The Dirt: the good, the dramatic, and the hilarious tales from our trails

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This segment is written to bring to life a few of the MDP students’ thousands of stories they all have to tell from their work, travels, and life experiences. Enjoy!

Jessica Horwood: From her summer practicum 

Before I left for my field practicum, my committee chair mentioned that I may need to rent a vehicle while in Cape Town, South Africa since it’s hard to get around without one and the public transport is very dangerous. I didn’t think much of this because public transport does not scare me and is usually a good way to get acquainted with the locals and learn customs and culture. I didn’t even include a rental car in my Practicum budget.

Before I arrived in South Africa, I stopped off in Brussels to visit my best friend who used to live Cape Town. She jokingly mentioned that I should rent a VW Beetle from Best Beetle, a rental car company that rented out really cheap old disheveled Beetles to tourists and exchange students. Again I brushed it aside, again, pretty certain that public transport would be just fine, thank you.

Week two of my practicum I realized that public transport was really not an option. Cape Town is like Los Angeles; spread out without a very functional public transport system. The more my practicum came together, the more I realized that I would absolutely need a car unless I was willing to stay put or spend half my day attempting to navigate the ‘taxis-buses.’ Besides that I was not living anywhere near where I was working, so there was really no hope of easily accessing the clients I needed to meet with… without a car.

Without any research, I rented a 1974 VW Beetle from Best Beetle, as jokingly suggested by my friend. The people at the rental store sat me through a 45 minute contract signing meeting where they waved any liability, made me pay upfront in cash, gave me a brief, rather uninformative ‘How to work one of these machines’ trainings and handed over the keys, wishing me luck. The drive home was a disaster. Not only was I driving on the left side of the road for the first time, where I kept turning into oncoming traffic; it was also cold, rainy, and dark. The car’s body was rusted and leaky with wind coming in from every orifice (let me remind you that it was winter in Cape Town). Shifting was no fun (especially with my left hand), no one thought to tell me how to reverse, which was not common sense in these cars. The engine was so loud that it crowded out any hope of a conversation (if I ever managed to get a passenger to ride with me; a rare occurrence I must say) and I couldn’t reach the pedals because the seats were not adjustable.

I didn’t touch the car the first week I had it. I would sometimes look at it, took a couple of pictures, and talked about it some. It was like we were interested in each other but knew that we had a rough relationship ahead so were hesitant to dive into any sort of partnership before we had to. Soon enough, I was on my own. All my classmates and colleagues left, and it was just the Beetle and me. The first time I drove it after that first night, I didn’t realize that you can’t just turn it on and go. There is love and patience required. I had to switch the car on and manually rev the engine for at least 10 minutes (injecting fuel into the engine) before I could get it to wake up and get moving; very obnoxious to any neighbors that happen to be around. The oil needed to be checked daily, and filled up about three times a week; I never figured out why. I was only allowed to put about $10 of gas into the car at a time because the tank was in the front and the fumes would blow into my face as I drove (this was written in that contract I signed at the beginning).

Slowly, perhaps because I was dependent on it, it grew on me. I got a pillow to push me forward so that I could reach the pedals and a little charm to hang from the rear view mirror. People on the roads loved it. Everyone would honk and wink and let me into their lane, and wouldn’t be mad if I accidently cut them off (I had no idea where I was going most of the time). I was never afraid that the car would be hijacked because I would probably need to give them driving lessons before they could manage to drive it away.

By the end of the trip, the Beetle and I were a team. People grew to know me because of my Beetle. I had a presence in the places I was working. I was no longer a stranger. People would tell me all the time “Hey, I saw you in Philippi yesterday,” or “I popped in to see you because I saw your car outside.” We were not a glamorous team, but we were functional and respectful of each other (I may be personifying this car a bit much).

Sometimes, as I rode around in my car, I thought about how development is a bit like my evolving relationship with this car. It’s imperfect. It requires patience and it is a way to keep moving forward in the right direction. It also requires commitment to the cause. There are fallbacks and frustrations, but ultimately change will come about. We just have to want it and strive for it enough, and be prepared for a long, unpredictable journey.

