Madelyn In TCI: Another Perspective

November 11, 2019

This morning I woke up at 6 am for a bit of peace before classes. The sun was just beginning to rise: plum clouds towered against a peach backdrop, a silver crescent moon still shining high in the sky. Our first class was presenting our results from surveys that we did the week before on Providenciales (or Provo, as the locals call it). We went along the beach and shops hoping to find tourists willing to fill out our one-page survey. The experience taught me sympathy for anybody who approaches me asking to fill out a survey in the future, because it wasn’t always fun. Fortunately, a lot of the people we asked were very friendly and didn’t mind taking a few minutes to fill it out. My group was investigating tourists’ willingness to learn about environmentally friendly choices while traveling.

We found that most tourists were very interested in learning more about making simple yet impactful decisions they can make for the environment, and that most hotels and resorts aren’t providing this information to their guests. Tourism can be very harmful to the local ecosystems, mainly due to lack of knowledge. For example, most tourists don’t know that standard sunscreen has chemicals that are harmful to coral reefs. Worse, the brand “Reef-Safe” sunscreen still contains oxybenzone, which is the primary damaging ingredient. If you’re looking for a sunscreen that is actually safe for the environment, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are the best active ingredients. Presenting our results to our classmates was interesting, and we recommended that hotels and resorts begin providing their guests with more eco-friendly information to mitigate the impact that tourism typically has on the environment.

The beach in Provo.

After lunch, we had class at 2 pm. Our professor and all of us were fairly exhausted from the previous days so we watched “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” a film that takes aspects of our culture that we take for granted and turned it into a bit of a parody, showing the absurdity of everything. I would highly recommend the movie; it’s a good laugh but also subtly introduces deep philosophical arguments.

After, we had a bit of a break, so I took a walk to the Boiling Hole. The Boiling Hole is in the center of the Salinas, where they used to collect salt. It is a hole where water rises during the high tide and goes down during low tide. The islanders built a cement wall with a door around it, and they used it to control the amount of saltwater in the Salinas to optimize salt collection. Now it is a historical site on the island and a peaceful place to sit and think. The walk typically features flamingos and many other migratory birds that birdwatchers find interesting, but I don’t know many of their names.  

After dinner we went out to the basketball tournament. Once a year, South Caicos hosts a basketball tournament against teams from the other islands, and the community is very proud of their team. Rightly so, South crushed the team from Provo, the mainland, 86-0 the first night! Even though I’m only a visitor here, I felt a sense of pride and satisfaction to watch South win. These are same kids I help weekly with math homework, who’s high school is still being rebuilt after the hurricane two years ago, who face more challenges in their young life already than I can even imagine. Yet despite that, they won so completely against teams from much more privileged places in the TCI.

Sunset over the Sea.


Camellia Travels the World: I Wish You All the Happiness

November 6, 2019

Time flies so fast! We already departed Chile and came to our third destination, Nepal. We come, again, at the best time for celebration. Navratri is a ten-day celebration in the autumn for harvest after the monsoon season. Dashain is the tenth day and the biggest day of the festival.

On the ninth night, there is a mask dance. Only selected community members can perform this. Once they put on masks, it is believed that they are possessed by gods. They start dancing from streets, going around neighborhoods, until they reach the Durbar Square in the center of the town.

We were lucky to catch the tail end of the festival and spend time with our host family. After an exhausting day of celebration with other family members, our host parents came home early and performed the whole ritual for us. As they were preparing, I snuck in to watch the process. One crucial element in Hinduism is Tika. Elders put tika on the forehead of younger relatives to bless them with abundance in the upcoming years. The red also symbolizes the blood that ties the family together. Each family has its own “recipe;” generally, one would mix rice, yogurt, and red coloring from roses to make tika.

Me getting tika from our host father.

After everything was set, we went in pairs, kneeling on the mats in front of our host parents. Our host dad put tika onto our foreheads to give us blessings and a black mark to protect us from evil. Then, he said a prayer in Nepali, which could roughly be translated as: “I wish you all the happiness, health, luck, and all good things happen upon you.” At the end, he also patted our heads. Then, our host mom gave us a handful of things: new paper money, a new coin, a fruit, and some sweets. These symbolize good harvest and wealth.

Family Photo. In the front are our host parents, and in the back are our host siblings .

Having this cultural experience was already incredibly amazing; yet, something even more miraculous happened: the Kumari (living goddess in Hinduism) came to our neighborhood to give blessings.

