s beaches so I could dip my toes in the South African coastline.

From there it was too Table Mountain, where we rode the spinning Cable Car to the top to catch a glimpse of Cape Town from atop the world’s oldest mountain, which is completely flat, hence the name “Table.” When clouds cover it they say “Table Mountain is wearing its table cloth.” How cute is that?

Other cultural events included a traditional Afrikaner waltz dance event evening...

As well as a trip SKYDIVING over the Winelands set against the beautiful backdrop of Table Mountain and a coastline that runs as far as the eye can see. It was spectacular.

From here it’s a few days in Kruger Park then back to “Jozi” before moving onward to India. Huzzah!

17 July 2007

The Best Mugging Ever

It happened, as I was told again and again it would; I was mugged in Cape Town, and it happened in broad daylight. Well, it started out as two guys mugging me and it finished with them apologizing and me giving them business cards and encouraging them to start venture teams.

I had just dropped off the stupid Mercedes that has been nothing but trouble the past three days and knew I was already a target before leaving Avis. People watched me drive that bubble car in and they watched me walk out. I moved swift and confident, but what local returns a rental car then wanders toward “backpacker land?” Exactly.

So I was walking down the street and a guy turned out of a warehouse lot, walking toward me. He was looking over my shoulder, so I followed his eyes and realized there was a guy walking about ten feet behind me. I knew immediately what was happening.

The guy in front pulled out a knife and told me to “give him all of my money.” The guy behind stood there so I couldn’t get away. Now, I’ve been robbed twice and a friend of mine who lived in Cape Town explained that it is usually possible to negotiate some arrangement where I give them my money but I get to keep my camera, phone, etc. (as if I had done something wrong in the first place – “keep” my own phone? Come on!). So, rather than be frightened I found myself irritated that I would be targeted considering the work I’m doing to help curb the situations that create thievery and so forth.

Without thinking (total gut reaction) I blurted out, “Hey man, I’m not the problem. I’m just trying to help, okay? I don’t have money to give you and if you take my camera, then I can’t do my job and I’m trying to help you and people who aren’t being taken care of. You don’t want to do this.” They were shocked, to say the least. I just kept going on and on and on about Ashoka, Youth Venture, inspiring change, empowering young people, spending time in the townships and trying to get individuals to take ownership over their communities. A good minute or two into my speech and the knife lowered.

The more I talked, the more the tension de-escalated and by the end of the whole ordeal, we were apologizing to each other for the whole thing. I learned they were only nineteen and twenty, in the city from their township because there is no work. Both their fathers left years ago and they’ve been involved with gangs, drugs and now this. I listened. I showed empathy. By the end of it all, I was giving them my business card telling them all about Youth Venture, encouraging them to get in touch with me and think about ways to improve their own lives and the lives of their friends.

I realize this story sounds totally impossible and sadly, there was no witness, except for the Avis guy who was sitting in his office watching with his mouth open while everything happened. I don’t know how my mind and body knew that was the way I should react, but it did and maybe now we’ll get some teams out of it. The moral of the story? If you’re being mugged, claim that you’re trying to help, push blame onto someone or something else and ask them if they’ve heard of Youth Venture. (I had no pictures of “the incident” so I included a photo of the horrific Mercedes that got me into deep, deep trouble. Ish…

16 July 2007

For SAGE, It Starts At Home

Since Youth Venture is new in South Africa, our reach doesn’t yet extend to Cape Town. Still, that doesn’t mean there aren’t amazing young people creating change, which is the point of this global movement. You don’t have to be a YV team to create change; the reality is, we want every person to join in by taking an active role in their own life and in the life of their “world,” whether that is defined as their street, neighborhood, city, country or the whole planet!

With this in mind Erin and I connected with an organization called SAGE that also works with you to support entrepreneurial initiative on a global level. Erin, by the way, is my incredible travel buddy who started her own venture in the US last year as part of NYU’s “Be A Changemaker” Challenge and is now working in the Youth Venture “Jozi” office while studying abroad in South Africa.

