20 May 2011

First Days at Kibbutz Lotan

Shalom to all,

I realize that I've been in Israel almost three weeks, and two and a half of those weeks here at Kibbutz Lotan, and have not put a posting on my blog for all that time, so now I should make up for that and tell you all what's been going on.

It's been an incredible time of discovery and I've seen and experienced so many new things in these few days since I've arrived, I hardly know where to start!

Firstly, Lotan is set in the middle of the Arava desert, far from any 'civilized' urban environment. The area is remote, very hot as can be expected from a desert, full of sand and dust. Sound good? Plus the kibbutz is surrounded by barbed wire and you can only get in via a gate which is guarded night and day. Sound better? I'm emphasizing this on purpose as a joke kind of, because while it is true that we are 'closed' in, you don't get the feeling of being closed in at all. It's just a normal requirement and all the kibbutzim in the area (and there are quite a few) have the same set-up.

One of the first things they tell you when you get here, on top of the normal tour of the kibbutz is, don't walk east. Cross the barbed wire, walk a couple of hundred meters and there you are in Jordan. There is peace with Jordan and it is not risky as such, but sensitive nevertheless, there have been incidents and the army patrols so.....keep to the west end of the kibbutz!

Kibbutz Lotan is a relatively young kibbutz, created in 1984 by members of the Reform Movement. They produce milk and cheese from cows and goats. All the produce is sold to the outside. It is still one of the more traditional kibbutzim where all the 'wealth' goes to the kibbutz, all the money people make on the outside goes straight into the kibbutz accounts. Because they don't have many members (55 adults plus about 60 kids) and some aspiring members, it is not a rich kibbutz, so they do rely a bit on tourism.

They are very well known in the region and further beyond as well for their knowledge of and dedication to sustainable living, and everything here, and I mean everything, is recycled. Natural products are used for their buildings (mud mostly, which provides for good insulation) and everything is composted, included the toilets, which for the most part are dry (not as bad as it sounds actually). They run Apprenticeship programs which go for 5 months or one year and take volunteers such as myself for one week up to whatever, to learn techniques relating to mud building, sustainable gardening and so forth.

Which is what I've been doing and while it was a little challenging at first, I now have got the hang of it and am contributing to the kibbutz by my hard work. And it is hard work. Up at 6AM when we do stretching and tai-chi movements together in a circle at the end of which we all hold hands and welcome the new day together (this is the holistic aspect of Lotan) and then we go off to our various duties until breakfast at 8:30 until 9:30 and then back to work until 2:30PM. So in actual fact, almost 8 hour days in the hot sun (does wonder for my tan and yes, I do wear sunscreen and a hat for those who would be tempted to question it;-). I have done a lot of mud working, and gardening, weeding, collecting seeds, preparing our ecological centre for visiting groups of kids.

I have also been joining in the various other activities on offer. On the occasion of Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Day) and Yom Ha'atzmaut (Independence Day), there were special little ceremonies I attended. There is of course the weekly Friday evening dinner with a little singing, which is nice. This coming Sunday there is the feast of Lag Ba'omer (not sure what it is, google it...) but it has something to do with bonfires, so that is what we are doing in the evening in an area outside of the kibbutz. I am also taking a couple of hebrew lessons every week (not easy, but I am making progress!) and of course I hear hebrew here all the time, so that helps in picking up a few words or phrases. And I'm continuing diligently my Veterinary Assistant online course, so my brain is frying a bit with all this new wealth of information!

I've been fortunate to befriend the lifeguard of the pool here, who is a french woman who made aliyah a few years ago. She and I will be spending a night and day at the Dead Sea next week, so that will be a nice change as well. Rolling around in the mud (again!) as it were, and rinsing off in the salty waters of the dead sea...I'm looking forward to that!

I have to add that people here are incredibly kind and welcoming and that is something I am not entirely used to. Surely it has to do with the nature of the kibbutz. Yesterday, the woman in charge of the eco volunteers who left for the States the day after I arrived, asked me if everything was alright and what could they do to make my stay more pleasant...I mean WOW! I was so taken aback that she should even think of asking me....nobody on my other projects had even considered that I might be wanting or lacking anything.