To be named a Kumari, a young girl has to pass dozens of tests to prove her righteous deity. For example, she should have never shed any blood (got any scar) or lost any teeth. She should not be afraid of evil. To test her bravery against evil, the candidate will be put into a dark room with masked men dancing around and heads of animals illuminated with candles. If she expresses any fear, she will be ruled out. Once a girl becomes a Kumari, she will stay in Kumari Ghar, a palace in the center of the city, and perform rituals for the disciples.

Kumari rarely comes out of the palace, but only for special occasions. In the past, Kumari would go to the king’s palace to perform rituals for royalty. After the abolishment of monarchy, she has been paying visits to the neighborhood of the descendants. Four families in our neighborhood are connected with the king, including my host family. Thus, she came to our neighborhood and stayed in the house of the senior member in the community.

Patan Durbar Square at night.

At nine o’clock at night, she was carried into the community by her father. Many children ran to meet the Kumari. They worshiped her by touching her feet, and some put her feet onto their heads, getting blessings. Then, she was brought into the house and closed the door. My host brother said that the Kumari had to perform a series of rituals secretly. After a moment, her father came to re-open the door to the line of people waiting to receive blessings.

It is a mental juggling practice for me to comprehend the role of the Kumari. From a western point of view, the role of Kumari is so radically against individual’s rights: she has no freedom of movement as she cannot walk; she cannot talk to anyone other than her family; she used to not receive any education (now there will be a private tutor for her); and she “retires” once she receives her first period. Yet, for Nepalis, the Kumari is the manifestation of the divine female energy. She is the living vessel of Goddess, as she embodies innocence, courage, and spirit. So, should we appreciate the role of Kumari as a cultural and religious tradition or critique it with our western “civilized” ideologies?

Anyway, this was a once in a lifetime experience, and I truly appreciate being able to participate in this celebration.

Another important element of the festival is gambling family members will gather and play cards together. By the way, I won enough money for a meal!


Madelyn In TCI: Exploring the Islands

October 30, 2019

This past week we had our mid-semester field trip, which ended on Providenciales (Provo). It was incredible to see the other islands and experience such different cultures within the same country. First, we took a ferry from South Caicos to North Caicos, and the difference between the islands was drastic. North’s soil is much more fertile than the other islands, and it was quite evident when looking at the vegetation. There were so many large trees replacing the basic shrubs that survive the droughts on South. At times it felt almost like a jungle on North, and the mosquitoes were just as bad! We went to Wade’s Plantation, which is a historical site of the oldest plantation in Turks and Caicos. The tour of it was somewhat brief because of the mosquitoes, but we learned more about it later that evening. Apparently, the original historians who looked at the site got EVERYTHING wrong, but made signs around the site labeling each building (incorrectly) that now can’t be taken down as it could damage the structural integrity of the buildings. We also learned that the majority of residents of the TCI have ancestors who used to be enslaved on Wade’s Plantation, or other similar plantations.

After we left Wade’s Plantation, we drove to Mudjin Harbor, on Middle Caicos. The second we saw the water, everybody’s jaw dropped. It was beyond stunning. We went swimming for a while and felt that we were in the most beautiful beach in the world.

Overlook at Mudjin Harbor

After Mudjin Harbor, we headed over to the Conch Bar Caves in Middle Caicos. There are many different species of bats inside, which our guide pointed out to us. They were all very cute and sleeping, so I was guilty shining my light on them. I know I’d be pretty upset if somebody came up to my bed in the middle of the night and shined a bright light on me. We also learned that the cave system had been occasionally used by the Lucayans, the now-extinct natives. We learned later that the Lucayans used the caves more as a punishment for ostracized members, believing that it was connected to the underworld. One room was named the Christmas Room, because it was believed that the Lucayans came in there to celebrate Christmas and sing hymns, due to the wonderful acoustics. Despite the fact that Lucayans would’ve never heard of Christianity. The first historians who tried to define the TCI did not do a very good job, but their misnomers appear to be a bit of a joke now.

We had a little break in the late afternoon to rest at the community center where we would spend the night, then went for dinner and a bonfire at a local’s house. He goes by Naqqi and seems to know everything about all of the islands. Naqqi studied at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, which happens to be where my parents went to college! Sometimes the world feels very small. He told us more about Wade’s Plantation, the Conch Bar Caves, and history of the island in general. It’s amazing how well-informed many of the locals are in their history and culture; talking to them is always a treat and offers a lot more information than any class can cover. I would’ve enjoyed staying to talk to him more about everything, but many of us were getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. I had at least 40 bites despite long pants and several reapplications of bug spray, and I was one of the more fortunate in our group. That night we all had a make-shift slumber party on floor mats in the community center. We were all quite dirty and gross, but without a shower available, we consoled ourselves with the understanding that we were all in the same boat. It was a busy, adventurous day. I really enjoyed exploring different parts of the country and understanding more about what happens outside of South Caicos.


