The Office of Global Education and Study Abroad is pleased to share news of alumni as they travel abroad, republished from the recent issue of The Record.
James Seldon “Sel” Harris, Jr. ’80
The Rev. Dr. JAMES SELDON “SEL” HARRIS, Jr. ’80 and his wife Liz recently traveled to Cuba with Covenant Presbyterian Church of Austin, Texas—a church that Sel formerly served. In 1997, Sel and Liz took the first group from Covenant to Havana. At that time, Sel and the Rev. Carlos Ham of the Luyano Presbyterian Church in Havana started a partnership between the two churches that remains strong. Pictured with Sel is Georgina, a 91-year-old member of the Cuban church whose late husband was the personal secretary of Che Guevara.
THOMAS J. ROBINSON ’91 has been teaching IB chemistry at the International School of Kenya in Nairobi for almost four years. He writes, “Kenya is a very dynamic country. Despite the challenges of living far from America, the opportunity to teach at a strong International Baccalaureate school is great. I encourage other alumni to consider teaching internationally!”
Michael James Rutkowski ’07
Dr. MICHAEL JAMES RUTKOWSKI ’07 recently moved to Sweden, started a new position at Stockholm University, got engaged to Ms. Gina Moorhead, and rang in the New Year in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, the northernmost town in the world (78 degrees N., about 800 miles from the North Pole). He is pictured on the Lars Glacier and writes, “I was going to leave in the morning, but sunrise won’t come until mid-February.”
NAY MIN OO ’12 has been chosen as a DeBoer Fellow in Myanmar. The DeBoer Fellowship is a one-year program designed to help promising Myanmar citizen leaders reach their potential and better serve their organizations, communities, and country. The Fellowship was created by Jack DeBoer, founder of Residence Inn.
Stephen Woodall II ’15
STEPHEN LESTER WOODALL II ’15 attends St. George’s University Medical School in True Blue Grenada, West Indies. There he is a member of Iota Epsilon Alpha, the International Medical Student Honor Society; the SGU Surgery Club; and the SGU Emergency Medicine Club. He is pictured below in the Grand Etang National Rainforest.
The Office of Global Education and Study Abroad is pleased to republish this article from The Record with Pierce Buckingham ’10.
The Adventure of a Lifetime
By Karen Huggard
On the windswept plains of the Mongolian Steppe last August, a group of extreme adventurers recreated the famed postal relay routes of Genghis Khan. Dubbed the world’s longest horse race, the Mongol Derby pits riders against each other in an endurance race across the rugged territory of northern Mongolia. Although more than 40 riders attempted the 1008-kilometer course with its varied terrain of flat grasslands, steep hills and valleys, river crossings, and rocky passes, only 27 finished—among them Pierce Buckingham ’06.
No Horsing Around
Over the course of ten days, Buckingham and his competitors had access to 1500 semi-wild Mongolian horses spread out among the course’s 28 checkpoints. All of the horses had been ridden before by local herdsmen, but most had not been ridden consistently or even recently. With their saddles, backpacks, and helmets, the derby riders “looked a lot different, smelled a lot different, and acted a lot different” than the local herdsmen, according to Buckingham. As a result, many of the ponies spooked easily and proved difficult to mount and control.
At six-foot-three-inches tall, Buckingham was at a further disadvantage on the small-framed ponies; in choosing a new horse at each checkpoint, he recalls, “I had to play charades with the herdsmen to pick out a horse strong enough to carry me.” He didn’t rely on charades alone, but also used his ten years of experience as a racehorse trainer to his advantage. “I’d look at the horses’ gums for scars. When horses really take off, riders pull on the bit so hard that it cuts their gums. So I’d choose a horse with cuts or scars, because I knew it would be fast.”
Choosing that type of horse had its disadvantages, though. “You had to know where you were going before you got on, because once you were on, it would take off like a shot. You wouldn’t be able to stop for a few kilometers, and you didn’t want to be headed in the wrong direction.” Using GPS, Buckingham clocked a top speed of 28 kilometers per hour at full gallop—about 17 miles per hour—a pace some ponies would maintain for a full ten kilometers before calming down.
Nothing Typical about It
For nine days straight, Buckingham averaged a grueling 70 miles per day. Starting at 7 a.m. and riding till 8:30 p.m., he took advantage of every minute that the course was open. Water, a snack or a meal, and a fresh pony were provided at checkpoints spaced approximately 40 kilometers apart. Meals were simple, typically consisting of mutton stew, goat or yak milk, and stale bread. Mongolian families along the way came cheered the riders on, often offering them local delicacies like Aarull, dried milk curds, or Airag, fermented horse milk.
Some checkpoints provided tents for sleeping, but racers could also ride further and camp under the stars or stay with a herdsman and his family. A booklet with translations of phrases like “I’ve lost my horse,” “Where’s the next town?” and “Can I stay here tonight?”—coupled with more charades—helped Buckingham find shelter on the nights he chose to sleep on the Steppe. Each time, he found the Mongolian people warm and hospitable, willing to share what little they had with a stranger. After staying with one family who had no water or food to spare, he was careful to stop at tents with a large number of livestock and a solar panel—signs of prosperity that meant his stay wouldn’t be an imposition. Although the language barrier was difficult, Buckingham says, “Smiling and looking appreciative is a universal language.”
The Mongol Derby is ultimately about adventure and danger, though—not tourism or cultural exchange. The warning at the bottom of the official website says it all: “You cannot overestimate the risks involved in taking part in these adventures. Your chances of being seriously injured or dying as a result of taking part are high. Individuals who have taken part in the past have been permanently disfigured, seriously disabled, or lost their life. These are not holidays. These are adventures and so by their very nature extremely risky. You really are putting both your health and life at risk. That’s the whole point.”
