Honored to be featured with Virgin.com!

Today, I woke up to my dream of having my journey in Africa featured with Virgin!  What an honor to be connected with such an amazing group of people, out there helping others to change the world!  If you've clicked through the article and landed here, welcome!  I invite you to scroll down through the lions and elephants to take a deeper look into the month I spent with the communities in South Africa.   I love and appreciate comments, and look forward to having conversations with you, so enjoy the posts, enjoy the photos, and come back often!  If you haven't read the article yet, here you go!  http://www.virgin.com/unite/our-community/changing-the-world-through-a-lens

Much love,



About a lion

On my final game drive of the week, we got to be in the darkness with my beautiful pride of lions one last time.  It was a different experience to be with them at this hour, this is when they travel, when they hunt.  All of the little ones rushed up along side us, looking at us straight in the eye asking, "Do I know you?" "Should I care?".  After they got bored checking us out, they returned to the lesson at hand; their moms teaching them how to hunt, and of course, a little bit of play as well.  We sat there for a good half hour watching them interact with each other, then followed as they marched down the road to find their dinner for the night.  With the big cats, you can shine light on them at night and it doesn't bother them at all because the light gets absorbed behind the retina and is reflected back out.  For this reason, we could shine the lights around them and get an intimate viewing of their night time habits.  The antelope don't have this trait, so you have to switch off the lights immediately if you see them.  As we started to head home, we noticed a herd of impala grazing directly in the path that the lions were walking.  We stopped, switched off the engine and the lights, and listened... There in the pitch black of the bush you can almost hear your own breath, your senses heighten in anticipation of witnessing a kill. We heard the "Pbffff!" of one of the impala, it was her danger call. Then a slight rustle, then complete silence... The impala had seen the lion, so it was too late, there was no attack this time.  I was both disappointed and relieved at the same time.  It would have been a thrill to witness, but I also didn't have to listed to the scream of a dying animal.  Here are a few of my favorite photos from the night, I'll miss my "babies", as I got used to seeing them almost every day.  The gaze of my one special little lion will stay with me forever, it's precious beyond words to feel a silent conversation with such a stunning being.  A sweet connection with one of God's great creatures.  



It's amazing to me how a six ton animal can virtually disappear in the thick of the bush in the blink of an eye.  Their huge pillars of legs lifting off the ground with such grace, setting down again so gently that the long grass below hardly notices its being taken down to meet the earth.  Of all the animals I've come across, the elephant is one of my favorites. Maybe it's because their eyes meet yours when you pass, being at the same height as you in your vehicle.  You find their tiny orbs staring into yours just long enough to sense that they acknowledge you as a fellow being on the planet, sharing space, connecting for just a moment.  You hold your breath because you are in the presence of such power, such massive strength.  You sit there quietly listening to the whoosh from the flapping of their ears, you can almost hear the thick air split in two when they lift their trunk up high, then release it, falling towards the ground with a muffled snap.  When their canvass of a head turns to look at you, everything in your body wants to crawl inside itself and hide, but you savor the moment instead, daring to look in his eyes to say hello.  He turns his head forward, continues on, and you are left with the residue of awe tingling in your veins.  Eles, they are very special creatures indeed. 


Everyone Poops!

I'm spending this week writing up a few blog articles for Virgin Unite, and Virgin Limited Edition, so please excuse my absence here!  I'm very excited to share the links with you when they are live!  

So, for the moment, I'm going to make short posts here, just to share some of my favorite memories, fun photos, and randomness.  Please enjoy, and I promise to continue the story very shortly... 



You know in movies or tv shows, how they never show the 'real' stuff... like putting away the groceries, posting on Facebook, or taking time on the toilet!  Same goes for nature photography, you always see the amazing shot of the lion roaring, or the leopard at sunset, but you don't really see the stuff that happens in between, like, well, when they pee and poop.  So, here you go!  Makes 'em seem just a little less frightening, don't you think?  ;) 


A note from Mavis

So on the last day at Mawewe high school, I asked my kids if they would write a little thank you note to my friends who helped me to come there and teach.  They sat there for a good fifteen minutes, looking a bit nervous at writing in English, but as I read their words, I was the one who was thankful beyond words... This note from Mavis made my eyes tear up and I scooped her up in a huge hug and we both smiled the biggest smiles and our eyes shone as we looked at each other with gratitude.  I look forward to seeing Mavis accomplish her dreams, and I have a special feeling that we will be a part of each other's lives from a while to come. 