Camellia Travels the World: “Defending the Land is Defending Our Mother”

October 29, 2019

Mari Mari, my friends! (Hello in Mapudungun, the native language of the Mapuche people).

After weeks of crazy busy city life in Santiago, we escaped to the south of Chile. No, it is not Patagonia, but a lovely town called Curarrehue. On the border of Argentina, Curarrehue is home to the Mapuche people, an indigenous community that inhabit south-central Chile and southwestern Argentina. We stayed with community members while learning about their ideologies and struggles through talks and site visits.

My host mom Ida. She is the kindest person I have ever met in my life. She makes the best Chappi (hot pepper sauce) and sopaipillas!

 

Ida is an amazing artisan. She makes beautiful hand crafts to decorate her home. She also gave me a small handmade basket as a gift.

The Mapuche community has a strong connection with nature; to be more accurate, they are considered to be a part of nature. “Defending the land is defending our mother,” they repeated many times. Thus, they are willing to do anything to protect mother nature, against the biggest perpetrators – the Chilean state and private companies. Because of their geographical location and potential resources, many mining companies come into their space, using hydro-powered machines to extract minerals. The Chilean state, even though declares water as common goods, sells the use of the river to private companies. The Mapuche people know that they don’t have power to resist companies from coming, thus they turn to nature and pray for rivers to protect themselves. The people believe in the spirits of nature and share their lives with these spirits.

I honestly did not quite grasp their belief in spirits of nature until I sat by the river and watched the flow. All I could see was the beautiful view of the mountains, and all I could hear was the harmonious sound of water. At that moment, I finally started to comprehend the worship of water and worship of nature. This scene also took me back to my freshman spring semester, when I took a class called Geographic Dimensions and Human Development. I read an article about Fiji indigenous people’s struggle with the Fiji Water industry. Again, I had some sympathy for them at the time, yet I did not quite understand their difficulty. This serene moment by the river finally made me comprehend the issue for the Mapuche and for Fiji Islanders. Water, as a natural resource and an essential need, should not and never be a privatized source for profit. It is such a capitalist idea to take water away from human lives for money; this is a serious violation of human rights.

The river at Regiolil near Curarrehue.

Forests also play a significant role in the Mapuche culture. The people go into the mountains for months, dancing and singing by the woods, giving trees love and company. In their philosophy, one should always ask for permission from nature when entering an unfamiliar place. And to show their gratitude, they also bring some offerings to nature as well.

On the weekend, we went hiking near Volcano Lanin. Before we started, we came by a river at the foot of the mountain. Our guides told us that if we ask for permission from nature sincerely, then mother nature will protect us in the wilderness. Thus, I closed my eyes and prayed in my mind, “thank you for letting us into your space. I promise I will take good care of all my actions in your place.” After praying, one guide took out a bag of flour, grabbed a handful, and placed it in the river. “This is a gesture to thank mother nature,” another guide explained.

After the ritual, everyone felt refreshing and well-protected; thus, we started hiking. For the first few minutes, it was just like other hikes in the woods. However, after a moment, there appeared patches of snow. Then, without knowing, we were stepping into several feet of snow. Two years of life in Virginia did not prepare me well to walk on snowy land. I slipped several times and fell into the snow twice with snow up to my thigh. Luckily, there were many friends well experienced and managed to pull me out of my plight (literally and figuratively).

Our group picture in front of Volcano Lanin.

 

My roomie and me presenting Volcano Lanin.

The whole hiking trip was about five hours. We stopped here and there to appreciate nature and views, and we also learned about special species of trees and seeds in the woods. One guide recounted that he used to come into the woods with his family, helping to find good spots to plant seeds. Yet, the trees’ rate of growth was much slower than the humans’ speed of cutting. “Those Europeans love turning woods into furniture,” he joked.

It was a very short and joyful hiking tour, and I had a taste of the Mapuche’s intimate connection and affection of mother nature. For a people that have been living there for thousands of years, nature runs in their blood. The Mapuche people faced Spanish invasion and Chilean oppression, yet they are staying strong to defend themselves and defend their mother nature. This is a spirit that I shall carry forever.

A meeting cabin for leaders. On the left, you can find two flags. The one on the left is the flag of Chilean Mapuche, and the one on the right is the ancestral flag.


