Take Me Back To Swaziland!

It’s true that a job, and not my backpacking itinerary, brought me to Swaziland. In fact, I had originally planned on traveling though more of the Asian continent after my time in Nepal. But the opportunity arose to work on a short-term project on the ground in Manzini, so I made a “quick diversion” to the bottom of Africa to put my MPH to work for a few weeks.

Driving into Swaziland.

Driving into Swaziland.

Swaziland has the best sunsets I have ever seen in my life.

Swaziland’s sunsets leave you breathless. Photos really don’t do them justice.

It's pretty here.

It’s pretty here.

It's pretty here, but I will never get the red dirt out of every piece of clothing that I wore here.

Lovely colors, but I will never get the red dirt out of every piece of clothing that I wore.

Since May 2012, I’ve been working with a small team to help a Swazi organization design a sexual/reproductive health program that engages sex workers. We’ve been supporting the organization remotely, but the program recently received funding (with promises of more), so it made sense to make a field visit and take the first steps towards implementation (woohoo!). You can read about Ungakwenta! here.

Office shot! It's amazing what not working for a few months will do for your motivation. I am so pumped to be back at it. Yay!

Office shot! It’s amazing what not working for a few months will do for your motivation. I am so pumped to be back at it. Yay!

HIV testing campaign messages. Yay Public Health. Feels so good to put on my nerd glasses again.

A man knows – to be the best, he has to test! Woo, Public Health Messaging! Feels so good to put on my nerd glasses again.

I spent 11 days in Swaziland. It was not enough. I LOVE IT THERE. My colleague Matt and I put in long, productive, awesome days with the SRH program, and squeezed in a bit of wilderness adventuring whenever we could. It was phenomenal. Not only did I get to do the work I love, in the field, with amazing, dedicated people, but I learned so much about Swazi life and culture, met so many interesting expats and locals, and saw how my life might look if I worked here full-time. And, of course, I got to hike through crocodile-infested swamps and climb giant granite mountains and see a buncha crazy animals and finally eat fresh fruit all day instead of rice (sorry, Nepal. I don’t want rice for a loooong time because of you.)

This is Nyonyane Mountain, or Executioner Rock, so called because one upon a time, criminals were hurled from the peak. We climbed it in between rain storms.

This is Nyonyane Mountain in Milwane, or Executioner Rock, so called because once upon a time, criminals were thrown from the peak to their deaths. We climbed it in between rain storms.

A sign at the beginning of the trail on one of our hikes.

A sign at the beginning of the trail on the Nyonyane hike in Milwane. The hike took us through dense, jungle-y swamps. I thought I might die.

Baby zebra! Seen in Milwane Reserve, where we hiked up our first mountain.

Baby zebra! Seen in Milwane on our hike up Nyonyane.  More animal photos to come in Swaziland Post #2.

Seriously though, hiking in Swaziland was like hiking in Jurassic Park.

Seriously though, hiking in Swaziland was like hiking in Jurassic Park…

Matt up ahead, hiking Nyonyane Mountain or Executioner Rock.

Matt up ahead, preparing to climb Nyonyane Mountain, which you can see in the distance.

Swaziland is a tiny country, with a soft, gentle, rolling beauty. The area where I lived and worked is lush, with steep green mountains covered in giant boulders that appear to simply pop out of the earth. It was summertime in the Southern Hemisphere, and though it was the rainy season, we were lucky to have mostly clear, hot weather. The mangoes and papayas and pineapples were the best I’ve ever had. There were amazing animals and so much nature for them to enjoy, in several huge wildlife reserves throughout the country. The culture is rich and proudly held by its people. Everyone we met was friendly and helpful. Everything moves slowly.

Matt and I stayed in an expat's house right next to Sibebe, this beautiful mountain made out of a single, giant chunk of granite. It's the second largest monolith in the world.

Matt and I stayed with a colleague right next to Sibebe, this beautiful mountain made out of a single, giant chunk of granite. It’s the second largest monolith in the world.

I hiked up Sibebe with Ben, whom we stayed with while working in Swaziland. This is Ben's arm holding some kinda crazy nature.

I climbed Sibebe with Ben, who is awesome and let us stay in his beautiful house while we worked and played in Swaziland. This is Ben’s arm holding some kinda crazy nature.

Hiking Sibebe.

Hiking Sibebe.

Sibebe again. I hiked 3 days in a row in Swaziland. So glorious.

Sibebe. I hiked 3 days in a row in Swaziland (after work or on weekends only, of course!). So glorious.

Interesting rock formation on Sibebe.

Aliens did this.

The third hike we did

The third hike we did was in Malolotja, a large wilderness reserve with tons of beautiful animals and its fair share of sky porn.