Home life & a gallery show

It's amazing how connected you can get with a person or a place in such a short amount of time.  I've never been one to like trips where you jet in and jet out quickly, but have always chosen the travel plans where I spend a long enough time to know the ones around me, get a lay of the land, and begin to feel at home... I can't believe I've only been here in Ulu for two weeks because it feels like I am part of a family here.  I only have a day and a half left, but if I think about it too hard I'll cry, so I will just keep cherishing every sound, every humid breath of air, every warm hello from the faces I've come to know and love.  

Today was my last class at Mawewe, and the first time I had to say goodbye.  I think Mr. Sibuyi thought I was a little nutso because I just kept thanking him, and I think I shook his hand and smiled at him half dozen times in my last half hour there.   (David, please tell him I'm really a normal person!)  Nthambi, Mavis, and Gerald met me in the library this morning, as did my sweetest Mpilo, and we went over things like formatting the memory card, making sure you wipe the lens with a soft cloth every so often, how to upload photos to the laptop, and encouraging the creation of a photo club.  Then, from my backpack,  I pulled out a huge stack of photographs from our week together and spread them all over the table, their smiles beamed as they sifted through the papers giggling.  I could hear their excited chatter in Shangaan as they taped the photos into the frames I brought them. It was really pure magic seeing their faces illuminate as their friends funneled in the room pointing and commenting on their photographs.  I thought I was going to have to surgically remove the cameras from their bodies, as they kept them around their necks the whole day, periodically grabbing friends for a snapshot or posing someone with flowers.  

Even with all of this, I have to admit that my favorite part of today was when I got to see the photos that the three of them took after school when they went home.  We gathered around my laptop as each one explained to me who was in the photos;  "That is me with my dad" "That is my friend, and my mother", "This is my baby niece, In English her name is Beautiful, and her second name is Thankful.  Her brother's name is Smile", "This is my grandmother making marula beer", I got to see a glimpse of their life, finally.  I got to see their personality, their family, what is important to them.  And, it was all possible because of a camera.  Isn't it beautiful, that a small piece of technology can be the thing that brings you together and breaks the barrier of different worlds.  Looking up at their sweet faces as they smiled and proudly explained their photographs to me is what I came here for... Nothing can beat how special it felt to be a part of this journey with them.  There are now three more angels engraved in my soul. So blessed, so blessed, so blessed.   


Here are some of Mavis's photos from her evening with the camera...


The following are images from our nice little gallery show today in the library!


Mawewe & the Teachers

Mawewe high school is where I decided to hold my photography classes.  The kids there are old enough to grasp not only the technical side of the camera, but the ideas behind things like composition and story-telling.  Every day this week, I meet David at 8:30 a.m. and he brings me to the gate where I transfer to a car on the other side and drive through the washed out dirt roads at four miles an hour.  It takes about twenty minutes to arrive at the high school, the roads get a little better the farther along we go.  As we ride, my driver tells me in an irritated voice, "Ishhh, we need TAroads he'a.  Takes for evah to get thru."  I say, "TAroads?  What is that..?" He points to the road, "TA roads.."  and I get it, "Ahh, 'tar roads', yes, the roads are so bad here!"  "Weeei" he says in agreement.  

When we arrive, I am met by Mr. Sibuyi, a tall, handsome gentleman who runs the schools here in Dumphries.  "Afsheein, how are you?  I am Steve" he says with a beaming smile as he shakes my hand.  We walk into the library, which was donated by Pride n' Purpose, and he tells me the other teachers will be here soon.  David and I had decided the day earlier that it would be a great idea to not only teach the kids, but also teach the teachers so that they had tools to continue the program once I was gone.  (Why hadn't I thought of this before?)  I was a bit nervous, knowing that I would be the center of attention soon, and would have to know what the hell I was talking about. I didn't have much time to prepare materials, as it was a last minute change, so I was really just winging it.  Ten teachers filtered in over the next fifteen minutes, every one of them with eyes glued on me, waiting to see what I had to teach them.  