Madelyn In TCI: Hunting Lionfish

October 23, 2019

Today was a rather busy day for me but it’s difficult to complain when I enjoy everything that I’m doing! In the morning I went with my professor to help clean up Sargassum from one of the beaches on South Caicos. We drove in Big Red to a spot near the other side of the island; it was a beautiful drive! All of the rain in the past weeks has transformed the entire island, bringing up lush grasses and turning the leaves a vibrant green. Compared to the brown, straggly shrubbery that dominated the island when we first arrived, the island seemed to me nearly a rain forest (with just as many mosquitoes). Unfortunately, the dirt road to our destination was flooded for a significant portion, so we had to turn around and hope to try again the following week.

Flooded Road

When we got back to the research center, I went to elementary school for community outreach. Today I was in the kindergarten classroom and showed them about Australian animals; I found the best way to occupy the young children’s attention is by showing them pictures of animals and acting them out. I might actually be getting the hang of how to interact with kids! 

Hanging with Kids

After lunch, I had a lionfish hunting dive. Lionfish are a terribly successful invasive species. They’re very beautiful looking and were traded as exotic aquarium fish. They first appeared in the ocean off the coast of Florida in 1985, and since then have spread all throughout the Caribbean Sea and up the east coast of the U.S. Their venomous spines protect them from any potential natural predators, and they eat an absurd amount of all fish species, decimating local populations. Lionfish have a very fascinating method of hunting: they fan out their fins and spines to corral their prey into a corner, then unhinge their jaw and quickly suction their prey into their mouths.

Lionfish

For our dive, I laid out a 100 meter transect while the rest of the group followed slightly behind me and looked around the rocks and in crevices for lionfish. Although it took a little while, one of our group members finally spotted a small lionfish and pointed it out to our professor, who had a spear. The lionfish’s invulnerability was rather evident in its behavior; it hovered in front of a rock, seemingly unperturbed by the approach of a human. The spear went right through the lionfish and crunched on the rocks behind it, a very abrupt sound underwater. As the lionfish was put into the bin carried by our waterfront assistant, we recorded the time, depth, habitat, and other useful information about the capture.

When we got back to the research center, we dissected the lionfish. First, we had to cut off all the spines to avoid getting pricked; they’re still dangerous after death. Our professor dug through the fat and found the stomach, which had 2 fish inside of it; one of them was missing its head. Both fish were surprisingly large in comparison to the size of the lionfish. Once we had collected all of the necessary information, we added it to a large spreadsheet with all of the information about lionfish captures in the area. Since the lionfish have no natural predators and are very destructive to the ecosystem, there has been a lot of research and effort to control their numbers and spread. That’s one of the projects that School for Field Studies in South Caicos is working on. The staff go out every Sunday for these lionfish hunts, which appear to be fairly successful when done this often. It was very interesting to help out with the project, although I honestly felt a little bit morally unsound with taking part in killing another creature. It’s an odd dilemma: on one hand, the lionfish are extremely harmful to the environment and the other organisms that live there. On the other hand, a lionfish is still a living creature that is just very well-adapted and was born in the wrong place. I suppose this is a common dilemma when dealing with invasive species, and I’ll just have to figure out how to excuse it. So much for science always being black and white!


Camellia Travels the World: Special Month in Chile

October 21, 2019

We come to Chile at a special time. September is an important month in Chilean history.

On September 11, 1973, the world’s infamous dictator Pinochet led a coup d’état to overthrow the Socialist Chilean government. On that horrific day, the city of Santiago was overwhelmed by air raids and ground attacks over the presidential palace. Under the terror, President Allende vowed to remain in the presidential palace as a confrontation against the threats. He calmly delivered his final speech to the nation via radio: “My words do not have bitterness but disappointment. May there be a moral punishment for those who have betrayed their oath…the only thing left for me is to say to workers: I am not going to resign! Placed in a historic transition, I will pay for loyalty to the people with my life.” 

Flag to commemorate President Allende. The quote is from his last speech: “The history is ours, and people make history.”

The violence did not cease after the death of Allende. Under the dictatorship, numerous citizens were abused and tortured. According to the Commission of Truth and Reconciliation, the number of direct victims of human rights violations accounts for around 30,000 people; they were taken as political prisoners in concentration camps. Approximately 4,500 people were executed, and around 200,000 people were forced to exile.

In order to commemorate these victims of political violence, people gather for peaceful marches and ceremonies on September 11 every year. After learning and discussing the dark history, we went to one memorial site – Estadio Nacional – at night for the commemoration ceremony.

The Candlelight Ceremony outside of Estadio Nacional.