What else can I say? This part of the country is so remote and one can't say that being here in Lotan is really being in Israel. It is a very protected environment and while events are happening in other parts of the country, such as what happened in the Golan the other day, here life goes on as usual. When I asked one of the long term kibbutz members about that, he said, it's not that they are not interested, they are, but here in Israel, they take it one day at a time, and if they don't happen to turn on the news, they just don't know what's going on. And that applies to everywhere in Israel, not just here in the South. What we perceive as a huge occurrence for them is part of their daily life. They know it's happening but they go on with their life because there is nothing exceptional about a bomb going off in a bus in Jerusalem, for example. Not long ago, I met this Israeli woman, when I was in South Africa, and I asked her how people felt about that bomb that went off in the bus and she replied “which one?” And it's not that she didn't know, it's that it happens and they take it in their stride. Another man was telling me about Gaza and about when he was in the army. He was dressed in full combat uniform, like the Ninja turtle. He would cross the border into Gaza and would be like all the soldiers you see on TV and in the movies, and then he would cross back and go home or to the base and he would lead a normal Israeli life again. Just part of a day at work...Fascinating.....

Well, I'll leave you now with a few photos and hopefully my next posting will be sooner that this one has been.

Lehitraot, yom tov! (See ya and have a good day!)

 Very early morning walk in the desert...introducing Blanca....
 Scenery around the Kibbutz Lotan
 "Give your garbage a second chance" our Eco Kef or Eco Centre
 The children's playground at the Eco Kef
 More examples of mud created playground....soon my creation will be on here too!
 We do have a fantastic swimming pool ;-)
 Florence, my friend the lifeguard, on our early morning hike
Me and one of our LED lamps in the Bustan neighbourhood where we live in our mud made domes...

03 May 2011

First days in Israel

Well, hello everyone! I'm back, so to speak, as I am away again, but back on this blog...
I left Strasbourg again on May 1st to take the plane from Basel airport. When you board a plane going to Israel, you are immediately in the ambiance! Picture the scene: half the plane was Orthodox Jews all dressed in black as befits their tradition, with the appropriate number of children and strollers and suitcases to suit that number. We all settled into our seats with more or less discipline, the men putting up and taking down repeatedly bags, cases and other belongings including wigs (!), I am not kidding, and the plane took off. As soon as the seatbelt sign was turned off, all the men got up and put on their prayer accoutrements and started praying, pacing up and down the aisle, it was Mea Shearim in-flight!

I land, all goes well at passport control, very fast actually, I retrieve my suitcase (not lost this time!) and off I go to get my shared taxi to Jerusalem. The drivers are arguing vociferously in typical Israeli style. Our driver drops me off as planned right near the Abraham Youth Hostel where I am to spend a couple of nights before heading off for the desert and my project. I meet a nice young girl by the name of Rosie who is also going off on a project a few miles away from mine, and we hang out together for the time we are at the hostel. I'm sharing a room with four other girls but I'm soon to learn that in hostels people come and go, and lo and behold, the second evening, I walk into my room and there is a guy in one of the beds! Nobody told me it was a mixed room! So, last night, I had to share my room with two other girls and two other guys...definitely a new experience for me!