It was sweet, and surprising how much I realized they did not know about technology.  On the drive back later that afternoon, David explained to me, "For their whole lives, black people were told that if we touched something important, it would break.  It is engrained deep, they are still afraid of technology and haven't had any exposure to it."  It all made sense now why they looked at the cameras like space ships, holding them very lightly as if to say to an invisible presence "See, I am not really holding it, so don't worry, it will not break!".  

I showed them how to turn the cameras on, and walked around the table helping them find the 'on/off' buttons.  I watched as their eyes lit up with accomplishment when they saw the screen illuminate.  They murmured to each other in Shangaan, and I saw a few giggles from the women as they watched the 'live view' image appear.  Next was teaching how to hold a camera.  I held their hands in mine and placed our hands on the camera together with a firm grip, index finger on the shutter button.  I could feel the resistance against mine, as they still wanted to hold it so delicately.  To make a point, I said, "You must hold it firm with both hands so that if one hand lets go, the other is still holding it steady." "Otherwise," and I knew I had the strap around my wrist but they did not notice it, "if you let go with one hand, (I yanked one hand away so that the camera fell)...it'll DROP!"  All ten of them jumped as they watched the camera fly out of my hands towards the floor. The strap caught it, and they all sighed relief, smiling at me.  They got my point.  They took some photos playfully, then asked "So, how do I see the photograph I just took?"  I drew a picture of an arrow with a box around it and asked them all to find it on their cameras, and so it continued... After the teacher class, Steve found me three wide-eyed students. Dressed in their school's blue and white uniform, they walked shyly into the room and introduced themselves, and from the very first look, I knew this was going to be great!

I love this first shot, they look so intimidating and serious!  Makes me laugh!!  And, by the way, these are all shots that my lovely teachers took on their first day.  Sheesh, I love them!  


The Airport

For a change of scenery, and just because I have a love affair with airplanes, I spent the morning at Ulusaba's airstrip.  Think of Out of Africa, and where Robert Redford would have met Meryl Streep when she landed... That is where I was transported to.  A beautiful thatched roof building with hand made woven chairs and polished slabs of wood as tables on a spacious deck sunken right into the bush.  All you hear is the wind through the trees and the myriad of bird song surrounding you as three small planes sit silently below waiting for the bush pilots to arrive.  

Presence and I were the only two there; she runs the airport.  I poured a cup of rooibos tea, threw my camera around my neck, and walked down to the planes.  It felt amazing to roam freely at an airport, just me and three metal birds with no one else in sight, no security, no TSA.  I spent the next half hour walking around every inch of those planes, losing myself within their angles, patterns, and shadows.  A powerful desire came over me to learn how to fly, pull on the rudder and lift off the ground, watching the tiny runway disappear beneath me.  Then, as if appearing out of thin air, I noticed two pilots walking around one of the planes.  I went over to say hello.  James and I stood there and talked shop for a few minutes, as I mentioned I was a flight attendant and my brother was a pilot. They had seven legs today, all up and around the various game lodges.  It was all I could do to keep my cool and not beg for a ride in their plane.  James tells me they are based here, and live at the pilot's camp just through the bush off the edge of the runway.  I recalled how we heard music and chatter coming from the distance the other day while out on our game drive.  Our ranger told us it was the bush pilots, and sometimes they got a little loud out there partying amongst themselves.  We all laughed and carried on.  I was happy to actually meet them now, both of us beaming; he climbed into his plane, and I walked up the ramp back In to Africa.  



"I used to wonder why my parents gave me my name",  he says to me after he introduces himself.  "But you know, I do not think it is a bad name anymore.  There is a meaning behind it that is important, and that is a good thing."  He explains to me how in his culture, when a baby is born, it is given a name according to what is going on with the parents at that very space in time.  If your father has just died, you might name your son after him and his name might be Earnest.  Say your uncle just gave you some tools to build a house and you are grateful for it, you might name your daughter Thankful.  But there are other names which are not so easy to figure out, like my friend here having a chat with me.  It is a very sweet story, how he figures out the origin of his name.  "You see,"  he says "there was a lot going on for my parents when I was born, a lot of things were wrong, and they were figuring out how to cope..."  He is smiling softly as he stands in my kitchen relaying his story to me, and I sense that he has overcome his own trials in his young life.  "So, when they had me, it was such a gift you know?  And they were feeling so blessed."  His smile widens and he continues, "So they just said 'never mind' to all of the bad!  Look, we are blessed with a son!  So you see, it is a positive name!"  And I do see, he too has said "never mind" to the negative out there, and has embraced the power of his name.  

