Along with Danielle (Hannah L.) and Richard (Maris), we (Robin and Lenny, parents of Sydney S-G) were lucky enough to spend 5 days with TTS24 in Chilo Gorge, Zimbabwe. We thought you might appreciate a post that captures some of the time and offers a glimpse of the experience our daughters are having. Also be on the lookout for video and stills from Richard, who as luck would have it for the rest of us is a PROFESSIONAL photographer. And I’m sure that Danielle (who traveled across the world to provide the girls with a series of thoughtful treats – both tasteful and practical) with will share her own views and reflections shortly.
It’s hard to know where to begin.
We can start by setting the scene. Chilo Gorge is a lovely lodge perched above the Save River, which ebbs to a relatively low level in the dry months, but substantially swells in the rainy months ahead. (The width of the sandy bed is impressive, and we were all sorry not to see it in full roar.) TTS took over the entire lodge, and the girls welcomed a chance to stay in rooms with real beds, showers and their very own toilets and sinks. From what we can tell of their two-to-a-tent, pack and go in 30 minutes, help with cooking and cleaning, do your own laundry, up by 6:00 for calisthenics and go, go, go until lights out at 10:00 each night lifestyle, Chilo Gorge Lodge represented something of a vacation for them. (Parents, you’ll be delighted to know free laundry was available, so the girls had a chance to get back into clean clothes. We can report seeing “brown” shirts returned to their original white.)
While the schedule was no doubt lighter than usual, it was still jam-packed. During our short stay we went on two game drives. (We don’t like to brag, but, together with our guide Lionel and teacher Katie, our jeep -- Bailey, Kait, Sarah, Caroline, Marley, and Sydney S-G -- saw and recorded 104 different types of birds after being challenged by the other jeeps). We went on a walking safari, where we learned about the exotic, tasty, and sometimes deadly properties of local flora before enjoying “sundowners” on a cliff overlooking the river. We visited nearby Mahenye Village, where we saw how locals make palm wine (and tasted it, though be reassured it was largely pre-fermented and non-alcoholic) and had a chance to read with local school children outside their classrooms after watching a vigorous Shona dance. We saw TTS classes in action, where the girls wrestled with local poetry and the reality and science of water and shortages. We also were lucky enough to watch the girls share brave and kind reflections of things they’ve experienced and what thoughts and questions were triggered. (Be sure to ask your daughter about her Global reflection. We can assure you every one is worth hearing and discussing.) We had a chance to see some of the academic work the girls had completed – from the informative, insightful, creative, beautiful and fun TTS Newspaper, to quality illustrations of why we ordinary humans are really “superheroes” when you consider the miracles our bodies perform each day (from tears flushing out unwanted particles to nose hair keeping out dust and germs).
But, three highlights merit special mention. First was a soccer match between our TTS students and a group of young women from the local high school. Though many of the TTS students were not soccer players, they gamely agreed to dive in. When we arrived at the dirt/sand field with net-less goals, we saw that the entire village – hundreds of children, teens and adults – had turned out to see the game. It was brutally hot and most of the locals played barefoot. The game was a hard-fought 40 minutes, with an additional 20 minutes added on because no one could bear to see the game end, and despite heroic efforts by all (and some spectacular saves by the TTS keeper), the locals won 2-1. Of course, the point wasn’t the score or even the caliber of play. Watching our girls play with the Zimbabwean girls, watching Richard take pictures of village kids and seeing their reactions as he showed them the photos as they crowded around him, hearing Danielle and Quinn rally locals to cheer “Let’s go, TTS”, and to give high fives and handshakes unceasingly to the dozens of beaming children anxious and shy to interact with such novel guests…it was a moment of community and goodwill I suspect none of us will ever forget. (If we mistakenly do, we need only glance at the terrific photos Jennifer took of the two teams forming a spontaneous arch for each other and the local children to pass through as the game came to an end to remember the joy of the day.) While but one experience among many for our daughters, it was a powerful reminder of what a life-changing semester they are having. They won’t look at the world the same way after 3 months of such opportunities, and it is clear on a daily basis how intentional the planning has been, and how deliberate and thoughtful the discussions this stellar group of teachers regularly has with our girls.