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Grace Kihombo

This is my experience about my journey to the U.S.. My home country is Tanzania. I was so excited to get the chance to come to America and when the day finally came to travel I was so happy. I flew through Doha, Qatar with Qatar airways and then I connected to Miami. That trip was so long; the flight time was almost 20hrs nonstop and I was so tired when we finally landed. I experienced the hardest time in Miami because it is the biggest and busiest airport. I was then supposed to catch another flight, which was connecting to Gainesville, however, it was very confusing to get the right gate but I finally found it and lastly I arrived in Gainesville. After arriving in Gainesville, I found out that all my bags had been lost. Luckily, after making follow-up calls, I came to realize that all my bags were taken to Charlotte, NC from Miami instead of Gainesville. It wasn’t until five days later that I got to see my bags.

After arriving in Gainesville, school started before I had the opportunity to settle down. I came to be overwhelmed, as it was my first time living in the U.S. and all of the new life adjustments I had to make plus new syllabi and environments. For now, I have become familiar with the environment although there are some challenges but hopefully I will overcome them. Also I am impressed with the way the Gainesville community is excited about the Gator football team. During a football game day, I saw how many people there were in Gainesville and I thought maybe that President Obama was coming but the truth was it was just for the Gator football team.


Rosanna Kingston

I recently led a group of five volunteers on trip to Zambia. After our two days of packed service projects, we went to see Victoria Falls for some rest and relaxation.  On the first day of sightseeing; we visited the falls, took a safari tour, and decided that evening to have dinner on the other side of the border in Zimbabwe.  We were all looking forward to an evening featuring a traditional African themed dinner show. Earlier that day I consulted a travel agent and was told to bring our passports and that there would be a $20 per person visa entry fee.  The agent said that I could pay the entry fees with a credit card.  With this in mind I brought our passports, a credit card, and enough cash to pay and tip our drivers plus a little extra for security.

When we arrived at the border patrol, I found out that the travel agent was wrong.  They didn’t accept credit cards, the entry visa cost for our one Canadian citizen was three times higher, and that the visas’ paperwork was all done manually and would take about an hour. We were already running tight on schedule and we had two problems: the length of time it would take to process the visas, and the fact that they didn’t take credit cards and I didn’t have enough cash to pay for them. The custom patrol suggested that we leave the passports so that they would be able to process them without us waiting and that we could pick them up when we returned later that evening to Zambia. The idea of leaving our passports made me feel sick to my stomach, but I gave the choice to our group and we collectively decided to take his suggestion.  In our discussion, I also thought we had worked out that I would also pay for the entry fees on the way back after I had time to visit an ATM.

Since we were now behind schedule, we left quickly and hopped onto the bus that was waiting for us on the other side of the border. We were all laughing and having a great time on our ride to the restaurant. I noticed that someone behind our bus was honking their horn radically but it didn’t seem to faze the driver, so I didn’t worry.

When we arrived to the restaurant a car pulled up behind us. It was the custom patrol officer and he was very angry.  He was demanding why had we left without paying the entry visa fees?  I explained how I thought he had agreed that we could pay it when we returned, and that there had simply been a communication misunderstanding. I asked the group if anyone had any cash they could lend me and somehow we scraped together enough money to pay the fees.

At that time my knees were shaking.  We had no cash, no passports, and we were being chased down by an angry customs agent.  I was doing my best to appear confident and in charge to my group, even as I was shaking them down for money.

On the way back from the show, everyone was laughing and joking about our little adventure, but it took me a couple of days to really calm down.