The Lost Days
Although derby participants typically travel in small groups, for two days and nights Buckingham rode the windswept plains of the Mongolian Steppe alone—isolating days that blurred into each other. Severely dehydrated on the third day because of a broken water filter, Buckingham encouraged his group to continue on while he remained at a checkpoint to rehydrate. It took him two days to catch up.
“I was in even more of a race mode those days, pressing the horses to see what they could do. I didn’t have time to worry about what would happen if I fell off and couldn’t send an emergency signal, or if I got thrown and injured my spine, or if I got dragged by my horse. I had to be in the moment, thinking of how I would get from point A to point B.” He could have sacrificed time and waited for a group that was a day behind him, but his competitive edge wouldn’t allow it. “The entire time,” he says, “I had no other thought but to catch up.”
He did have some company on his solo ride: “Herders who saw me riding came over on their horses to gallop with me for a while. Even the little kids would come out on their horses and ride with me. Then they’d pull off,
and I’d push on.”
Making those days even more challenging was his malfunctioning GPS, which lost the race route and showed only the checkpoints instead. “The only information I had was an ‘as the crow flies’ line, so I had to think a little bit more. I figured the race coordinators had done it to everyone—taken away the race line to make it even more of an adventure.” But when Buckingham casually mentioned it to someone at a checkpoint, he learned he was the only one who had lacked the information for two days. Although he had to swim across a few rivers, he says, “I made it, and it was fun.”
Photo courtesy of Richard Dunwoody
The Key to Success
As a thoroughbred-horse trainer, Buckingham is used to 12-to-16-hour work days in the South Carolina heat, sometimes going several months without a day off. No amount of physical labor, however, can approximate the physical demands of the Derby, which Buckingham found more taxing than he ever imaged. There is no way to truly prepare for the event, he claims; only through sheer willpower can riders endure the pain. “You have to get over the fact that your body hates you, your brain hates you, and the horse doesn’t really want you on its back,” he says. “At that point, it’s more mental than physical.” He also notes, “In the Derby and in life, it’s easier to do things you didn’t think were possible when you surround yourself with like-minded people.”
The Derby came at a time of transition for Buckingham; after ten years of six-day work weeks training horses for owners the likes of the ruler of Dubai, he was getting restless. “My wife and I were looking for a change and needed a little adventure in our lives to spunk things up. Reading an online article in December of 2015, I saw a suggested article from Outside magazine about a guy who had completed the derby a year prior. I read the article, looked on the Mongol Derby website, talked to my wife about it, and knew I wanted to do it. We decided if I was still as excited about it in the morning, I would submit my application.”
Seven short months after he first learned of the Derby, he was waiting in the Moscow airport for his final connection to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. “The timing was right,” Buckingham recalls. “I thought, I’m in shape, I have the time to do it, I’ve been working my tail off for ten years, and it is time to do something for myself. I needed
There is no doubt that Pierce Buckingham has chosen a life outside the norm. His philosophy? “You can’t stay in a box, look at other people living life, and think, Why can’t I do that? Test yourself and your limits. Live life with a purpose. Only you can make it happen.”
I have had several moments of reflection in the past month, even if at times they are difficult to come by.
I was in Prague a few weeks back with a friend, sipping on good pilsner and looking out over the city (the Czechs know how to make excellent beer). We were talking about what we were going to do upon our return to the states, and at the time I was not thinking about this much, as I still had over two months in Europe before my departure back to the states. One month later, in the midst of exams at LSE, that reflection is starting to mean more, and I understand that it is necessary to make time for such, to think about my experience in London, how I have grown as a result of the environment here, and readapting back into American culture after being away for a year. I was grabbing a pint with a good friend on Fleet Street this past Thursday night at a pub called Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a quintessential seventeenth century pub with aged wooden floors and ominous lighting. We both came back from a final event at one of the LSE societies we’re involved in, and considering how busy the exam period is, I realized that I may not see some of the people I have formed such good relationships with before I fly back to the U.S. in early June. That feeling began to hit both of us there; it made me realize that despite the intense environment at LSE and the gloomy weather, leaving London is going to be difficult.
London is a city in which you can love and have issues with simultaneously, but it grows on you, and it is a city with a competitive intellectual environment that forces you to grow up fast, if you want to succeed. It is a city with a stressful academic environment, especially when you face the pressures of getting a 2:1 on an exam, in which determines your final mark. Despite these pressures, it is important to keep a positive outlook and take advantage of what LSE and London offer, and the possibilities are endless. It is a place in which you can walk out your front door and do just about anything, and as my friend and I were discussing why leaving London is going to be difficult, we knew that it was because of the friendships formed. Having friends from all corners of the world is an absolute treat; I have been grateful of having the privilege of learning where people come from and how that affects the development of their views of the world. This is my favorite part about the endless possibilities this city has to offer, and it has certainly refined my outlook on the world. Leaving will be difficult, but I am looking forward to being back with friends and family back in the states.
I entertain the idea of coming back to London in the future, perhaps living here as well, as it has become a second home for me, but in the meantime I must focus on my revision, and I am excited about taking what I have learned here over the past year and apply that thinking to wherever my path takes me in the future.