Which brings us to the teachers. Sure, none of us would have sent our daughters off to Africa without a belief that they were in good hands. But, without speaking for Danielle and Richard (though I’m confident they’ll agree), we’ll up the ante and highlight that we all hit the jackpot with this group. There’s Quinn the intern -- a former TTS student herself. She’s a terrific presence, offers a wonderfully empathetic take on the experience as our girls live it, and wakes at 5:30 AM to run the local roads. There’s Sarah White -- the lead teacher who relentlessly pushes the girls to challenge all of their assumptions and to think for themselves, and brings her substantial experience teaching on several TTS trips bear. There’s Mary Reid -- who has committed past, present, and future her career to using hands-on experience to not just teach but transform students. There’s Beth -- who manages to make water interesting and to encourage even as she nudges the girls to consider approaches different from what they’ve already done. And there’s Katie -- who has already brought out some extraordinary work in her teaching of Global and Travel Journalism, all with a warm and welcoming smile. What an amazing set of teachers, mentors and role models for our group of 16!! (And as a bonus treat, we got to spend the visit with Jennifer Royall, whose passion and talent for TTS and what it represents is as heartfelt as it is inspiring.) Even as we realized that the 5 days we were there were close to a “vacation,” the amount of work and planning and care that goes into each experience, each lesson and each day was remarkable – and evident even as the teachers tried to by word and deed to downplay it. What a gift to our daughters… We have no adequate words to capture how truly impressed and touched we were.
Finally, it is worth highlighting what an extraordinary group of young women with whom to travel. We can’t speak for the rest of you, but our biggest fear was that our daughter might spend 3 months in a group fraught with cliques or teenage angst run amok. Nothing could be further from the truth. From the first “circle” discussion, where the group welcomed parents and offered to answer questions and share initial thoughts, it was transparent that the group is open, considerate, insightful and committed to supporting each other. The girls quite obviously had relationships with every other group member. And, while there were noisier, quieter, more rambunctious, or more serious members to be sure, a mutual regard was evident in every interaction. We were up close and personal for five days -- sharing meals, watching classes, going on lengthy hikes and drives -- and we saw nary a cross word. That’s not to say there aren’t some modest, normal tensions here and there, but unless we missed something significant, nothing seemed to come close to touching the transparent pleasure they take in each other’s company and obvious fun they are having as a group.
For our part, it was wonderful to have personalities to put to the pictures. We learned that Marisa is rarely found without a smile or a laugh, and that Caroline is a world-class wildlife spotter (with Sarah a cheerful and humble close second!). We saw Kait honored with two awards in one night (they give out 5 awards every Saturday, with the girls passing on the one they received the week before to another), and we had a chance to discuss poetry with Bailey (who was kind enough to volunteer to partner with a parent and offered terrific insight!). Hannah W. rose to the challenge of being “chieflet” on the day we visited the cliffs at Chilojo (our most ambitious day) (NOTE: At this point in the trip girls rotate being “chieflet” for the day, in charge of the schedule and logistics – great experience to be sure!), and we learned that Claudia is ever ready with a probing question or thought, delivered with a smile and warmth. Sydney M. offered a Global reflection that gave us chills and still has us thinking, and Ava wrote and performed songs we hope (predict?) to hear on an album someday – with a voice as lovely as the lyrics were thought-provoking. Sydney L. is managing to balance a packed TTS schedule with college applications (not sure how she’s doing that!), and Maia is prompting our own daughter to learn rollicking Spanish phrases. (Where IS the turtle, anyway?) Hannah L. seems to have enough energy and spunk to keep Big Blue running all by herself, and it was a joy to watch Marley sing and swap quick-witted banter with Sydney SG (who undoubtedly is the noisiest member of the group!). We’d love nearby Maris to visit Chicago as promised, and we hope Violet knows how much we enjoyed hearing about her photography passion and more generally her thoughtful and engaging perspectives. In short, your girls are making some wonderful and we hope life-long friends. And because this experience is necessarily a product not just of the studies and travel, but of the people they share it with, we came away with a renewed sense of appreciation of what this will mean to our own daughter.
We’ve gone on much too long, but only because there is so much to share. We hope this gives you another small window into what they are experiencing even if we cannot provide a soundtrack of hippo grunts and baboon screeches to go with it, or capture the grace of a stork or heron in flight. That said, we do hope it helps you to hear one more perspective on how your daughters are in tremendous hands, and having adventures and making friends to last a lifetime. I know our daughter will come back changed for the good, and we can’t help but think yours will too.
Robin Steans & Lenny Gail