(Oh, and then he tells me a funny story of how to get back at your neighbor by naming your dog something that will upset them... And I see that a name is not just a name in Shangaan!) 


The cleansing rain

Today, there was rain.  The skies just opened up without warning, and the water pelted down onto the dry earth, soaking it to a dark brown and releasing all of nature's scents into the wind for me to smell.  I wish I could capture that smell here in words, or on film, it's like nothing you get in any city, or anywhere I've been before really.  It is mother earth.  I was sitting on the stoop with my tea and biscuits (a new addiction for me, I think I'll have to bring back 50 packets with me to the US), watching the rain pour down over the rocky, lush hills above, and decided I need to be in this rain.  I ran up stairs to put on my takkies (tennis shoes) and a cap, and hopped outside straight into the down pour, a bit surprised at how cold the drops were as they darted onto my body.  I contemplated running back to put on a sweatshirt but opted against it and kept walking towards the fence where the village met the bush.  Rain dripping off of my hat onto my face, my shirt quickly turning dark grey and becoming heavy with water.  It crossed my mind that the others in the village would think I was crazy for running out in the rain, but I didn't care, it had been outrageously hot and humid the past two days, and this was a welcomed reprieve that I was not about to miss.  I walked outside the gates, not caring that I was now on the animal's side.  I didn't go far, but it felt good to just be outside, in the open, on my own, in the lush rain... The trackers and I waved excitedly to each other as they all passed by on their way to pick up the rangers to go out for their evening game drive.  I wished I was going with them, but then again, I was happy to be spending this time on my own...in the cleansing rain.  

Safari magic

My new Africa life, typical day is as follows... Wake up at 5:30, stretch, peek out the window to see if there are Impala outside, flip on the kettle, scoop Nescafe in a mug, grab the biscuits and coffee and sit on the stairs, listen to the birds, say hello to passers by, watch the elephant up on the hill (if I'm lucky to see him), go inside and start to edit photos and write for a couple hours, pour a third cup, go meet up with David and drive to the village, visit a school or two, take lots of photos, come home, download pics, make lunch, have a fourth cup with biscuits, (maybe add a cup of sav blanc with ice), edit and write some more, make plans for tomorrow, then go wait by the safari trucks to see if there's room to join on the evening game ride.  Not a bad routine at all, and I'm getting to like it a lot!  

We start out at the lodge up on the hill, overlooking the vast plains below and chatting with the other guests as we sip on a iced coffee and (the best) cupcakes (I have ever had in my life).  Then we hop into the safari trucks with our ranger and tracker and off we go into the bush.  We drive around for hours, stopping when we see big and small creatures alike.  The birds here are outstanding, some beyond colorful, and others with the most curious calls.  We sit and look at them while Johnny or Shane tell us stories about their behaviors and how they got their names.  My favorite so far is the Grey Go Away bird, which has a call that sounds like someone is squashing the last bit of breath out of it!  

Then there are some big guys like the buffalo, or as they are called here, Dagga Boys.  We learn that these guys are the most dangerous animals out in the bush due to the fact that they will charge you in a heartbeat with their massive bodies and solid horns.  We also come across a pair of white rhinos grazing in the bushes.  Rhinos are being poached at an immense rate, threatening their continued existence on this planet.  Traditional Chinese Medicine is the main culprit, as they believe the horns can cure anything from headaches to comas.  Yet, they are such a beautiful creature, so ancient in their body engineering, it's hard to imagine someone coming along and torturing these innocent beasts and killing them in the name of medicines that are not even proven to work.  

Farther along the road we watched elephants (eles, as they like to call them here) gracefully move their thick bodies through the trees, we came across a pair of sleeping male lions, we tracked a female leopard, and finished off the day watching a pride of lion in the grass;  two females with eight young ones all peeking up at us with their huge eyes, and round fluffed ears... These little lions are definitely my favorite sighting of all.  Yet, each time I go out I think to myself, "That was my favorite"... Then I see something else and say "No, no, now that was my favorite by far!"   That's the fun of the bush, it's like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gunna get.  