The hills are alive!...with seven different kinds of poisonous snakes.

The hills are alive…with seven different kinds of poisonous snakes.

These anemone-like flowers are called proteas.

These anemone-like flowers are called proteas. They were everywhere in Malolotja.

Of course, for all its beauty and kindness, Swaziland is not without its challenges. It has the highest HIV prevalence in the world. Much of its population lives in extreme poverty. Serious public health and development problems are apparent everywhere. There are issues with dependency on foreign aid. But while all of this is important to know and understand, it’s just as critical to recognize all that Swaziland has to offer, to learn just how intricate and interesting the culture and history are, and to develop a well-rounded awareness of how things in this country really work. And I only just scraped the surface, but I can tell you with confidence that I would absolutely love to live and work there for a while. And I just might try to, when I start job-hunting later this spring.

My fellow hikers in Malalotja.

My fellow hikers in Malolotja, admiring what beauty lay before us. Although, while those hills are pretty, they’re a b*tch to climb when it’s 99 degrees out. Just sayin’.

As a final note, I took a million sunset photos in Swaziland because they were the most intense sunsets I’d ever seen. The Swazi sky alone may be reason enough for me to move there. And though sunset photos seem a bit cliché by now, I feel I have to share at least a few. So here’s a random sampling of my shots.

Rome: Time Always Wins

Throughout my backpacking trip, a few themes have inexplicably developed. These are images or occurrences or references that appear over and over again, enough for me to notice and document. The least obscure, and perhaps stupidly obvious, of these themes involves time, clocks, age, and the unyielding authority of these constructions. In Rome, the power of time was omnipresent.

These ancient ruins, colossal and grandiose, intricately decorated, precisely sculpted, represented power, wealth, victory, and accomplishment in their heyday. Now, all that remains are carefully maintained mounds of rock, leaning columns, empty brick boxes hundreds of feet high. Men cut grass on riding mowers around crumbling, millennia-old temples to ancient deities. A woman, suspended forty feet up in a cherry-picker basket, carefully scrapes mortar and re-connects bricks to a top-heavy, teetering once-wall. Construction workers place modern-day scaffolding on the remains of a dusty Roman palace, now sagging on an eroding grassy hill. Once the most powerful empire in the world, the Roman legacy succumbs to time as a handful of laymen are paid minimally to try to keep the last stone piles from being reclaimed by the earth.

Inner Colosseo

Inner Colosseo

Inner Colosseo

Inner Colosseo

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Arch by Colosseo

Arch by Colosseo

Such detail. So old.

Such detail. So old.

Roman ruins.

Roman ruins.

Woman on cherrypicker fixes Roman ruins.

Woman on cherrypicker fixes Roman ruins.

Sun shining through ruins.

Sun shining through ruins.

This was the most astonishing structure to me, because it's so HUGE!

This was the most astonishing structure to me, because it’s so HUGE!

My days in Rome were filled with directionless exploration and staring in wonder, trying to comprehend how some of these massive structures still stand at all, how they were created so long ago, how many hands have touched these stones over time, how much the world has changed since they were built by emporers and slaves. Eventually moving away from ancient ruins, I walked through countless churches, each more splendid than the last. I found my way to famous, as well as seemingly forgotten, fountains, exquisitely groomed parks, bustling city squares. The sun shone hotly every day, making it warm enough to walk in a t-shirt and justify at least one gelato each afternoon.

My least favorite part of Rome was the Vatican.  It was packed with tourists – we literally stood shoulder-to-shoulder while examining the infinitely high ceilings and gilded chapels – and the staff was pushy and rude. Any aura of peace or humility was promptly squelched by one million gawking and chattering foreigners shoving past each other and snapping photos. I found the sunset much more marvelous than anything inside the Vatican walls (though I bet if I’d made it to the Sistine Chapel when it was open, I would have appreciated the art equally to the evening sky!). (Don’t gasp at my failure to make the Sistine, Grandma, I just couldn’t get there in time both times I tried…)

HOLY MOTHER OF GOD. The Vatican was nice, but it can't compete with the sunset. Sky 1, Man 0...

HOLY MOTHER OF GOD. The Vatican was nice, but it can’t compete with the sunset.

Wow.

Wow.

I die. The sky is just too magnificent to handle every single day.

I die. The sky is just too magnificent to handle every single day.

Saturday, I folded my clothes (some of them freshly hand-laundered in the hostel sink) and re-stuffed my backpack, hopped an evening train to the airport and said farewell to Rome, to Italy, and to the first leg of my adventure, thanking Europe for an incredible two months of both world- and self-discovery.

More Rome Photos: