First Person Accounts: Luskin Global

First Person Accounts: Luskin Global

Posted on

Fri, 09/20/2013 - 8:38am



This summer, numerous students from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs are working and interning around the globe as part of UCLA Luskin's strategic plan to engage the School and its mission in international issues. The UCLA Luskin students will be sharing their thoughts on their work and their travels through a series of first person blogs.

Follow their progress through this page and keep up with all UCLA Luskin summer work via our Twitter page using #LuskinSummer. You can also follow Urban Planning student Ruby Bolaria's travels on her Blogspot page and Urban Planning student Chelsea Richer's travels in China via her Blogspot page.



By Sean Kennedy, Urban Planning
September 15, 2013


Last week I arrived in a small plane from Jakarta to the Sumatran city of Bungo. Bungo is located in Jambi Province, and has been of interest to a significant number of researchers from a range of organizations including ICRAF and CIFOR due the area’s history of rubber agroforestry practices and recent signs of rapid conversion to monoculture rubber and oil palm plantations.

My trusty plane

After a rather bumpy flight, I landed safely and was collected by Ibu Ratna, the local ICRAF coordinator, and my translator and travel companion Ade, a local English teacher. Following a brief stopover at the local ICRAF office (which is housed in government compound of sorts) we headed off to the village of Lubuk Beringin. The 2-hour 40-mile journey brought back memories of the 405, although the scenery was slightly more inspiring. We arrived in the dark, and after waiting around on the side of the road for about 20 minutes, the head rubber-honcho arrived to take us to his house. His wife served us dinner, and I was ready for an early night. However, the Honch had other ideas. Within the space of about an hour, he had assembled 15 plantation owners and tappers from the village for an informal group discussion. Everyone was eager to hear what I had to say. All of a sudden I found myself in researcher mode, and had to knock back a few quick coffees to get my brain functioning.

It was a lively discussion, led by yours truly with the assistance of my translator, Ade. We discussed issues such as the tappers’ relationship to their work, the benefits rubber has brought to the community, and the challenges that lay ahead. Most of the land owners felt that things were much better in the village now than they had been 20 years ago, and most of the men had been able to send their children to high school, and in some cases, to university. However, most also felt that more needs to be done, and that NGOs may play an important role, specifically by improving local governance structures and supporting the development of eco-tourism in the area. Having seen the Subak in Bali only a week or so, my reservations about eco-tourism were still strong, although I could appreciate the appeal that the idea must have to the people in the village.

Our focus group discussion

The next day I tried my hand at rubber tapping. At first it seemed like a fairly straightforward process: you have a rubber tree, you attach a cup on the side, you carve into it with a blade, and out comes the rubber. The next day you go back, empty your cups and off you go again. I was guided through some of the local plantations, some of which are complex agroforestry systems while others were borderline monocultures, with only a couple of fruit trees thrown in here and there. The general consensus seemed to be that the orderly straight-line approach was the preferred option, however cost was a limiting factor.

Later in the day I learned about the process of getting the tree to grow in the first place. There is a wide array of different seeds, seedlings, grafts and grafted seedlings available on the local market, and choosing what is right for you can be a challenge. The ins and outs of the rubber tree market don’t meet the excitement criteria that this blog demands, but lets just say I ended the day much more informed, although much more confused, than I had been when I was getting my tap on.

Tapping rubber

As part of the trip I also had the chance to meet with some government officials involved in forestry planning and trade. This is where I really missed out on a lot of what is going on by not being able to speak the local language. Translation is good, but I feel I missed out on a lot of the nuances of the discussion. I also had a tour of a rubber production facility. This is where the rubber is delivered from the plantations, cleaned, churned, dried, baked and compacted ready for export. The factory I visited exports around 90% of its product to Goodyear in Akron, Ohio. A number of chemicals are used in processing to prevent the rubber from hardening in storage and transit. The smell is pretty overpowering, and I’m still trying to get the odor out of my clothes.

On my last day Ade took me to his school for a bit of ‘show and tell’. The school has around 600 students aged between 6 and 12. I imagine this is what it must be like to be famous. I was mobbed as I entered the school, had kids demanding my autograph, and took about 50,000 photos with students and staff. The whole experience was a lot of fun and a nice end to the trip. After the school I headed to the airport, which as you can see, is still very much under construction. If I wasn’t in a 4WD I would probably never have made it to the terminal.

Mobbed at the school

I now have one more week in Bogor before heading back to LA. This summer has taught me a lot about rubber, and also a lot about myself. It is true that if you’re interested in working internationally, there is no substitute for getting down and dirty in the field. It takes a special person to handle being away from home and loved ones, constantly readjusting to new situations, being prepared for the unpredictable, all the while trying to make sense of it. I imagine it will be some time before I fully digest all that has happened over the past 9 weeks, but am sure that the experiences will stay with me and serve as a positive influence in my work for many years to come. Thank you UCLA, thank you ICRAF, and thank you Indonesia.   


By Matthew Mizel, Social Welfare
September 1, 2013

Winding Down in Joburg

My last few days in Joburg have been punctuated by the arrival of friends.  First, Felipe Folgosi came from Brazil.  It is always good to see him, and now we can add a third continent to our history.  I had saved visiting the Apartheid Museum for his arrival, so we went there first.  Through my two months in South Africa, I have learned much about the political and human history of the country.  The museum comprehensively presented it all into one cohesive and powerful building.  I remember when Apartheid law ruled the country, the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, and the emergence of a new government.  Nevertheless, several exhibits struck me.  Even though South Africa’s 400 year history has been littered with whites oppressing blacks (and all racial groups living here), Apartheid didn’t become the letter of the law until the election of the National Party in 1948.  With that mandate, the government instituted the Group Areas Act that required the separation of races into specific places to live.  Europeans received exclusive access to the best places to live, and blacks, Indians, and coloreds (the South African term for mixed race people) each had to live in specific and separate townships.  This meant that thousands upon thousands of people were forced (sometimes by bulldozers and/or at gunpoint) from their homes to move into segregated and terrible housing conditions.  Sometimes government officials separated families if they were (or looked) to be of different races.  This was one of over a hundred laws with the linked purposes of separating the races and providing the white people with the greatest advantages.  

I do not know how to briefly encapsulate over two months of learning, listening, and observation about Apartheid, South Africa then and now, and race.  I have seen the distance and hardship caused by the forced removals.  I have met people who fought Apartheid and endured imprisonment and torture.  I have witnessed the scars on survivors, their children, and the society.  South Africa still has staggering inequality drawn on racial lines.  There is too much to describe, so perhaps I have done a disservice by not writing about it as I was experiencing the opportunities.  The Apartheid Museum, though, had a powerful collection of images, artefacts, and exhibits that reminded me of all that I learned and summarized the nearly 50 years of Apartheid.  (For example, they had an excellent acknowledgment of Neil Aggett, who committed suicide while being tortured by the police at John Vorster Square.  I heard this previously from his friend Maurice, who was also locked up at that time and witnessed Neil being tortured.)

The next day, Felipe and I travelled to southwestern Joburg to visit Soweto, a black township.  I am skipping over a lot of history to bring up a seminal event—the student-led protests that started in Soweto in 1976.  That year, the government instituted a new policy requiring education to be in Afrikaans, the language of a large portion of the white population (and new to almost everyone else).  This was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and students in the black township of Soweto took to the streets.  The South African police opened fire, killing about a hundred on the first day.  This led to riots, protests, and ultimately began a more forceful resistance against the Apartheid regime that lasted until the government fell. 