Ntseveni school

Today, it was just Charlie and I.  He met me at the gate and drove me to three different schools in Dumphries.  My mission was to take photos so that we can start to rebuild the collection of photographs which had all been lost this past year.  It was also to say hello and see how things are going.  

The first school was Ntseveni Day Care, where I met the lovely Miss Sandra.  She took me around the two areas of her school, showing me the various class rooms and explaining the history of how each part has come to be.  It opened in 2005 with just one tiny brick building that had to hold over forty students. That small space is now used as storage and an office.  I couldn't believe that within those cramped walls used to be a classroom of 40!  She told me how Africa Foundation helped out around 2011 and built a larger classroom and also proper toilet facilities.  "Before that,"  she explained, "we had to just have buckets down on the ground with seats and we had to make a cover around them." Then P'nP came and helped to build another classroom as the school's population started growing, and now they have also added another which is just awaiting more furniture and school supplies.  Ntseveni has nine staff, and about 175 children.  I learned they get paid 1,000 Rand per month, which in US dollars is equivalent to about $100.  The children's 100R tuition helps pay for this, but it is still not enough to have food for them when they are at school.  Sandra shows me a small brick hut which is half finished, "That is where we want to stock bread so that the children can eat when they are here, but we have not been able to finish it, and we don't know when it will be done."  30R is enough to buy bread for the whole school, she tells me, but even if a truck full of bread arrived, there would be no place to keep it.  When I asked Sandra what she felt they needed most right now, the first thing she said was "a kitchen."  She pointed over to the brick wall where a woman was hunching over a pot and continued, "It is difficult to cook in the rain, we need a kitchen with a roof."  Other than these things, the school is alive and bustling with smiles and playful little bodies everywhere.  They have two lovely play areas, one which was built by the Virgin Unite crew two years ago, and the other which was donated by Pn'P.  They smile, laugh, and look at me curiously.  As I signed the guest book when I left, I noticed that I was the first visitor since November. Sandra says to me with hope in her eyes, "I would be so happy if you came back..."  I would be too, and hope that I do.    




On our visit yesterday around the village, David shared a lot of information with us about the local people, traditions, and history.  One of the things I found most interesting is that there are no orphanages here. There are many children without parents, yes.  But they do not believe in taking these kids and pulling them from their homes to put them in a different, separate home that labels them as orphans.  

When the Sabi Sand reserve was created, somewhere around 90 years ago, the people here were living amongst the animals, co existing as they had done for millennia.  When the National Parks Act was created, the local landowners were excised from the land and they were moved to villages that were contained outside the perimeter of the game reserve.  The government still gives each family land.  If the parents both die, the children stay on their land and their extended families and neighbors watch out for them.  David tells us that everyone is your mom or your dad here.  "My dad's brother is my dad as well, I call him 'dad'."  Families are very tight, yet they cannot support more children financially, so that is where community outreach comes in.  Pride & Purpose makes sure that these children are taken care of, both financially and emotionally.  

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When we met the class at Akani primary school yesterday, one of the teachers Flores told me that the little girl I was playing with was an orphan.  "Her name is Tambo, she has no parents."  She told me.  It's hard to contain just how many children are burrowing into my soul here.  Tambo is definitely added to the list with her sweet demeanor and playful spirit.  As Sue told me last week, (the woman who has adopted two children from the villages and lives in the city) "It is actually quite difficult for white people to adopt black children here.  They like to keep them with their own culture and traditions."  At first, I was taken aback by this, but she went on to explain, "The cultures are just so different," she says "their food, their language, it's like adopting a child from Mexico for you, just completely different."  As much as I see this point, I guess I'm more immune to the 'culture shock' because of how we in America tend to adopt outside our culture more often than not.  I was more surprised at the fact that the government made it difficult for anyone to adopt, seeing as there were so many orphaned children in the country.  As a friend of Sue's told her, "Sue, if you had ten bedrooms, you would adopt ten children!"  I am getting to know how she feels... If I could, I would buy a school bus and load it up with these precious little guys and gals and drive it all the way back home.  