While I had heard of SAGE, I had no idea the teams we were going to meet were not only national known, but internationally recognized as well. Our first stop was Serapta Secondary School, where Giovanni, Liezelle, Colette, Bianca, Lacille, Tatum, Chevonne, Brendan and Jarroo had developed a blanket drive for the homeless that brought in more than 1000 blankets a semester, a food drive for the homeless that mobilized the entire school and community, a peer mentor program that had been institutionalized at their high school and was now spreading to other schools in South Africa and a Female Empowerment Organization called GEM that is now forming chapters in multiple countries around the world. The founders were all between the ages of 15 and 18.

What made speaking with them so interesting as that because internet penetration is abysmal in South Africa (only one of the kids even had an email address) their concept of the global scope of what they’re doing and how their project fits into a larger movement was nonexistent, which meant I got to share something entirely new while inviting them to apply for additional support from Youth Venture. Never a bad thing. This, of course, all happened after we talked about Justin Timberlake and what it’s like to grow up near Hollywood.

In search of more SAGE, we continued on to Bellville South High School. Actually, we mistakenly went to Bellville High School (we have yet to get anywhere without making at least one wrong turn. The South Africans call traffic signals robots and while they can’t tell you the names of streets, they can tell you how many “robots” there are at the sixth street off of highway N2, which is not very useful). At Bellville High School lost and looking for directions, the Assistant Principal (clearly incredibly bored) took the opportunity to draw the most detailed map I had ever seen to help us find our way. Thirty minutes later (now 20 minutes late) we were back in the Benz on our way.

Thankfully, Roselere, Robyn, Daniel, Tanya and Ernest weren’t mad that we were late, despite the fact that we interrupted “production” on their new line of bookmarks and candle holders made entirely of recycled materials. In fact, these entrepreneurs design, develop and build more than a dozen “goods” that are then sold in the community at a responsible price, using the money raised to fight social problems in their communities. This now-international social company has revitalized the community and the school while offering a creative outlet for teens who have too much time on their hands and find themselves slipping into bad habits, like drug use and having unprotected sex.

This powerhouse LLP aint’ no bake sale – they finished fourth in the world at SAGE’s annual project competition, held last year in Shanghai, China (which meant we had lots to talk about, as I lived there for the better part of a year). “The first place team was from California,” Tanya told me. “Kanye West produced a commercial for them. We did everything on our own, so we’re pretty proud of our fourth place.” So was I. There model is a shining example of how income generation isn’t a bad thing, and can instead help forward the social goals of an organization. Now in it’s third production year, the SAGE kids are stepping it up a notch. They’ll be expanding their product line and opening a second workshop in the fall. They’re also 16.

By the end of the day we had recruited another ten teams, able to offer vision, strategy and financial support to help them take their dream and do something with it. What I found most interesting is that they’re all students at public schools coming from poor families and yet, they’re still incredibly passionate about their education and their social initiatives. I asked what kept them going and all fourteen of them said the same thing – supportive parents. The real question then, is how society can help those young people who don’t have that foundation at home. No child chooses where they’re born and who their parents will be, but does that mean that if they pull a bad straw, they don’t deserve the same chance to make something of themselves? I don’t think so, which I why I believe we as a global society need to work harder to support children and youth to offer the “back-up” they need in life if someone isn’t (or can’t) offer it at home. That’s my challenge for the day – find a way to at least partially offset the void left by absent parents. In the meantime, just be in awe of what these kids are doing. I am.

14 July 2007

Break On Through To The Other Side

After another airport “situation,” Erin & I arrived in Cape Town literally as the fog was rolling onto the tarmac. Ours was the last flight allowed to land before closing the airport. I’m guessing this was my payback after months of bad luck! The car service (there is no public transportation in Cape Town that can be safely used after dark. Heck, there is hardly any that can be safely used during the day) dropped us at our guesthouse.

We both assumed it would be two bedrooms in a shared house. No sir. We, in fact, have our OWN HOUSE - two bedrooms, two bathrooms (one with tub), a kitchen, living room and screened in sun porch. Our hostess with the mostest (Lets call her Tiny) showed us around before giving us our key and explaining how the extremely complicated padlock worked on the door. “Now, what time would you like breakfast served,” she asked. Shocked that there was a served breakfast, we spouted out 9AM for no particular reason. She headed out but before she reached the door Tiny turned to say “Oh, and the whole complex is guarded by electric fence, so don’t worry about safety.” Erin and I had officially broken through to the other side. I went from one room in an electricity-less, quaint township home to my own house behind an electric fence in posh Bellville. This drastic change played loops in my mind all night.