Since my last blog post I have been to three different ports including Cape Town, South Africa, Tema, Ghana, and Casablanca, Morocco. All three of these places have been incredibly different and each have their own culture. In addition to time in port, ship life has been really fun as well. There was a crew talent show that was phenomenal! Who would’ve known that the people on our ship’s crew were so talented! Also, everybody that was on the ship became Emerald Shellbacks. If you don’t know what that is, an Emerald Shellback is a person that crosses the point 0° N and 0° E by ship. And, if anyone ever asks, there actually IS a buoy that marks the center of the world.
South Africa was amazing, but unfortunately, I didn’t immerse myself into the culture like I had wanted to. Like many others on the ship, I did a lot of adventurous things. The first day was spent exploring the city. We went to various restaurants and bought good food.
The next day, I hiked Table Mountain with a group of friends and spent the rest of the day laying on the Beach in Camp’s Bay.
A new friend
On the third day, I was lucky enough to sign up for a field program that traveled to a township. This trip was extremely eye opening because it uncovered the sad inequality between races in South Africa. The legacy of apartheid is still extremely visible in South Africa, and affects millions of people. In the township, we visited an orphanage, afterschool program called Happy Feet, and took a bike tour.
Birds-eye view of South Africa
The following days consisted of adventure. The third and fourth day consisted of sandboarding in sand dunes and skydiving. Both activities were so incredibly fun! If you ever get the chance, I highly recommend jumping out of a perfectly good airplane.
Awaiting the others
City of Refuge
I went into Ghana with no plans, and honestly did not have any expectations about what I would see. When we got there, I was extremely overwhelmed with the street vendors trying to pull me into their shop. Moreover, the streets were packed with people due to the market. A couple of my friends and I spent the day walking around Ghana exploring the different shops and tasting Ghanaian chocolate. The next day I was fortunate enough to sign up for a field program called Life of a Fisherman. This program was another eye-opening experience. Our group traveled to a local fishing village and learned the everyday life of someone that lives in the village. We witnessed the men, that had gone out the day before, bring back the fish they had caught during the night. Next, we walked around the village and saw how everyone lived. This was extremely difficult to observe because of how different the culture is. For instance, I saw a man hit a woman and nobody did anything about it to stop him. I can’t explain how hard it was to watch the man’s actions. Our tour ended and I spent the rest of the day relaxing on the ship. On the third day, I had another field program called City of Refuge. City of Refuge is an orphanage that rescues children from slave trafficking. We attended a church service with the children, took a tour of the facilities, and spent the rest of the day playing soccer. I now know why Ghanaians are so in shape. It was close to 103° F and we played for almost two hours straight. Needless to say, I was dead after that game.
Hassan II Mosque
After another six days at sea, we ported in our final city, Casablanca, Morocco. Like Ghana, I had no expectations. It’s funny how traveling will do that. I was excited, but I didn’t know what I was excited for. I guess I was at the point where I just want to see what different places have to offer. Our stay was only four days, so that meant we had to be quick about whatever we did. A group of friends and I got off the ship and took a train straight to Marrakech (about three to four hours south of Casablanca). When we stepped out of station and were all mind blown because of the beautiful city. The art and architecture were so unique compared to everywhere else. If I could describe it in words, I would tell you to think about the Disney movie Aladin. The next two days were designated for traveling and a camel trek in the Zagora desert. On the way to the desert we stopped at Aït Ben Haddou. This is an old settlement on the old caravan route from the Sahara to Marrakech. This spot was really cool because there have been a lot of movies shot here. Later, we continued to the Zagora desert for our camel trek. We camped out under the stars, had good food, and talked with many people all around the world. The following day, we drove back to Marrakech (about a ten hour drive), and walked around the city. There were all kinds of street performers and shops set up. On the last day, we travelled to Casablanca and split ways. I walked to the Hassan II mosque. It is the largest mosque in Casablanca and faces with its back against the sea. This was the last thing I did in country, and sadly walked on to the ship I’ve called home for the past four months for the very last time.
I’m currently sailing to the last port of call, Hamburg, Germany. Everyone’s final exams are wrapping up and we’re all preparing to exit the ship and say our goodbyes for the last time. This has been the best voyage of my life and I can confidently say that Semester at Sea is one of the best decisions I’ve made. Moreover, this has been (and probably will be) the most bitter-sweet moment of my life because I have to say goodbye to everyone I’ve become best friends with. I have had the most fun I’ve ever had while traveling, but most importantly, I’ve learned more about myself than I ever have. This voyage is a chance of a lifetime, so if you’re a student and trying to decide if you want to travel abroad for a semester, it WILL be the best decision you have ever made.
“Who got to live this life? For one brief moment, we did my friends… we did.”
April has been a good month, we are out for spring break and I took some time from studying to travel a bit. I visited Crete, a small island in Greece, Athens, Budapest, and Vienna. Greece was just so beyond beautiful, we visited Elafonisi beach, which is known for its pink sand and clear waters. The ruins in Athens were definitely something I would recommend anyone to see, given the opportunity. The sights from Acropolis were definitely breathtaking. Budapest surprisingly had the best cuisine, and since the Hungarian forint is at approximately 369 for every 1 British pound it was also the least expensive meal. Vienna was unfortunately only a day trip, so I did not get to explore it fully however, I did see some great sights and bask in the sun, that is so often hidden in London.
In my earlier blog’s I mentioned how the food in London was not so great; however, now that I have been here for more time I can admit I was wrong. I am a huge fan of food markets here in London, and you can find the most amazing foods there. My favorite meal here is from the Camden market, it is a fettuccine Alfredo pasta made in wheel of cheese.