It's so beautiful, sundowner time.  I pull my chair out in front of my thatched roof home, pour a heap of ice and some white wine into my favorite goblet glass, and just feel the breeze, watch the sun set behind the koppie (hill), and listen to the local music start to sound from the round of staff housing across the way.  Birds swirl above, sprays of chatter and occasional bursts of laughter fill the air, and I sit in complete adoration of where I am in this special place in time.  The sisters have left this afternoon for the lodge above, so I am alone in this place tonight, as I will be for the next week ahead.  I find peace and a good solitude in it, able to sit and write, edit, think, ponder, appreciate... I miss my ladies (and young gents), but I am happy to have this time for my mind to release, and to sit in my own thoughts for awhile.  There are plenty of people surrounding me in this village, about thirty some-odd tiny homes, so I feel very comforted and safe.  

This morning I went along with David Khoza as he took some lodge visitors around Dumphries to show them what Pride & Purpose does in the community.  There were a couple women and their daughters from Brazil as well as an American newlywed couple from New York.  We visited a few schools, played with the kids, and learned a lot about this area, its history, and the people.  The rest of the day I spent in my new home editing photos and catching up.  The following is a little collage of some of my favorite captures from the past week.  I hope you enjoy... And, thanks again for following this journey, it means a lot to know I am writing to friends.  Much love, s.  



Today we headed out farther into the village to visit the school which our fellow volunteer Kerrie has funded, Tizameleni.  Kerrie is here with her two sisters, Helene and Adrienne, along with Helene's two amazing teen aged sons, Finn and Callum.  She fell in love with Ulusaba over three years ago while on safari and has since returned three to four times a year from England.  Her heart is totally enmeshed in this place, both with the children and with the wild life.  "The first time you hear a lion roar,"  she says "you are a changed person forever."  

The day today was hot.  The feel factor was close to 45 degrees, and the ladies were painting in the direct sun at noon.  It was scorching, but they wanted to finish before they leave tomorrow morning for the lodge.  Jen, who works at the lodge down the road, Leopard Hills, also came with today, and will be my partner for the next week.   We'll be returning daily to Tizameleni to help the teachers create lesson plans and get a program going for the new school.  She set up a hand painting station, and I helped funnel the kids in to mash their hands in trays of green, yellow, and blue paint, and transfer their colorful fingers onto a sheet of paper.  Their little eyes wide with confusion, as they were a bit baffled as to why these white women were dipping their hands in paint and squashing them down.  Of course, in true Shelly fashion, my radar set on one little girl who stole the very core of my soul.  I found out later that her name is Tabile.  She has the most infectious laugh, and that together with the dimple on her left cheek officially made her the cutest child on the planet...or at least in Africa.  

At first, when I found out that the sisters were leaving tomorrow and I would be by myself here at Dagga Boys for the rest of my stay, I was a little freaked out.  But today it all came together... Jen and I will be partners in crime for a few days, David Khoza (the other host of Pride & Purpose) and I will also be pairing up so that I can go around to all of the projects here taking photographs, I have so many portraits yet to take, and so many people to hand cameras to... I feel like I have only a blink of an eye to squeeze in all I want to accomplish.  There is no place on earth I'd rather be right here, right now.  I am truly blessed! 


Kids will be kids...

I wasn't expecting to begin the project yesterday, it just naturally happened.  While interacting with them and taking their photos, they all want to see the picture on the back of the camera.  They pose, then run to you and grab at your camera to see.  I showed them that the little arrow is the button you push to see your photo, and instantly had twenty little fingers all over searching for it.  They see their photo, giggle, squeal, and then run back to take more.  I found myself turning to one child, Danelle, and putting the strap around her neck.  I showed her where the button was to take the picture, "Push here" I said, she said "La", which I gather means "here", and within two seconds, she had it down.  She looked at me with wide eyes that she now had control of the camera, smiled, and ran to her friends to take their photos.  This happened with about ten children, then I ran to my bag to pull out my little green camera (which is about 1,000 times less expensive!) and let them pass it around.  The following photos are what they did on their very first day of taking photographs.  It was so fun to see them pose like little models with their friends, I saw their attitudes come out as they tried to put their most serious faces on to look cool.  Turns out, kids are kids, no matter if they live in the big city or in the bush.    