Oswaldo Medina-Ramirez

One adventure occurred while I was traveling from Ecuador to Bolivia by bus. I was enjoying the trip, visiting new places, and meeting people from different countries. I had been carrying all my documents and money in my personal pack. However, when I arrived to Lima, Peru, someone stole my pack! My money, my documents, and my camera all were gone! At that time, I didn’t know that the bus stop in Lima is located in one of the most dangerous areas and I only had $20 in my pocket. I went to Ecuador’s Embassy in Peru and they gave me a “salvoconducto” to go back to Ecuador. However, I wanted to go to Machu Picchu so I called my mom, and as always my mom saved my life. She sent me some money by Western Union and a new identification card by FedEx. Finally, I could continue my trip and arrived safe in Bolivia and and I had the opportunity to go to Machu Picchu.


Rachel Velez

There aren’t enough words in the English language to describe my hatred for ugali. It’s this pure white mound of maize flour that looks about as appealing as it tastes, and when I lived in Kenya it became my worst enemy. We ate it about 4 times a day. For lunch, dinner, or a snack, there it would be. Sitting on the table menacingly with its empty white eyes. At first, I was all about it. I was so excited to try any and every local cuisine. But after the 3rd week in a row of ugali, my stomach couldn’t take it anymore. It’s not that it tastes bad or anything. It was actually often paired with a nice vegetable dish or meat dish. I guess it was just the fact that it was ALWAYS there. I would come home from teaching and pray that we would be enjoying some lovely rice and chapati, but almost as a sick joke ugali would always be present throughout my day.
Tired of its lumpy existence in my day-to-day life, I began getting creative with my meals. I started cooking for the family I lived with. We ate apple pies and homemade spaghetti (Kenyan market style) and enjoyed our meals very much. I rarely came across ugali for the next few weeks, and boy I did not miss it! And then came my birthday. My family prepared a huge meal for me and invited all the neighbors. I was so excited! Then the food came. And you guessed it, so did the ugali. There were literally platters of It. Mountains even. In my mind I thought, “We meet again.” Of course my terror never showed its face and I was so grateful for the evening that I ate my weight through the substance. It’s been almost a year since I came across ugali, but the nightmare remains.


Eunmi Song

In March, 2008 I arrived at Entebbe airport in Uganda with fear and curiosity and started to do volunteer work with members of FYO(Foundation for Young Orphans). FYO was a non-government organization to help orphans, and the poor people in Uganda. They took me to the community in Kigugo village. I worked as an assistant teacher teaching at ‘Kigugo Hope Primary School’ and collected general data in Kigugo village. I stayed there with the locals, eating food in the dust, sleeping in a house with mice and fleas, being bitten by mosquitoes and insects and walking to fetch water. As I got closer to them I could understand more and more their poor living condition within their lives.

There were lovely children in the village. The young angels always followed me with curious eyes whenever I did something. Even though they couldn’t understand my words, we could communicate with gestures and our eyes. I loved them more with each passing day. However, the angels’ lives were dark and miserable rather than bright and colorful. I saw many children whose stomachs were distended because of lack of food. Moreover they lacked clothing, health care, scholastic materials and necessary supplies. It pained me to see the little angles like this. I felt the limit of my ability whenever I saw their suffering.

One day, some children gathered around me and they asked me a few questions. A teacher translated the children’s questions in English. One girl asked, “Where are you from?” “I’m from Korea.” “Why did you come to Uganda?” the girl asked again. “I would like to be your friend, and I want to help you,” I responded. As I said this, one boy with his eyes twinkling gave me a frank question, “How? Can you give us shoes?” I was little embarrassed by the question, and I replied, “…Sorry. I can’t…now…” And the boy asked me again, “Then, can you take me to Korea?” I was even more embarrassed. I knew what answer he expected, but I couldn’t do anything. “ Um..…No.. I cannot do it now…. But, I believe you will be able to go to Korea by yourselves someday,” I responded. He then asked me, “How much does it cost to go to Korea?” “Um.. about 1,500 dollars,” I replied. “Oh no, it’s impossible for us to go to Korea! We will never be able to earn that much money in our entire life,” he exclaimed. The young boys and girls cried, “No, we can’t! We can’t go to Korea!” I didn’t know how to respond.