This morning we got up to catch our bus toward our projects. We needed to catch the 444 direction Eilat and were looking forward to about a four hour bus ride. We get to the Central Bus Station with our reservation which we had been given by the GoEco representative and proceed to the ticket counter to retrieve our tickets. Picture this again: there is this girl, talking on the phone, chewing gum, no “hello, may I help you?” or any nicety of that sort....she shakes her head over to the left and says “the machines!”.....ahhh, welcome to Israel and its people....full of charm and goodwill;-)

After four hours, I am dropped off in the middle of.....NOWHERE! It's desert all around with the Jordanian border about 500 meters away. Fortunately, one of the members of the kibbutz came to pick me up in her car and drove me the short distance to the kibbutz. I was shown to my own private geodesic dome lodging and taken on a very short tour around the kibbutz. It is very small with only 55 members and a few other people too who aren't full fledged members. Luckily for me, they have given up on the passive cooling system as it really gets much too hot here in the summertime and doesn't cool down at night, so they gave in and put ceiling and floor fans in our rooms. I was shown the showers and the “dry toilets”, not a favorite of mine, but I have to admit, there was no foul smell. Everything here is recycled, composted and communal....An interesting way of life indeed. For me? Hmm, not so sure.. But the strange thing is this: I'm in a totally remote part of Israel, in the middle of the desert, with goats chatting outside my window, not a town in site and full internet connection! Now, ain't that amazing?! What a world we live in!

Tomorrow I start my work at 6AM. I am expected to work until about 2:30PM with a break for breakfast and in the afternoon, I can chill out by the pool, finally work on that tan I'm longing for and prepare assiduously my veterinary course for which I was awarded an A- for the Module 1...apparently, the old brain is still functioning a bit... So I will leave you now with a few photos and will be in touch soon with more news..

Cheers to all ;-)

 My room with the goats in the background
 No description necessary
 Yard in front of my room
 Another view of the yard and other rooms

 Showers and toilets
 Now, who can that be?!
This is what my geodesic dome room is made of

10 April 2011

Last Days at Moholoholo

I'm sitting in the departure lounge of the airport in Johannesburg waiting for my plane for Frankfurt. It's time to say goodbye to South Africa and move on.

This month has gone by incredibly fast, I can hardly believe it, with its ups and downs and pretty low moments when I was wondering what I was doing here. Not enough work at the centre. Same duties day after day. And the similar 'young' crowd as the one I encountered in Thailand. Nice young people, completely immersed in their own lives as young people will be, with their concerns and sense of humor that I confess to not always sharing. Obviously, they thought the same. This past week, a couple of 'older' women arrived at the centre and that was a relief as I could finally have a normal discussion with them as they 'spoke' my language....

That said, just when I thought things couldn't get more boring, everything happened at once. Such is the nature of Moholoholo Rehab Centre. About a week ago, we were called by the owner of a nearby game reserve to come and get a baby zebra who was really in a pretty bad way. We never really found out what happened to its mother (poaching is always suspected of course). The female zebra was 3 or 4 weeks old. We brought her back to the centre and put her in the clinic on a bed of straw and started trying to feed her. She got constant attention with someone sitting with her all the time. She wouldn't drink milk, so we had to force feed her and put her on a drip. Unfortunately, her health went from bad to worse and she died two days later. It was very sad to watch as she tried to catch her last breath (I happened to come into the clinic right at that moment) and her whole system just shut down. Poor little thing.

The following day or two days later, we were called to go and get a baby bushbock only a few days old, whose joint in the right hind leg had been eaten by a baboon (though she still had her leg but in a very bad state). She was abandoned by her mother. We brought her into the clinic, Brian asked us what we thought we should do seeing that even if she were to be amputated, she could still lead a normal life at the centre and breed. So we all said, go ahead with the surgery, bring her to the vet straight away. Cost is always a consideration of course, but they were willing to give it a try. So we all piled into the bucky and drove hellbent into town to the vet's office. The vet operated for about one hour actually saving the leg, only to have the little thing die on the operating table, of a heart failure, probably due to excessive stress.

Things were getting tough, but such is life in Africa. You try your best and then move on because other animals need your attention.