Familiar little faces.

The minute I stepped off the truck and onto the community center playground, I see a little body running towards me, her arms wide open as she barrels right into me with a hug.  It was my sweetest little girl from last year, I recognized her straight away.  She wore a red and white polka dot dress the last time I saw her, today she had a denim one on.  I said to her, "I remember you!  You have a beautiful red polka dot dress."  She nodded, I couldn't tell if she understood me, but she looked up at me and smiled with those big brown eyes and bald head.  She squeezed me again, then grabbed my hand.  Yes, I was back. This is what I had been waiting for.  

Then the others started running in, one by one, I searched their little faces to see if I recognized them too.  Yes!  There was the little guy that gave us all those cool arms-crossed poses last year, and the girl from the balloon shot, and then the cutie that had stickers all over her face... I was so happy to see them, I hugged as many as I could and then felt the insane smile overcome my face as they all piled around me, I didn't have enough hands for them to grab.  

As I looked around the community center, I saw the swings still standing proudly that Steve and Ted built, the play set we put together was crawling with children, the trampoline was dug into the ground (and had only just ripped last week, Lindsay told me, which I was astounded by due to the number of kids on that thing at any given time!), the garden we planted was overgrown but lush.  I walked over to the swing set and started brushing off the dirt around the cement at the end of the poles.  We had all carved our names there last year, and I wanted to see them appear for me again.  Steve... Ted... 2012... How sweet it was to see our names and remember the day we all kneeled around and celebrated our friendships and our time at Dumphries.  

We spent the next couple hours painting a beautiful mural on the side of the building, the three other women volunteers are Michelangelo incarnate, I swear!  In between (probably more honestly, most of the time),  I wandered out and around to find the children and take photos, cuddle, and play.  I gave them my camera and showed them how to take a photo and also how to see it, and especially how to make sure the strap was around their necks!  One after the other took turns being photographer, and in seeing their excitement and pride in being able to take a photograph themselves, I knew that this trip was destined to be.  As we left Dumphries, they ran after our backie (pick up truck in SA) waving goodbye and squealing.  What a beautiful sight.  The following photo was taken by a boy called Shade, a star photographer has just been born.  


First morning in Ulu

I've been dreaming of the early morning sunrise in Ulusaba for the past year and a half, longing to sit on the stoop with my Nescafe and breath in the African bush air.  The mornings here are precious, there is a golden hue on everything, bird's songs are all around you, the air is calm and peaceful.  Then the lodge workers begin to stir and you see beautiful people walk past speaking in a language you've never heard, they turn to me and smile & wave, greeting me with a "Good morning, how are you?"  I love how everyone says hello, everyone waves.  

We are going to the village this morning at 8:30 to work until the sun gets too hot, probably around 1 pm. The community center is getting a coat of paint and a mural, I look forward to being back there to see how it looks a year later.  Lindsay told me the trampoline just broke, which I was amazed about because there are always at least ten kids pouncing on it at any given time.  

I laugh at how it took me six days to get here, but it was worth every minute.  The journey here was epic, meeting beautiful friends on the flights, reconnecting with a special soul in Jo'burg, being taken in by a lovely woman in Nelspruit, and getting a ride the last two hours to Ulu, seeing giraffe, elephant, and zebra in our first five minutes inside the gates.  

So much to write, I could be here at my laptop all day long... so for now I'll sign off and go enjoy the morning air some more...  Photos to come later!  

Yellow moon arriving

Whenever I am anxious or afraid of a future journey, I just need to think back to this day. 