Fast forward to this morning at 9AM, when Tiny and her trainee (we’ll call her Not So Tiny) popped in to deliver our egg and bacon omelets, toast, strawberries, yogurt, cereal, fresh fruit and an assortment of spreads. After devouring our guilty food, we agreed (with Tiny’s advice) that renting a car for three days made more financial sense. Unfortunately, neither of us could really drive stick, which meant we had to reserve the ONLY automatic at Avis, which they were going to deliver to our door at noon.

Noon rolls around and we watch out the window as a BRAND NEW MERCEDES pulls up, Avis woman hopping out in her bright red “Avis jumpsuit.” So now we’re living in our own house behind an electric fence eating omelets made for us while driving a Mercedes around. All I could think was, “Am I really in the same country?” Swinging from one extreme to the other was honestly disrupting my ability to think. Still, we had projects to visit so I signed twice, initialed seven times and promised to give Avis my first-born if the car was stolen, and we were off.

Needless to say, driving on the left side of the road while sitting on the right side of the car for an American who hasn’t been behind the wheel for months was more than entertaining. I broke on through to the other side on numerous occasions. With Erin “maps are silly, I think it’s that way” Gordon to my left, we never actually got to where we were going on the first try. Most notably, on our ride back from Cape Town to “the burbs” this evening, we missed our exit by, oh, 15 miles, ending up in a roadside garage (gas station) after accidentally running a red robot (traffic signal) looking for M15, which was conveniently NOT located between M14 and M16.

After locating said M (again, 15 miles back the way we came) I dropped the shifter into drive and made a right out of the gas station, only, I pulled into the FIRST LANE, which was on the WRONG SIDE here. The fast-moving oncoming traffic (two vans carrying 10 people each) began flashing their lights at me. I looked to the left in an attempt to veer to my side of the rode, but there was a car in the second lane coming at me as well, which left no room for a lane-change. Meanwhile, the guy in my lane is not slowing down and has decided instead to continue to move at 60 miles per hour and just flash his lights and honk his horn, as if that is going to get me to move or something.

I am now completely stopped, unable to go left because another car is coming, yelling at the guy heading straight at me to move in a desperate attempt to avoid using our front and side airbags. He’s not slowing (why, I have NO IDEA. I mean, wouldn’t you slow down?) and he’s not changing lanes, so Erin and I brace for impact, both screaming at the top of our lungs for the guy to SLOW DOWN.

He’s getting closer and closer and closer. No pace change. At this point, I’m wondering who is really at fault for this impending accident. Yes, I’m on the wrong side of the road but he could have ABSOLUTELY stopped in time. Now the van is honestly 25 feet out and I’ve basically resigned myself to the fact that we’re going to crash. Erin throws the map, as if to build a wall between her and the vehicle. 15 feet away and my hands are firmly grasping the steering wheel. I’ve pushed my head against the headrest, in hopes of avoiding whiplash. 14…13…12…11…10 feet (HONEST TO GOD) and all of a sudden the driver cranks his steering wheel and swerves around us, missing the front fender by no more than 20 inches. I turn to my left. Erin’s jaw is on the floor. I reach down to pick it up, put on my blinker and merge back onto the right (left) side of the road, as if nothing had happened.

We eventually made it back to the guesthouse and pulled the Benz behind the electric fence. All unnecessary talking had stopped post-almost-crash. As I popped the gearshift into park Erin turned to me, put her hand on mine and said “great driving today Kyle.” She was 100% sincere. Apparently she missed the whole near-death thing? Still, it would have been one dramatic way to end the World Tour, huh? Huh? Huh?

12 July 2007

One REALLY Live Earth

The party didn’t stop until 1 in the mornin’, and I have to say, I think the Joburg concert was one of the best. We got clips from other places, but ours had soul, and a lot of it. From the Soweto Gospel Choir to Zola and Joss Stone, the Coke Dome (ironic that Coke is part of saving the world) was hippity hoppin’ all night long. Highlight for me – Paully Shore, from such fine films as In The Army Now, Jury Duty & Son In Law, was in attendance to open the evening. A-MAZING! Once more, words don’t really tell the story, so I put together a short vid. Rock out. I did!