Meeting them and listening to their stories, I realized that I had to find a better way to help them directly. I wanted to give them hope, but there was a limit as to what a naïve volunteer could do. I just felt the mighty wall of their harsh reality and felt powerless to help them. What can I do for these little children? Show them affection? Hold their rough hands? Listen and talk to them while looking in their naive eyes? I did those things, but I was not able to solve their practical difficulties.

Ever since I served at FYO, I have been seriously concerned about what I can do for the children. I desired to know more about poverty and difficulties in African nations and tried to learn about international development. Still now, I’ve also tried to understand more social, economic, health and natural problems and practices majoring in sustainable development at this school. Studying in graduate school is also a new, huge challenge to me and I have also struggled with language since I arrived in the U.S. Life has not been, and perhaps never will be, easy and simple for a naïve adventurer. Yet, I believe it has made me a bold, warm-hearted adventurer, and I am definitely willing to keep exploring, with the hope of encountering new experiences and learning new lessons. By pursuing this small step, I hope to be prepared to work for those children one day, as well as give the lovely children some different answers. Instead of just giving them the helpless answer, “No, I can’t,” I will say, “YES, WE CAN!”


Amanda Brinton  

Whenever I go abroad for any length of time I tend to make two social groups for myself; my pack of people (host families, friends, co-workers, etc) and my pack of dogs. I don’t really know how it happens but I always end up befriending dogs and they too become a very important part of my daily happiness and sanity in sometimes situations that can make you feel crazy. This being said, while living in my small Kichwa community in the Ecuadorian Amazon for two years during Peace Corps, I had my pack of community dogs. Roughly 5 dogs who loved me and I loved back. One of these dogs was a medium female brown Pitbull looking mix. She had had puppies a few months after I arrived in my community and due to lack of financing many times the people in my community would not feed their dogs. So as I found her, she literally looked like a walking skeleton due to giving out so many nutrients while nursing her pups. So at that time I gave her the generic name Mama and I began to feed her. However, she also then began to associate my backpack with food and ergo her survival.

One day while a group of my students and I were painting a world map mural on the side of the community meeting house, one of the teenage boys had gotten close to my bag and due to Mama’s resource guarding of my bag she nipped at the boy’s heels to protect it. Unknown to me there was a middle aged man that I had come to know, who had been apparently observing the dog nipping at the boy’s heels and unfortunately who had also been drinking heavily that morning or perhaps who hadn’t stopped from the night before.

Therefore, while I’m painting I hear the boy say “that dog tried to bite me” as I look up to look at the boy, instead to my horror I see this drunken man stumbling towards the group of my students holding a large stone over his head yelling “I’m going to kill that dog!” I go into a panic mode but obviously also know that it is impossible to logically reason with a completely belligerent person. So here we are: Mama, me, drunken angry man, and about 15 students ranging from ages 6-16 watching this all unfold. So I go into mediator mode/betting on drunken logic. I tell him he can kill the dog tomorrow if he wants (knowing tomorrow he will not remember today) because it would be really bad to kill the dog in front of all these kids. Meanwhile Mama is protectively crouched next to me staring up at this yelling human with a giant rock. Finally I convince him that he can kill the dog later if he wants but not now. As he turns and walks away, Mama takes off after him and grabs the back of his shorts. I am in total disbelief this is happening like, ”Mama really, are you being serious right now?” So of course the man retreats back to me following Mama and goes into the whole thing all over again. After another round of negotiations again he leaves. I take a huge sigh of relief along with my students and we continue painting for about 20 minutes.

Then all of a sudden my students started yelling to me “He Is coming back on a motor cycle with some other guy!” I drop my paint brush, grab my bag, and with Mama chasing after me thinking we are running for fun, we frantically run across the community’s center field. I quickly see one of the shelter cabins are available that sometimes commuting teachers would use to sleep in and we jet inside. I quickly close the door behind us and there Mama and I sit; sweating, panting, and hoping today is not Mama’s last. She is looking at me with the happiest expression like “Don’t you love running from a standstill?” and I am sitting there looking at her like “I feel like we are running for both of our lives.” I just kept imagining this guy busting into the cabin with a giant stone again and literally stoning the dog to death. I could barely handle it, so I just barricaded myself against the door and I was thinking fine, if he doesn’t know we are in here and tries to open the door, he will just think it is locked. So there we sat feeling like minutes were hours. Finally one of my students knocked on the door and said he was gone. Again for the millionth time that day I breathed a sigh of relief and exited the cabin with Mama still looking happily clueless with what had just happened. From then on I kept my bag at a far distance from any activity and Mama was still alive and well when I left my community many months later.