And then, I had a wonderful surprise. Just when I was thinking I couldn't wait to get home, some of us were told we were being taken on a 2-day outing on a nearby reserve which belongs to the same owner as Moholoholo. So off we went to Nhoveni, bright and early on Friday morning. Brian was due to join us late morning and that, for me at least, was a real treat! In a nutshell, he took us on a 3-hour bushwalk on Sunday morning, two 3-hour bushrides Saturday afternoon and Sunday late morning. I truly think there is nothing that man doesn't know about African wildlife and it was just a very special moment. While up there with us, he relaxed, became really funny, telling us stories of when he was young and wild in the bush, calling to the birds, teaching us about tracks, trees and other vegetation....We were driving along and all of a sudden, he spotted the vultures going around in the air, sign of a nearby prey... Alive or dead? Difficult to say. So rifles in hand, Brian and Martin led us through the bush to try and find the prey. Suffice it to say, we were completely oblivious of the dangers involved. He wasn't of course and imposed absolute silence on us and extreme caution. Well, we did eventually find the birds' prey.....a poached white rhino, horns still intact, so we assumed that the rhino was shot, wounded, ran away to die a distance away and the poachers lost sight of her.

Rhinos are the most sought after animals in Africa at the moment. Last year, 333 rhinos were poached for their horns, this year to date, already 101 have been killed. As Brian said, in a few years , at this rate, we will be able to show our children pictures of rhinos, an extinct animal, and they will have no idea what it is. Poaching is a terrible problem. And the truth of the matter is that, the poachers are not the problem, for the most part they are very poor people who only want to feed their families. The problem are the people who commission the poaching out of pure greed: a rhino horn sells for 1 million Rand (a huge amount of money) and the buyers are for the most part the Chinese market who use it for allegedly medicinal purposes. Only the horns are taken, they have no use for the rest of the animal. As such, we found this female rhino is an advanced state of decomposition, horns intact. At least that is one pair of horns they won't get, but it is a life wasted and there is a baby rhino somewhere in the bush roaming around without its mom.

The two days were eventful as you have just read. We were lucky to see a couple of elephants, an injured hippo (probably poachers also), giraffes and zebras, many impalas and even a buffalo! That was a fantastic way to end my trip and I was very, very lucky.

When I think back on my month here, I realize how full it has been, although I didn't always think so at the time. Again, I have learned tremendous amounts, only to realize how much I still don't know. Daunting. I am not sure I will return any time soon however, it is a little too brutal for me and if one is not a meat eater, it is quite difficult. But, on reflexion, I'm glad I did it, it was one heck of an experience!

And now, in a couple of days time, I'll be off to England, London specifically, to lead a very large group of runners to the London Marathon. Talk about culture shocks...no time to adjust and I'm off again (I love it;-). So there probably won't be any further postings until I get to Israel and settle in to Kibbutz Lotan.

 A tender moment with 'Dela' our baby black rhino...
 This is 'Joly' one of our ambassador Cheetahs
Self portraits of 'Dela' and Della...

Cheers to you all and I hope most of you have Facebook to be able to see the full album of my stay in South Africa. Additionally, I will put more pictures on my blog as soon as I get home.

30 March 2011

It's not for the faint-hearted!

Well, I now know from a first-hand experience that Africa is a brutal place indeed. When I signed up to come here, in the info pack I received, it said “It's not for the faint-hearted!” and this has proved absolutely true.

In my last posting, I spoke about the elephant killing for the purpose of culling. The way I understand it, culling started in the 60's when land owners came in to farm the land and decimated the wildlife. Nowadays, public outcry has made culling illegal in theory, so instead, trophy hunting has been introduced. But in actual fact, the result is the same. The population of certain animals being too great in proportion to the space they occupy, as in the case of the elephants, they are selected according to specific criteria, and shot down.