I think my greatest accomplishment here is passing all my classes, I never imagined they would have been this challenging, but it has definitely helped me out in the long run. Classes are very different here. We have both lectures and classes separately for the same subjects. Lectures are usually given in large auditoriums, I have my Econ lectures in an actual theater so it’s very nice. Classes are a lot smaller and are usually given by a graduate student, so unfortunately the availability of teachers outside of class is not as great as one would hope.
I am approximately 830 nautical miles from Cape Town, South Africa, and I could not be happier to see land. It has been 10 days since I’ve walked on solid ground and I still have another two days to go. Since my last update, I have been to two ports. From Ho Chi Minh City, we sailed to Yangon, Myanmar, and from there my voyage traveled to Cochin, India. We were supposed to sail to Mauritius, but sadly, a lot of difficulties regarding the ship came up so we were not able to port. However, we have had a lot of activity days on the ship. The first was Neptune Day. This is a tradition on Semester at Sea, and it marks the crossing of the equator! The next was the Sea Olympics, and this was various games that the different “seas” (students living in the same area) competed in. My sea didn’t win, but hey, we didn’t come in last either.
Myanmar was amazing and I could not have asked for much better. The first day consisted of a walking around the city of Yangon, and visiting various landmarks. The most famous place we visited was the Shwedagon Pagoda. This is a huge, golden, Buddhist temple that people go to and pray. In fact, there are Pagodas all over the country of Myanmar. The next few days I was on a field program called Undiscovered Myanmar. This trip included visits to Buddhist temples and to various rural villages around the Mon State of Myanmar. On the first day, our group visited the Golden Rock Pagoda. This is a Buddhist temple that is centered around a huge golden rock that is perfectly balanced on top of a mountain. My favorite day, however, was the third day. My group went kayaking, and took a short hike to the top of Kaw Ka Taung mountain. The view from the top was flawless and will most likely be a picture that I’ll always have in my head. Although Myanmar’s port went by way faster than I would have liked it. This country was amazing and so incredibly different than the United States.
The Next port of call was Cochin, India. I didn’t have any particular expectations for India while sailing to the country. However, I was touched in both a positive and negative way. Positively, because India has so much to offer. The people are incredibly nice (if they aren’t trying to bribe you for money), and the landscape is beautiful. I was influenced negatively because of India’s poverty. I was fortunate enough to spend my first day in port at an orphanage. We spent the day playing and dancing with children. I also spent time with the manager of the facility. He told me how he had been struggling with funds and that he would take anything he could get to help the children. This truly broke my heart, but nevertheless, I appreciated every bit of my short time with the kids and I hope that they did as well. The rest of the week was spent with my two friends traveling to New Delhi. We spent a day and went to the Taj Mahal, and now I can confidently tell someone why that is a wonder of the world. It is without doubt the most beautiful structure I’ve ever seen and a true symbol of love. I did learn while I was there that there was supposed to be another monument that mirrored the Taj Mahal, except it was supposed to be black. But because of emperor family drama, it was never constructed.
I’m so incredibly excited for South Africa because of all the adventurous things it has in store. I’m not sure what I’ll be doing yet, but I know I’ll make memories that will last a life time.
March has been fairly hectic since it marks the ending of our lent term here at LSE. All my classes have crammed assignments due for this last week of class before spring break so my time management skills have definitely been tested. London has definitely cheered up and the parks seem so lively now. I took advantage of the warm weather and set out on an adventure around London. I feel like I have been so caught up with schoolwork that I have forgotten to explore and appreciate my time here. I decided to be a tourist in this city that I’ve had the pleasure to call home for more than half a year.
The London Eye
The view from the London eye is spectacular, granted once you’ve reached the top the way down is not that exciting, but still definitely a worthwhile ride.
Churchill’s Map Room
Afterwards I made the commute to the Churchill War Rooms, which is a museum that tells the story of Churchill’s life and even has a WWII bunker to explore. The neat thing about this bunker is that it has the map room, which has remained untouched since 1945, where Churchill used to meet with his cabinet to coordinate movements during the war.
Another museum I ended up going to was Freud’s house which was preserved by his daughter Anna until her death in 1982. What I found fascinating was his library, all the books were completely worn out. I can’t even begin to imagine how many times they were read and featured authors like Goethe and Shakespeare. This month I also starting playing with a recreational basketball team composed of several students from the states and a couple grad students. As a team we decided to challenge the LSE teams and managed to beat the third and second team, which means we will have the chance to play against the best team here at LSE soon. School is wrapping up and the anxiousness of the upcoming exams is definitely visible on most students already. I definitely cherish this opportunity to have come to such a great academic school and fully realize how amazing this opportunity is. I would encourage everyone at H-SC to at least consider coming abroad, it’s an experience they will never forget.
The recent weeks have arguably been the busiest thus far during my time here in London, primarily consisting of summative papers, presentations, and interviews, but the main highlight in which I want to discuss would be my experience at the 2017 LSE Emerging Markets Forum. Taking place at the Millennium Hotel in Grosvenor Square, the EMF is the largest event of its kind globally, and I had the pleasure of meeting and connecting with students from London, Europe, and areas outside of the continent. The purpose of the forum is given in the name itself, which was to discuss the future of developing economies in the coming decades, and how the current political and economic atmosphere will affect their development, in addition to approaches taken by investors in developed economies to these markets.
