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Alternative Spring Break – Botswana!

March 18, 2010

It is an academic tradition to provide students and faculty with a week or so in the middle of the second term to refresh, catch up, or generally recover from the darkness of winter and celebrate the coming of spring. Increasingly the spring break has also become an opportunity for travel, cultural enrichment, and community service. For example, a group of students and faculty from Saint Joseph College will use their week to volunteer services in a clinic in Guyana. This has become an annual trek; the group brings supplies, provides social services and assists with basic medical care. Another group of students and staff is spending the week working on a Habitat for Humanity project in Delaware. We are all proud of these members of our community and eager to hear about their experiences and the reports on what they have learned.

This spring break week, I have the opportunity to join my husband as he prepares for his class on African democracy. I know little about the governments of African countries and this visit held promises of a meaningful educational experience, possible new international collaborations for Saint Joe’s, and an opportunity for unique cultural encounters — definitely worth a week of my vacation time.

Botswana is located in the southern part of Africa; landlocked, it sits on the northern border of South Africa. It is about the size of the state of Texas with a population of about 1.6 million people. Most of the country comprises rural villages, but there are also three large cities. Gaborone, the capital, is one of these three. Botswana is also noted for having one of the oldest democratic governments in Africa.

As we prepared for the trip I did not actually expect the day and a half of travel time needed to reach our destination to be worthy of comment, but I was wrong. Being familiar with the suggestion that international travelers arrive hours ahead only to wait, I came prepared with months of back journals and academic periodicals. And so I began the satisfying experience of reviewing and tossing a foot-high set of readings, some more than three months old, that had been awaiting my attention.

The Alps from 37,000 feet.

Our itinerary had us departing from New York City, with the first stop being Amsterdam. This seven hour flight passed rather quickly. The flight from Amsterdam to Johannesburg loomed as a daunting ten hours. I did have a few more papers to read, but found myself drawn to the view from 37,000 feet. First we saw the magnificent Alps which spread for miles, their immense snowy peaks looking like sculpted clouds. The Sahara Desert was my next sighting, a flat ocean of sand with smooth elevations but no hint of living things visible from the sky. Then, we passed clouds creating billowy white structures in the sky. We crossed over the mountains of Dafur and Mount Kilamanjaro; our route map named cities such as Kinsangani, Nairobi, and Lilongwe. Finally, we reached our destination.

Traversing the European and African continents made me think about the marvels and beauty of this planet that we inhabit, the people who live here, and how much we have to learn about and from one another. It has never been easier to connect virtually or in reality with those who have different life experiences, but we do not always have the time and resources to travel or to take the chance to move out of the zone of the familiar.

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