What amazing people I've met so far, and it's technically only the first 'day'... Even though it must have been two at leas.  I mean, I've eaten four dinners, slept three times, had five rounds of wine-bubbly, watched two movies and all of the latest season of The Mindy Project (which, by the way, I believe is the best show on non-tv, and not only do I have a girl crush on her, but find myself actually wanting to BE her.  Well, maybe not, but I do love the show.)  Anyways, this kind of adventure is what I live for.  Starting off, I thought this journey was going to be so long and so difficult, until I would finally reach my destination of Ulusaba.  What became clear over the past 24 hours, and what I probably knew deep down to begin with, is that the journey really IS the magic, not just the destination.  Meeting Nicole from Melbourne in the stand by line and loving her to bits and pieces, laughing out loud in the Etihad lounge amongst the room full of austere men, having Peter the barman run over to keep our glasses full and snap shots of us with our iphones, waiving a cheerful goodbye to everyone as I bolted out the door, running late because I couldn't tear myself away from the fun we were having with conversations about travel, life, growing up, and being kindred spirits;  the luck of being seated next to another Nicole from the US/Portugal/Brazil on board the flight, (she was supposed to be working the flight but had a cold soar, and had to call out sick because of the strict appearance standards that Etihad holds) chatting about the flying life, Abu Dhabi, and adventure;  striking up conversation with Jason, a native South African from Durban who's job is to deliver boats across the seas and was on his way home until his next assignment;  feeling the camaraderie from the beautiful mixture of international souls that made up the flight crew, all of us finding ways to send little treats to each other...chocolates, bubbly, tea, stories...

I'm so excited to be in South Africa when I step off the plane, happily far away from everything familiar for the next three weeks, surrounded by possibility.  Away from the usual, my heart beat is energized by the little gems of each turn.  I feel wonderfully vulnerable and open, yet admittedly still slightly nervous.  This is a good beginning, and I cheers this last glass of bubbly as I watch the deep, yellow moon outside the window as the faint lights of Africa start to appear below.  Hello again...

The Africa Project: An overveiw

For all of you who are wondering about what I'm doing this month, here's a little glimpse!

As most of you know, last year I was beyond blessed to have been chosen to represent Virgin on an ambassador/mission trip to South Africa.  Little did I know how much I was about to fall in love... The week I spent in Africa was one of, if not the, best week of my life so far.  They say once you go to Africa, a bug bites you, and you will forever dream of returning.  This happened to me in 2005 during my first time there where I spent a month in & around Cape town.  There is indeed something special and unexplainable about it.  I could go on & on, but I'll cut to the chase and share with you my project for 2014.  

I'll be returning to Ulusaba, Richard Branson's private game reserve about eight hours drive from Johannesburg.  

As they did last year, the amazing charitable organization Pride & Purpose will be hosting me, and I am really excited to see everyone again!  My purpose in returning is to embark on a photo project that in turn helps the people of the surrounding village of Dumphries.  I'll be bringing cameras down to teach a bit about photography and how to capture their world using the lens.  I will curate a collection of their photographs to come up with a gallery that we will hang at their community center (which we helped put together last year!)   Visitors from the lodge will have the opportunity to purchase these one of a kind pieces of art, and the money will go directly back into the community. Additionally, I'll be taking portraits of the people who live in the village, as well as the volunteers and staff, and creating a photo documentation of life in & around Ulusaba.  I plan to put together a show back here in San Francisco, and send the proceeds to Pride & Purpose.  

Pride & Purpose

Many people might ask the question, "Why do you have to go so far to volunteer?  Why Africa?  Why not right here in your own backyard?"  I've contemplated this question a lot, and what I have some to realize is this:  When you are far away from anything familiar and comfortable, you really have the chance to sink in to what you are doing.  There are no distractions, no Facebook events to attend, no sunny day at Dolores Park to play hookie for, no checking your phone every five minutes for texts.  Your soul gets to really be there, and with that, it gets a little shake up, your senses are heightened, you actually feel yourself living every moment.  This is just my own experience, but it is pretty powerful.  

Returning for this project makes my heart skip.  I am nervous, I have expectations for myself that may or may not get realized, I don't know exactly what I'm doing... But it feels good to be afraid and go anyway.  I have an idea of what I am going for, but I look forward to it morphing into something totally different.  Richard Avedon said, "You have to be surprised for it to be magical."  

If you would like to contribute to this project, please donate to my Indiegogo campaign at http://igg.me/p/623317/x/1052876.  The money I raise will go towards my travel expenses (airfare, bus, cost to check baggage-photo equipment, etc), software for photo editing, and time & cost of preparing the art shows both in Ulusaba and SF.  Each person who contributes will be gifted with an original 8X10 or larger print from Dumphries.

I thank you all tremendously for all of your support, & cheering me on!  I couldn't do this without all of your encouragement.