For those unfamiliar with Emerging Markets I will give a brief background on the subject. Emerging Markets are economies, mainly located in Asia, Africa, and Latin America in which are experiencing significant population growth, urbanization, and fast-paced industrialization, among other growth factors. They provide huge opportunities for installing lines of production due to cheap labor and growing populations, in addition to new markets for companies to expand to. The four largest EMs are the BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), and they are growing at significant rates (maybe not Russia at the moment). To put this growth into perspective, China’s rate of development is extraordinary; the soon-to-be largest economy is building cities in which will not be inhabited for at least a decade. The rate of urbanization in China is fast, yet that cannot even keep up with development. As an investor from a developed economy, it is easy to see why China, among other EMs, are attractive opportunities. Because of these growing economies, we are seeing a shift of wealth from north to south, and west to east, which will dramatically change the global economy in the coming decades.
The Forum opened with a series of questions, mainly concerned with Trump and Brexit, and the first question for the audience was rather bold: the opening speaker asked us to raise our hands if we thought that the EU would collapse within a decade, and over half of the room thought so. This moment reflects the changes seen in the international landscape, and many speakers would center their talks around uncertainty and how it will affect EMs in the coming years.
The speaking lineup at the forum was strong; it included Gary Coombe (President of Procter and Gamble Europe, who talked about gender equality in EMs), Simon Sproule (Vice President of Aston Martin, who talked about the role of the luxury auto industry in EMs), and Leslie Maasdorp (VP and CFO of New Development Bank). Other topics in the forum ranged from international security, global real estate, and central banking and macroeconomics. My experience at the forum came with the following takeaways:
Given the economic, political, and technological progress we have undergone in the previous 50 years, there is no reason that we should not be rational optimists about the future, despite the uncertainty we face today.
Expect new players to become key decision makers in the global in the near future. China will be the most important case, as its economy is will be 150% the size of the US economy by 2040, should current trends stay constant. Africa will also become an increasingly influential player on the global stage, as its population is expected to reach 2 billion by 2050. These economies will become key decision makers on the global stage; investors from developed economies will want to invest in areas of significant growth, and the world economy will become more integrated.
Whether or not one wishes to have a career relating to EMs, going to these countries is important, just in terms of meeting the people there, and seeing how their societies operate.
The third and last point came from Ian Hannam, former partner at JP Morgan and mining titan, a man who has made a fortune off EM investment. Hannam’s point about traveling is important; he told us at the EMF that it is one of the most important endeavours for young adults to take up, as it helps people understand where others come from, and how they developed their views. The EMF was a lovely experience; it taught me quite a bit on a topic I was not familiar with, in addition to how important EMs are for the future. I hope to learn more about developing economies more, as they become increasingly important to the future of the global economy.
This winter, Thomas Vinyard, III had a wonderful experience when he joined some VCU students to study biology in South Africa. Learn more about VCU’s South African Summits to Sea course through the VCU Education Abroad Office. The Global Education Office is pleased to share this article, including a few excerpts from Thomas.
Beautiful South Africa from summits to sea
VCU students take the trip of a lifetime during winter study abroad course
Shira Lanyi climbs through the mist on the famed chain ladders route in the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa.
One of the most basic principles of biology is that all life is interconnected. A few lucky Virginia Commonwealth University globe trekkers experienced this firsthand this winter as they hiked, paddled and swam through the wilds and cities of South Africa.
The students traveled throughout South Africa from Dec. 27–Jan. 15 as part of “South African Summits to Sea: Human and Natural History of KwaZulu-Natal,” a biology study abroad course. The explorers enjoyed the South African summer, while temperatures dipped on campus during winter break.
As the undergraduates stood on the peaks of the Drakensburg Mountains and snorkeled in Kosi Bay, they learned about the role rivers play in the connections between humans and nature in ecosystems. The coursework focused on the Tugela and Pongola rivers, the mountains where they originate and the ocean where they end.
“Quite literally, from the summits of the Drakensburg mountains to the coast of the Indian Ocean in Maputaland, the synergy between the South African people and their natural resources, namely water, was palpable,” said Christine Savoie, a biology student on the trip. “This course gave me a newfound appreciation for the inextricable effects of the environment on how we live, and the biodiversity around us.”
Savoie and her peers spoke to farmers and people in the ecotourism business, examined mining company policies, and toured a dam to observe the human impact on rivers. They observed the wild dogs, zebras and elephants of the South African veldt.
More information about the South African Summits to Sea course, which was open to students from all majors and to non-VCU students through the VCU Education Abroad office, can be found on Vonesh’s lab page, wp.vcu.edu/voneshlab/news.
The class fulfills the senior capstone requirement for VCU biology.
The course was created by James Vonesh, Ph.D., associate professor of biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, who based the curriculum off of his “Footprints on the James” class, which exposes students to ecosystems dependent on the James River as they camp and learn the basics of life outdoors. Vonesh also was inspired by his recent stint as a Fulbright Scholar in South Africa. Daniel Carr, biology instructor in the College of Humanities and Sciences, taught alongside Vonesh.
Vonesh and Carr urged students to reflect on the course by sketching and writing in travel journals and taking pictures along the way. The following are excerpts from class journals and interviews that capture 19 days of adventures from summits to sea. The excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.
“Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and may I say innocence, with Nature herself.”
— Henry David Thoreau
Beauty in Basotho By Mahad Mustafa
There were tourists in Basotho cultural village but there were also a fair amount of native South Africans. There was one lady that I saw just standing there, one hand behind her back in her traditional clothes, just looking off into the distance.
I came up to her and asked could I take a picture of her. She just smiled. I don’t think she understood English, but I kind of just used body language to describe what I was asking her. I think it was one of the most beautiful pictures I had taken. Not only because of natural beauty, but because she was there in that moment. She was living in her own environment kind of looking around. I thought that was absolutely beautiful.
