Saturday, March 12, 2011

Bulungula, Place of Hope and a river overflowing

            The Mbashe is overflowing. This morning, we woke to another beautiful Wild Coast sunrise, except instead of being greeted by the normal crisp, blue wave breaks of the Indian ocean, we awoke to a turgid, dirt-brown sea-scape. The past week has been a week of heavy rains and thunderstorms and, at last, the river banks have forsaken their solemn duty, letting millions of gallons of Africa-stained waters spill into the ocean. Last night, we ate diner on the Mbashe shore, near the river mouth about a kilometer from the Haven. The walk along the beach toward the pre-set diner tables was ominous, thick fog setting in, black clouds slowly creeping over the sand dunes, distant thunder grumbling through the river valley. As we ate, another typical Transkei storm set in. Streaks of lightning, either speared into the rolling hills or spider-webbed across the endless sky, heavy rain like marbles falling from gluttonous clouds, winds from the south pushing moist air up the coast, only to be caught in the labyrinth topography, tossed about, and dumped right on our heads. The thunder rang constantly, circumventing my body's autonomous controls and dictating the inflation and deflation of my lungs through  its powerful, sound-induced pressure changes. An entire landscape, the entire world it seemed, was left muted and stunned after each epic charge. Even the bugs and moths sought shelter inside our small, thatch-roofed rondeval--we slept through the night cozily and calmly to the soundtrack of rain, thunder and the beating of small, furry wings.

            The past week was a trip. While not drug-induced, it was certainly people- and landscape- and life-induced. Everything kind of came to a head last night during the storm. We started the week on a 12 kilometer trek to Bulungula, a backpackers eco-lodge down the coast. After another extraordinary adventure down the mosaic that is the Wild Coast, we arrived at what appeared to be a glorified hippie commune. But as they say, never, ever, ever judge a book by its cover.
            Settling into Bulungula seemed a bit odd at first. It is entirely different from everywhere I have ever seen, let alone lived before, but within the last week, it became so much like another home to me. To start, the facility is almost completely self-sustaining--wind-turbine powered groundwater pumps, super-efficient (and eco-friendly) rocket showers (paraffin powered), artificially planted wetlands and banana tree circles for natural sewage and water treatment and purification, and an entire village to provide fresh grown veggies, fishes and meats. There are no locks on doors here, and everything (short of the shitters) are communal--showers are big enough for a few people (maybe you and a few very close friends), open-air lounge areas, honor-system run bar, restaurant and library, and pretty much everything else you can imagine. The local villagers mingle freely with the visitors (referred to not as “tourists” but as “trekkers” instead), giving the place a much different vibe than the normally ‘fortress tourism’ that is so typical of most of your usual resorts. There are no gates, no entrance fees, no requirements to be at Bulungula (you really don’t even need to pay to stay, its just the nice thing to do) except for being a human. It really is a special place.
            What makes Bulungula so special is, believe it or not, its business model. It is meant to be an eco-tourist sight run through a process of co-management--the founder, the one and only David, owns 60% of the lodge while the local community owns 40% (that means, 40% of all profits go directly back into the community). In some of the most impoverished and rural communities in all of South Africa, he has managed to develop a business that directly incorporates, educates, provides economic relief and empowerment to an otherwise terribly marginalized people. Locals run programs and tours, taking all the money they earn from these endeavors for personal income. The staff is all local people, much needed employment in a country with unemployment rates at almost 50%. David started this project as somewhat of an experiment to see what he could do, what tourism could do, to help alleviate the struggles of these villages. Five years later, he is still going strong with plans to eventually turn over the entire business to the communities, giving them 100% ownership and the long-deprived self-determination to succeed and thrive on their own terms.
            Not only is Bulungula an awesome eco-lodge (voted in the top 25 most ethical tourist destinations in the world), but it is also associated with another one of David’s side projects--the Bulungula Incubator, an NGO developed in concurrence with the business. So far, the Bulungula NGO, in association with several other international NGO’s, has built a beautiful pre-school for students in the middle of the Eastern Cape educational system, which is otherwise lacking in both resources and efficacy. So far, the pre-schoolers that are being turned out since the opening 2 years ago have exceeded the oldest, standard 9 students from the public schools in reading/writing comprehension (in English), creative thinking and other areas as well. This is a major step for this one small school in a poor community in a forgotten area of South Africa.
            In addition to the school, David and his staff use the Bulungula Incubator to provide micro-finance loans to local community members, to develop nutrition programs for children, and to begin getting clean water to the area. On top of it all, David also provides rides to the nearest hospital for the sick and pregnant community members who would otherwise need to travel 2 hours or more by foot or ox in order to receive any type of medical attention. Bulungula, an experiment though it may be, is an outright success on many, many levels. It is a model for poverty relief, ethical tourism and the human capacity to make change. David himself is an indescribable individual, passionate and open, loving and giving to an extent that is so rare in this world.
            After a week at the eco-lodge, after a pancake breakfast and sunrise on the sand dunes, after drum circles with local people with whom I could not speak, after eating raw shrimp and berries caught straight off the shores of the Bulungula estuary, after hiking the rocky coast, after riding dead logs down the river at high tide, after carrying water and firewood on my head, after just one week in the middle of Bulungula, I am a much different and better person.
            In addition to David and Bulungula, there are others doing wonderful work in these impoverished communities. Michael and Alex, a local German couple, moved to the village of Hobeni several years ago to open a facility called “Place of Hope” a eco-friendly, self-sustaining home for the mentally disabled. We met them the day before we left for Bulungula and were welcomed warmly into their amazing world situated in the rolling hills of the Transkei. Again, I was honored to be graced by such wonderful and compassionate people, seeing the time, effort and love that they have poured into their project. No one forced them to do this, no one even asked them--they could be living comfortable lives right now in their hometown in Germany. Instead, they are here, doing the work that they chose to do because they felt that the suffering and injustice in the world was not something to ignore, disregard or feel complacent about. I hope that one day, I may have the heart and mind to be able to do anything like the work being done by Michael and Alex and David.

Life is good, and there are so many bright and beautiful
people with whom we share this world.

with love and hope from Bulungula,
-little hupo


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  2. Dearest Mario,

    This sounds wonderful and certainly as close to paradise as you can get. It is so good to see such wonderful selfless people in this world, striving to make Earth a better place for all. Even if it is just a little corner of it, it is an example to the rest of society. I wish there were more of them.

    I miss you but are glad that you are having an experience of a lifetime. I just have memories now of my little boy. I cannot wait to greet my young man at the airport in just a couple short weeks.

    Love Mom:)

  3. Mario, Uncle Art here staying at your house in Allentown over the weekend. Love the blog; you're travelogues are descriptive enough to make it seem like I'm there, too.

    Monica and I are going to see Max and Lizzie play Carnegie Hall with their high school choir on Monday. More on the same theme - taking great pride in our young family members getting the most out of life and experiencing adventure.

    Best wishes.