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Dog on the left is Mama


Rebecca Starkman

When I was studying abroad in Spain, two of my friends and I went to eat dinner one night and had quite the experience. We were looking over the menu and one of my friends settled on a lasagna dish. The menu was in Spanish though and he didn’t speak or read the language so he wasn’t sure what ingredients were in it. I read the menu and helped translate (so I thought). “Oh that says beef. Beef lasagna,” I told him. He took my word for it and placed his order. When our food came out, my other friend and I were actually wishing we would have ordered the lasagna. It looked and smelled great! But then he took a few bites and something seemed wrong. He looked at us and said, “Hey I don’t know if this is beef…something tastes different.” We each tried a piece and noticed that something definitely did taste different. So when the waiter came by we asked him what exactly was in the lasagna. We were horrified to find out it was made of buffalo intestines!!! I couldn’t believe I mixed up “cow” and “buffalo” in Spanish. To this day my translation mistake is one of our funniest memories and little lessons learned from the trip. I guess we could say we tried all Spain had to offer!


Sarah Anne Ward

I lived in Ghana during the summer of 2014 but my trip started off with a dramatic rough patch, followed by a fun pick-me-up. It was my first time flying alone, let alone being in Africa, so you could say I was a little on edge. At the Accra airport, we got off the plane and walked across the open runway towards the immigration line. They asked us to prepare our documents (passport and yellow fever card) while we were in line to speed up the process and with just my luck, my passport was nowhere to be found in my bright purple folder labeled “PASSPORT”. Naturally I had a small meltdown. My classmates and I began running up and down the immigration line trying to find my passport, which had fallen out of my folder. After an hour of searching, a man came up to me and said, “the girl in this picture looks like you,” holding up my passport. And I was delighted to see that he found it, however it required about 30 more minutes of identification confirmation before he was allowed to give it back to me. He found my passport on the floor of our plane from London when they were cleaning it for the next flight. We got back in line for immigration and pretended like the passport was never lost in the first place!  Then, while we were waiting in line for our documents to be reviewed, a lady dressed in traditional Ghanaian clothing came up to our group and told one of the students that she liked her backpack and asked where she got it. The student said, “I bought it at TJ Maxx but it’s in a city in the US called Harrisonburg in Virginia.” The lady then said “I’m from Harrisonburg! I work at Festival Dining Hall at James Madison University!” We literally all started jumping up and down screaming because somehow the first person that we managed to meet in Ghana literally worked at our university. Everyone in the airport looked at us like we were crazy but it was such a great moment. She asked us if we knew Dr. O-A and we said, “Of course, he’s here with us!” So when we got outside we all met up and had a JMU reunion.


Russell Anderson

I’ve had a ton of amazing experiences throughout my life. I’m thankful for almost all of them. I’ll share one of my fondest memories.

For me, working for Greenpeace USA was a very rewarding experience. It was one of those catalyzing times in life where you begin to realize where you fit into the bigger picture. During my time, we were provided the opportunity to travel to the Netherlands to join Greenpeace International as the campaign launch team for “Green My Apple,” a campaign developed to encourage Apple to improve their recycling and post-consumer take back policies. The campaign was a success, but that is not what made the experience memorable.

After spending a week at Greenpeace International, “The Arctic Sunrise,” Greenpeace’s Arctic flag ship came to port after months at sea. We spent the next 6 hours feasting, partying, and getting to know all these amazing organizers and activists. We were in the company of giants (in their own right) from 30+ countries. The power of that kind of energy keeps me buzzing with gratitude even today.



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