On the rooftops of South Africa By Thomas Vinyard III
We just got back from hiking the Sentinel Peak, right on the border of the Kingdom of Lesotho. We were deep in the Drakensbergs, or Dragon Mountains, and it was very rocky, unlike the route I had climbed yesterday, which was sandstone. This was mostly metamorphic rock. I have no idea why this is because we only drove an hour away. We drove through the old capital of Qua Qua Phuthaditjhaba. This was noticeably less developed than other cities. Qua Qua had been home for black South Africans in the apartheid area.
The Sentinel, a flat-topped mountain on the border of Royal Natal National Park was shrouded in mist. You couldn’t see but about 40 feet in front of you. The higher we climbed up the wet rocky trail, the smaller the flora got. Lichens and small shrubs, with some beautiful small flowery weeds, were predominant. I saw no large mammals but I did see their trails and scat. Our guide, Stef Steyn, says that Lesotho farmers illegally bring their cattle up to the plateau to graze.
The chain ladders really weren’t scary at all if you didn’t look down. The water that dripped down every rock face was clean and pure, and most of us filled our canteens. The plateau at the top had short grasses and shrubs and seemed to be in a constant state of saturation. This is because it is the Tugela River catchment. We saw the headwaters of the Tugela and Mahadi rivers up there. There was one hill that, if a raindrop fell on one side, it would eventually end up in the Indian Ocean. If it landed on the other side, it would eventually end up in the Atlantic.
Somkhanda Game Reserve By Thomas Vinyard III
We left for a game drive this morning. We saw probably 60 or more impala, several kudu, nyala and black and white rhinos. The black rhino is known to arbitrarily charge for no reason, so when we saw but one, everyone hurriedly got back into their safari vehicle. The white rhino are less aggressive. We saw some from the side of the hill about 1,500 meters away, so we drove down and walked around the hill in a diminishing arc until we were about 50 yards away. They knew we were there because of our smell and our sound. Their little Shrek ears pointed to our sound. When they found us, they put their rear ends to us and squatted, looking exactly like large gray rocks.
VCU Summits to Sea students track rhinos at Somkhanda Game Reserve.
African wild dogs at Somkhanda Game Reserve By Diego Azuga
There was more game viewing in the park at 7 a.m. The crew was split into two groups and the beginning of the viewing was a good one. A nearby water hole had a pack of seven wild dogs lying by it. The alpha, a female, was larger and laying by the water.
We observed the wild dogs for a while. Their ears would twitch as they looked around and at us. They would play with each other from time to time and when moving, they stayed together. They may have finished a hunt, which explains why they were cooling down.
Canines like the wild dog have certain attributes that other predators don’t. Wild dogs have learned to store food in carefully chosen caches. They also eat after a kill, only to feed their pups safely in their dens by regurgitating it.
The city of Jozini By Christine Savoie
Driving into Jozini was eye opening and unique. It was very impoverished; there was a lot of trash. There were people selling things on the streets and a lot of really interesting looking vendors, and they were just surrounded by this dilapidated and crumbling city. There were piles of trash and people walking everywhere.
I was really surprised that if you lived in this environment, you would want your trash to be in a pile near your home. So I asked our guide Abednigo “Abe” Nzuza, why is there so much trash? Don’t people have somewhere they can bring it? Why does it pile up like this? It was everywhere. Abe responded that people didn’t really have anywhere to bring their trash, because they couldn’t get to the facilities. There was no infrastructure to pick it up. He said most people were so poor, that it wasn’t worth a cab drive and a cab driver wouldn’t want your trash in his vehicle anyway.
So, it was kind of an only option to have it near your house. Everyone in that region was sort of trying to keep it contained. Then someone who was even more desperate than you would pick through it, and maybe disperse it everywhere in a city with a considerable number of people. So, it seemed like it was an institutional problem, that there had been no infrastructure imposed to help these people manage their trash. Abe said when it was attempted, there were lots of strikes. There were a lot of problems, and eventually it was one of those issues that people kind of gave up on. So, now they were in a situation where it was sort of an accepted thing. People just accepted the fact that there’s trash everywhere. On top of that, there was a nearby mall that we visited. Naturally, the cab driver said that it added a lot to the trash.
The herd at Tembe Elephant Park By Nicolas Kelly
Elephants at water hole Tembe Elephant National Park, KZN, South Africa
Shortly after lunch we pulled up to a watering hole surrounded by elephants. It appeared to be at least a whole herd, possibly two. There were 11 elephants, with two or three babies. The babies flailed around and played in the mud while the adults used their trunks to fling mud and water at themselves. The elephant trunks were sniffing in our direction and they were obviously aware of us. They didn’t seem to pay us too much attention. The most notable defensive behavior was forming a kind of wall between the babies and us.
Watching the elephants was amazing. I had relatively low expectations because I had hoped to have only one sighting.
A little elephant coaxing By Mahad Mustafa
At first we saw just one elephant and I was floored by our guide. He talked to the elephants very sweetly and gently. It was almost how a father would talk to his 5-year-old child before he or she goes off to kindergarten. He was saying things like, “Beautiful boy come out, we came all the way from America to see you.” And the elephant would just respond. I asked him later how long he had worked at the elephant park. He said four or five years but that he had been in the bush his whole life. I think that was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. The way the elephant responded was really majestic. It would look over right on cue. The more that our guide would encourage it in a loving and sweet voice, the more it would respond.
Paddling the Pongola By Trevor Young
Today we set sail for the wider Pongola River on a boat trip with Peter. We were able to see many hippos and even a few crocodiles. Our guide, Peter Calverly, went into detail about his Ph.D. work with the crocodiles. I was surprised how relevant to the river’s health the crocodiles were. For example, they serve as indicators of fish populations.