“We’re Building A Movement”

I didn’t even have to say it this time. Zaks, the leader of “Township Glory” opens every leadership training session talking about the movement. After an eggs on toast breakfast (a surprising development after two days of local cornmeal, milk and sugar fare) I grabbed my bags and the Captain (Marshall) headed for Orange Park, the home of Zaks’ program.

We left Soweto, drove through Kliptown (the shanty town) and entered Orange Farm on its one paved rode. After just a few minutes of driving we pulled off the pavement and onto a long, winding, diveted red dirt path leading into the shanty neighborhoods of Orange Farm township. The heavy winds were rustling up whirlwinds of dirt all around us. It looked as if there had been no rain in months. I couldn’t tell if this was a blessing or a curse. Of course, water would be nice, but I was unsure as to whether or not the houses would sustain even the lightest trickle of water.

“The dirt roads become rivers,” Zaks told me, as we walked down his neighbor’s car less driveway toward a makeshift church that doubled as his meeting room. I entered to find that more than twenty kids had shown up to talk about YV, the movement and their participation in “Township Glory.” The walls were covered in old newspapers. None of the window panes had glass in them.

“We’re in this room because we’re starting a movement,” Zaks begain. “We’re tired of the way things are. We want drugs and poverty and unemployment out of Orange Farm, and we’re going to do it. This is a leadership movement and you’re all at the front of it.” The room went wild! We went on to talk about how to make that change and what part they played in the global movement.

Zaks uses the arts to inspire, encourage and teach. From slam poetry to dance and theater, every kid involved plays some role. I was fortunate enough to get a special show that included original poems, traditional dance and some modern moves, on which Zak and I joined in. Lets just say I busted a move. His energy is contagious. You can’t help but get excited. Still, he wants to take it further. “I don’t want to be the only role model. I want everyone to be role models for each other, so I started a facilitator training program, to get teenagers trained to help the younger kids. It’s going well.” With his drive, I don’t know how it couldn’t be going well!

From there it was to Mofolo, where I met with Brian and about fifty youth involved in his project. He has turned an abandoned schoolhouse into a community center where kids from private and public schools come together in an environment that encourages exchange and support to reinvigorate the students in public school and give them the extra help they can’t get at home. The students in the private schools also help tutor during exam time as well as assist with University applications, making the idea of college “real” for them in a way they would have never considered otherwise.

Brian and I realized how similar our projects were, discussing ways to collaborate and learn from one another. “We take it beyond schoolwork as well,” Brain explained. “We infuse music, street culture and theater also, trying to educate both sides on their lives in a complete way.” I actually got to watch drum practice, as well as run around like a maniac playing tag with all the kids. For whatever reason, it didn’t matter who was actually “it,” the kids just chased me around.

I also ran into some fellow Americans there. The first were a group of high school students from Nobles High School in Boston. They were here for three weeks to “do service and stuff,” one girl told me. They arrived in their air-conditioned coach from their luxury hotel after flying first class to get here. My only hope is that they actually attempt to take an honest look at their surroundings and the work they’re doing, rather than just seeing it as coming to Africa and like, helping poor people. I handed out some business cards, so maybe we’ll get some projects from them. Now that would be cool!

The other American was a real character – originally from New York, he actually lives “in a shack down the road a bit,” as he explained it to me. Now thirty-three, his life goal has been to avoid the “real world” forever. Educated at Pomona College in California, he has spent the last 12 years bee-bopping the globe taking odd jobs to make time for his writing. I looked at him and in a lot of ways, I saw myself – never wanting to settle down. Then again, the whole shack down the road thing might not work for me. I wasn’t able to snap his photo, but he made me think of Chris Farley on SNL when he did the bit about “living in a van down by the river,” so I posted that picture instead. R.I.P. Chris.

From there it was to the airport, where Erin and I (Erin is an American who is interning for Ashoka in South Africa) were shuffled around to three bag-check areas and two boarding gates before actually boarding our plane. Nevertheless, we’re off to Cape Town!