Walking into the tunnel around the stadium, I was overwhelmed by the heavy ambiance inside. The ceiling of the tunnel was not too low, yet I felt it was barely above my head; the lights were brightly incandescent, yet the tunnel was still so dim; the paint on the wall had fallen out, and it was full of marks from history. On the walls, there was a photograph exhibition that reveals the  terror that people had gone through.

Thousands of people were captured, detained, and tortured at this specific site.

Inside the modern stadium, there was a remaining section with wooden benches surrounded by modern plastic seats. Many people put flowers and notes on the fence to pay their tribute. A group of us went inside the fence and sat on the benches for a while, trying to absorb the atmosphere and comprehend the fear and despair in the dark.

The fenced section inside the Estadio Nacional dedicated to memorializing the horror of 1973.

On a lighter note, September 18 is the National Day of Chile. On September 18, 1810, the Independence movement began in opposition to the rule of its colonizer, Spain. The Independence movement lasted more than a decade, but at last in 1826, the last Spanish troops surrendered, and the Chilean Republic was established. Thus, the Chileans have a week of celebration for their independence.

We went on a cultural “site visit” – going to a fonda. It is a carnival fair for a whole week, where people can buy food and beverages, dance Cueca (a traditional dance), play games, and watch rodeo. There were several fondas taken place in Santiago, so I went to the one at Parque Padre Hurtado, closest to my homestay.

My giant smile and double chin with Terremoto (a drink made of pipeno wine, grenadine, and pineapple ice cream) and Anticucho (a meat skewer).

Anyway, it was a lot of up-and-down feelings in one week. On the one hand, we memorialized and honored the dead from the horror of coup d’etat; on the other hand, we celebrated the thrilling independence of Chile. It was a full cultural experience.


Madelyn In TCI: Classroom Outreach

October 10, 2019

This Wednesday it rained, hard. I woke up at 6:30 when the rain began, and it sounded like the entire sky was falling down on us. The wind blew the water sideways and I moved my things away from the windows to keep them dry. We don’t have classes on Wednesdays and Saturdays; they’re dedicated to waterfront and community outreach. After breakfast, we learned that all of the dives for the day were cancelled, on account of the constant thunder. Instead, I signed up for as many outreach events as possible. It was still pouring when we got in the truck, ‘Big Red’, and drove to the Christian elementary school. There were five of us, plus our staff member. We ran from the truck into a small building that looked more like a house, and the woman who ran the school opened up the door for us as we ducked inside, already dripping from the rain. Inside, we found the teacher and only one, small, lonesome student. Apparently, nobody else showed up on account of the rain so the teacher cancelled class, but this one girl ‘snuck in’. The teacher didn’t have a number to call for the girl and didn’t know who she was staying with now. The idea that this 5-year-old girl was being shuffled around in homes on the island struck me as very odd and concerning, but I didn’t feel it my place to pry. 

Big Red and Little Red

After the failed attempt for the Christian elementary school, I went to the public elementary school. My goal there was to educate the 1st grade students about a different country. However, there was only one, very dedicated girl in the 1st grade classroom. Since I don’t do well with large groups of children, I was rather relieved. She was very sweet and respectful, and she was extremely interested in the presentation of Australia and Madagascar animals that we showed her during our presentations. I was honestly most impressed when she reviewed the information that my fellow scholar showed her about Madagascarian animals and described to me how a particular lemur uses its long finger to tap on the tree and listen for the buzz of insects. It was the first very obvious proof of my making a difference in the education of a young child, and I took it to heart. For the first time, I was somewhat disappointed when the hour was up and it was time to go.

The kindergarten class that I was to go to next was also cancelled, due to nobody showing up, so we went back to the research center. There, I learned that soccer practice for the afternoon was also cancelled, which was another outreach event I was scheduled to help with. As a result, the majority of my day was very relaxed, and I had time to get caught up on my work. Fortunately for me, my livelihood doesn’t depend on these activities.

I thought it was extremely strange that school should be cancelled just for a bit of rain; what should the island do if there were to be snow?! When I expressed my confusion to the staff at School for Field Studies, they told me that the rain tends to flood most of the streets in town. The arid land isn’t used to torrential downpours and doesn’t have the capacity to absorb the water, so it just flows in rivers along the streets. Since most of the students walk to school, this creates a serious problem for their attendance. It was fascinating to learn more about the circumstances that impact areas to disproportional degrees. It also made me consider that climate change increases the intensity of weather around the world. Already, South Caicos was in a deep drought from March to September, before these massive storms began during hurricane season. On a small scale, how might the escalation of these weather patterns affect simply the education of children on South Caicos? And how might it affect the general livelihoods of the residents of this island, living in such closeness and vulnerability to the patterns of the natural world?


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