We next embarked on our paddle down the Pongola River in kayaks. Sadly, there was a noticeable quantity of trash strewn about the river due to a recently built mall that had brought many more people (and trash) to the area.
Paddling up the river was eerily quiet. It reminded me of scenes from the movie “Apocalypse Now” on the Mekong River. Breaking the silence was a great many bird calls and the bird diversity was incredible. Bright blues, yellows and reds darted from tree to tree. Particularly impressive was a giant heron with a wingspan half as tall as me. Seeing all of these birds made all of the trash we saw more impactful.
Today, we did a bit more paddling and focused on the ecology of the river. We were able to do more macroinvertebrate sampling mean, to the joy of some local children playing in the river.
We were led to a local farm to gather ingredients for a Potjiekos cooking competition. [Potjiekos is a dish that is cooked outside in a cast iron pot.] Along the way, we witnessed the extent of a recent drought when we saw the skeleton of a cow bleached white by the intense sun. Until then, I hadn’t quite grasped the extent of the impact on the agrarian communities of South Africa.
Bhanga Nek Beach By Simren Bhatt
So, where do I start off about my day today? I have so many great stories to share! We ventured onto the rocky shores of the Bhanga Nek beach this morning to explore marine life of the intertidal zone. The water is this dazzling cerulean blue and it is so clear. I wish I could sketch it, but I wouldn’t do it any justice. (But I have a bunch of great underwater footage on my GoPro!) We had to go quite early to catch the low tide in order to analyze the rock pools. I couldn’t get over the auroral colors of the coral and the diversity of aquatic life that I could see with my naked eye.
Trevor found an octopus that seemed to be dying, but I think he may have revived the poor thing! I saw rows upon rows of mussels embedded amongst barnacles. They were tiny, so I am assuming they were very young (that or the mussels that we eat are commercially farmed to be large). It was a reminder of what a wonder nature really is — well, this whole trip has been a constant reminder of the magnificence of the world around us.
After inspecting the rocky shores, Shira and I walked over to a group of village women harvesting red bait. They were so kind in trying to explain to us what they were doing, but their broken English was quite difficult to understand. Nonetheless, I was extremely impressed with the time and effort they put into feeding their families. After spending hours under the scorching sun cutting through their catch, they began their 2-3 km hike back to their homes, balancing their food on their heads. Geez and I complain about walking while carrying absolutely nothing.
Hike to Kosi Bay By Shira Lanyi
Today, Dr. Vonesh woke us at 5 a.m. to take down our tents and pack up our campsite to take our last hike from Banga Neck to the Kosi Bay estuary. After quickly dismantling our campsite and scarfing down breakfast, I took some time to sit under the trees rustling both from wind and the movement of vervet monkeys. I fondly thought of the midnight wake-up call by the hippos laughing their hearty cackle in close enough range to cause a shutter of fear in the moonlight. When again will the robust gargle of a hippo startle me awake?
We began our march with Shadrek at 7:40 a.m. … After hiking for about three hours, we finally reached the top of the dunes and caught a glimpse of the reed fish traps snaking through the periphery of the water shed beneath us. Clearly, this is a place with no possibility of vehicles and children must travel three hours by foot everyday just to get to their school at the top of this dune. What a contrast to the comforts we take for granted at home.
We moved downhill and ended up traversing through thick, grassy flat lands. We arrived at a stretch of mangrove swamps where we observed the root system of these remarkable plants. These trees have evolved to grow in the saline water system of Kosi Bay using an extensive taproot system that looks like something out of a science fiction movie. Tiny fiddler crabs burrow holes all around these swamps, feasting on mangrove roots and pods.
After trudging through mud as thick as cement and as smelly as a sulfur spring, we arrived at the mouth of the lake. It was about a mile of army walking through shin-deep water. We paused at one of the fish traps to take a close look at the mechanism and workings behind these 700-year-old structures. Reeds create a long, serpentine pathway for the fish to migrate toward until they are met by a claw-like gate that traps them inside until a hungry fisherman decides its dinnertime. This is a beautiful example of sustainable fishing and an ancient one still used today as it was by the Thonga people centuries ago.
We finally exited the swamp and what was supposed to have been a four-hour hike had turned into a nearly six-hour hike. Still not to our final destination, we passed the sweetest old Thonga man with no front teeth and a smile to light up the world. He spoke to Shadrek in their native tongue as he looped together a line of caught fish. He laughed at our crazy long hike and clearly saw the exhaustion and dehydration in our eyes.
When we finally made it to Kosi Bay and the “aquarium” where we would have the opportunity to snorkel, we had to cross another body of water. Weary, tired, hungry, thirsty, burned and delirious, we collapsed on the shore with the snorkeling gear at our feet. With whatever last bit of strength we could muster, we splashed into the warm water and allowed the current to carry us down as we gazed at the most glorious array of subtropical fish species. It was a spectacular sight and a beautiful way to experience the biodiversity in this tiny strip of Kosi Bay.
Kosi Bay “Aquarium” Snorkeling with Diego
Only the beginning By Shira Lanyi
Today is the first day back at VCU for the start of the semester 2017. As I sit in a fluorescently lit classroom in the Trani Center for Life Sciences to reminisce on how lucky it was to spend three weeks in South Africa for school credit, I miss the sights, smells and tastes of South Africa. But mostly I miss the people. As soon as I set foot back in the U.S., I was met by the terse and bustling nature of our Western culture. Time suddenly sped up, and taking the time to observe and reflect was suddenly an inconvenience to those around me. On campus, students stand before class, leaning against the cold walls and staring intently into the screens of their cell phones. They’re not interacting with the world around them.