As I mentioned previously, Brian and the staff here at Moholoholo try to have us experience as much of Africa as possible so include us in most of the events taking place in the wild. Thus, a couple of evenings ago, I went to do one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do in my life. We went to cut up the elephant which had been killed that day. We all piled into the trucks, with extra water for the long drive, all weather jackets and whatever else was needed to be out in the wild for over 6 hours, and drove to the site. There, the elephant was lying on its side, two legs had already been cut off, the head was partially cut off along with the tail and one ear. It was a gruesome sight and I was devastated. The guys were cutting and hacking away to try and cut the animal up while the meat was fresh and get as much done as possible before night-time. I took one look at the elephant's eye which thankfully was closed, and I had the feeling I was looking into his soul. Everyone was taking pictures. I couldn't as I also felt that I would be robbing it of its soul, so you won't see any pictures of that when I get them all on Facebook. It was horribly difficult for me to watch, so I just sat in our combi waiting to take the first truck back to the center. At about 7:30 PM, we were ready to go back with the first load, I sat in front, two other students sat in back on the meat on which the rangers had placed a tarpaulin, and we were on our way. Had a flat tyre on the way back, but I guess that's incidental. All the other students got back to the center around 1AM covered in blood. I did help to unload the truck though, and all of us were complimented by Brian for having put in the effort. A graceful gesture on his part. Now just remember, they don't do this for fun, they use every bit of the meat, none of it is wasted. Of note however, the man who actually killed the elephant refused to touch the meat, which disgusted everyone, Brian included.

What else can I tell you? A 2,5 meter python was found in the snake snare the other day and put in a cage in our clinic. He unfortunately escaped and is still lurking somewhere not too far we assume. It is not a venomous snake but rather a constrictor, however I am not happy about it at all and try not to think about it. An ordinary occurrence here, snakes are everywhere. Fortunately, I have not been close to one yet and hope it stays that way until I leave!

Two of our hyenas, Luma and Shade, were finally put together in the same enclosure and seem to be getting along just fine, so that is nice. Our 8 week old sable, Maisy, who is being hand-raised by two of the students, is also doing very well and is gorgeous. Four of the servals here will be released any day now, and the sooner the better because every day I go to clean their foul smelling enclosure, they hiss at me and it is kind of scary. Dela the rhino, is her usual self, happily munching away at the trees. She too is being hand raised by Dave whose fee for staying here is being paid by Dela's future owner, and she will be sent to her new home sometime in May.

As far as my duties are concerned, every morning we start at 7. I go clean Woody and Bubbles' enclosure, two sweet natured blind owls. Then I go on to do the Giant Grey Owls who always look at me with their huge eyes...they actually look very funny, very stoic. Then, we clean the vulture enclosures, with the vultures inside with us. Rosie, a hooded vulture, is so cute, follows us around as we do the cleaning, trying to peck away at our pants or shoe laces. We are also meant to feed the vultures as part of their training program and ours as well, I guess. We put on a leather glove which goes all the way up to our elbow and the vultures are meant to land on it and munch away at the meat we hold out for them and wait for them to fly off our arm. For now, I have only managed to feed Rosie as she is quite light. The other two vultures in my enclosure are simply too heavy for me. But I haven't given up trying! Then, in the afternoon, we feed the owls little chicks, some of which need to be cut up in pieces. That is the one job I'm not willing to do. So as you can see, there are a lot of birds here, not to mention a very full aviary. Something I wasn't expecting when I signed up, not being particularly interested in birds. However, nature is nature, and here at Moholoholo, every form of wildlife is precious.

The rest of my duties involve cleaning the clinic, cleaning the animals' feeding cages and enclosures or camps, as they call them here and we are strongly encouraged to spend what extra time we have with the animals because interaction is important.

The center is enclosed for any number of reasons, safety being the main one. Our breakfast is at another lodge to which we can walk every morning. In the evening, we are driven there as it is too dangerous to walk through the bush at night-time. You never know when you'll bump into a rhino, or a snake, possibly a hippo....And in order to get out of the reserve entirely, we need to go through three gates....beyond that is freedom ;-) Yesterday, we went on a boat trip through Blyde Canyon and actually got to see some hippos from a distance (they are the most dangerous animals in Africa and have caused the most deaths). Then we went to a waterfall and had a great time jumping from up on high into the water. I surprised myself and everyone else by my daring, I was kind of proud actually. And tomorrow, finally, we get to go to.....

Kruger Park! And hopefully see the Big 5! (More on that later!)