There are things about being home that are pleasant and remind me how lucky I am to have unlimited access to clean potable water. I remember fondly the afternoon when we paddled down the Pongola River and the golden shores were dotted with locals bathing, playing, washing and socializing in the shallow turbid water. We take for granted the ease with which we live. We are unaware of the source of our water and how much legislation, cleaning, processing and infrastructure is required to make this valuable resource readily available.
My classroom was my playground for three weeks. Sitting by the Indian Ocean in the Isimangaliso Wetland Park, with our lecture notes written in the sand by a truly jovial South African, is a special memory and experience that I had the unique pleasure and opportunity to share with 10 others. PowerPoint slides, classrooms of 200 people, cold weather and the whirlwind of city life are my new reality. I will continue to carry the many lessons, experiences, insights and observations from my journey in South Africa with me. All of this positively impacts my education as a biology scholar and lover of science. My eyes are opened to a whole new world, and it is only the beginning.
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Greetings from 05°02.61’ N 106°18.37’ E!
Since my last blog post, I have now been to 4 different countries around Asia. From Hawaii, I have sailed across the Pacific to Japan, China, Vietnam, and visited Cambodia for a short time. I am currently sailing from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to Yangon, Myanmar (Burma). I’m very excited about our next port because I know that this country is one of the most undiscovered places around the world!
Port of Kobe Water Cannon Show
Sailing the Pacific was definitely an experience. There were days that were calmer than others, but luckily for me, I have a pretty good pair of sea legs. We sailed for ten days straight before we arrived in Kobe, Japan. While our ship was being piloted, we were greeted with a water cannon show from the Japanese coast guard! The Japanese are without a doubt some of the nicest people I have ever met. They are extremely open to foreigners and will go out of their way to help someone in need. While in Japan, I traveled to a different city every day. The first day was our port city, Kobe. Kobe was really cool, and it is most famous for its Kobe beef. Although the price for the beef was ridiculous, I bought some, but it was TOTALLY worth it. The next city I visited was Hiroshima. Hiroshima is a bustling city with many people. My friends and I spent the day walking around and visited the A-Bomb Dome (the only building to survive the Atomic Bomb), and walked around the Peace Park. I never really understood how bad the Atomic Bomb was until I visited the site and saw all of the melted objects that had survived. Following Hiroshima, I traveled to Kyoto, this city is known for its strong Japanese culture. Here you can find different temples and shrines. My friends and I, like Hiroshima and Kobe, spent the day walking around the city visiting different historic spots. Later that night, my roommate and I took a spontaneous trip to Tokyo. We were able to do this with our Japan Rail Pass (If you ever consider visiting Japan, this is a must). In Tokyo, we visited the Emperor’s Palace, the world’s largest fish market, and visited other sites around the city. The final day was spent back in Kobe so that we could make on-ship time. Our next port of call was Shanghai, China.
Great Wall of China
After two short days of sailing we arrived in Shanghai. I remember waking up and thinking I was in Tomorrowland from Disney World because the architecture is so mind-boggling. The first day in the city I had a field class that basically toured the city. I wish I could explain how crowded it was, but it’s hard to imagine without being there. Also, we were able to go to the top of Shanghai Tower (second tallest skyscraper in the world). Over the next couple of days, I traveled around Shanghai and also went to a water village about two hours south of the city. The last two days I was a part of a field program that took us to Beijing. While I was there, my field program visited Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and The Great Wall of China. My favorite, like most people, was The Great Wall. The view from the top was spectacular, and if it wasn’t for the smog I would have been able to see for miles. Speaking of smog, I knew that China’s was bad, but I never would have imagined that I wouldn’t be able to see a building that was only a few blocks away. Anyways, when I got back to the ship I was extremely exhausted from the week I had been thru.
Ho Chi Minh City
Floating the Mekong River
The next country that we traveled to was Vietnam. We ported in Ho Chi Minh City, and during my time in Vietnam, I was a part of a field program called Mekong Exit to Cambodia. This particular program was packed with activities. On the first day, my group traveled south from Ho Chi Minh City to another city called Can Tho. We walked around the city and intermingled with the different markets. The next morning my group woke up and took a trip on the Mekong River. Here, we interacted with a floating market. There were around a hundred large boats selling different fruits and vegetables, none of which looked very sanitary. We then traveled by bus through rice fields and different villages to the Tra Su forest. We spent the rest of the day floating around with a guide that navigated his way through the swamp. The next day, we traveled by boat into Cambodia along the Mekong River. When we got into Cambodia, we ate lunch and then went to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. This was an extremely touching site because this is where thousands of Cambodians lost their lives during the Khmer Rouge in the mid 1970s. I was fortunate enough to meet one of the eleven survivors named Bou Meng. After the museum, we traveled to the killing fields. This place was where the Khmer Rouge brutally killed men, women, and young children. In fact, this site still has human remains coming up from the ground because of the Earth’s erosion. After a long and emotional day, my group flew to Siem Reap to spend the night. After a good night’s rest, we went to a small village to complete a service project. We spent a few hours learning about the local village (extremely impoverished), and how the organization, HUSK, had been helping the town. Our job was to make a wall for an elder who could no longer do it herself. After the construction, we left with warm farewells and traveled to the Temples of Angkor. These temples are the largest religious monuments in the world and some of the most eye opening structures I’ve ever seen! After exploring the temples, my group returned to the ship late the next evening and we are now heading for Yangon, Myanmar.