Felipe and I began at the Hector Pieterson Museum, created in honor of the first student killed by the police.  A photographer captured another boy carrying Hector’s 13 year old lifeless body while his sister cried, and this became an iconic image that galvanized international public opinion.  (Unfortunately, I left the picture on my computer, which is not with me now.  Google Hector Pieterson and the image will instantly come up.)  Felipe and I then walked over to Nelson Mandel’s house from the 50’s and 60’s, where we could learn more about the struggles he and his family faced through his 27 years of being a political prisoner.  As we walked through the streets of Soweto, it strangely reminded me of being in Moscow’s Red Square a few years ago.  Growing up in the 80’s, I never imagined I would be in either place—they both were incredibly far away geographically and mentally as well as nearly forbidden.  Felipe and I also had a little fun on the journey.  He made friends with some street performers, using his Brazilian flow to bond with them through a drum rhythm.  I wore a t-shirt I bought earlier in the week that read “umlungu”—that means “white person” in both Zulu and Xhosa.  Several black South Africans laughed at my shirt shouting out “umlungu” and giving me a thumbs up.  It was hard to believe we were standing in the same street where Hector Pieterson had been gunned down.

As I have thought about South Africa’s history, I have been struck by two conclusions.  First, it is a testament to the South African people and Nelson Mandela that the country has not descended into hatred and a bloody civil war.  Somehow, South Africa moves forward, acknowledging its history and trying to write a better story.  For example, as a sign of the nation’s commitment to equality and justice, its constitution (written in the 90’s) explicitly states that discrimination based on sexual orientation is against the law.  South Africa has as much potential as any country I have visited.  Second, I have been amazed at the similarities between South Africa and the United States.  Both have an ugly racial history that lives in today’s world.  Both countries have tremendous inequality drawn significantly along racial lines, and people still tend to live with and associate with members of their own race.  The most staggering difference is the honesty around the issue.  In South Africa, people and the government recognize the impact of race and history, so they are trying to rectify it.  In the United States, mainstream America for the most part does not acknowledge, understand, or effectively deal with race and its role in society, particularly in creating inequality and oppression.  (That is, of course, a simplified assessment, but we don’t have to look past this summer and the Zimmerman verdict to see an example.)  Maybe Americans could learn something from South Africans.  None of us are perfect, but at least here they are honest with themselves and their history in the hope of improving the future.


By Sean Kennedy, Urban Planning
September 1, 2013

Bali and the Subak 

It’s been an interesting and very busy few weeks since my last post. I had a brief trip to Kuala Lumpur to renew my visa, a brief stopover in Jakarta and then back to the wilds of Bogor to continue my work on rubber eco-certification. I then spent a few days holidaying with my dad (involving a spot of parasailing) in Bali en route to the 6th Annual ESP Conference on Monday*.

The theme of the conference was ‘Making ecosystem services count’, and has focused on the measurement, evaluation and policy aspects of ecosystem services – essentially counting the ecosystem services and then making them count for policymakers. The bulk of attendees were scientists, and while I could consider myself a social scientist of sorts, I’m certainly not a ‘real scientist’ in the eyes of many of these folks. Nevertheless, I have managed to connect with a range of interesting thinkers from around the world whose interests span from soil chemistry up to governance of emerging international environmental services markets. I’ve even signed up for some working groups for next year’s conference. There were around 40 sessions at the conference that focused on particular ecosystems (including urban ecosystems), data collection and GIS applications, payment for ecosystem services gaming (what tha?) and how to make all of these fabulous scientific findings understood and appreciated by the planners and policymakers of the world. Incredibly interesting and I’ve been left with a lot of things to think about.

On Thursday we went on a field trip to an arrangement of rice terraces known as ‘subak.’ Although rice terraces can be found in much of Southeast Asia and China, the subak in Bali is unique in terms of the way local farmers manage the landscape collectively. The system is dependent on water, and therefore relies on the cooperation of farmers to ensure water is effectively distributed. Water flow is controlled by an elaborate system of canals, that are adjusted depending on the season and planting cycle. The local area is administered by a democratically elected king, who works with the farmers to ensure the whole system operates in harmony with the gods, the people, and the environment. The emphasis is on effectiveness rather than efficiency, and for the last 1,000 years the system seems to have been working quite well.

The subak has recently been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site. While this measure is intended to protect this managed ecosystem, to date the farmers on the ground have seen little direct benefit. There has been a mild increase in tourism, which unfortunately benefits the local restaurant owners more than the farmers. The small roads are also struggling with the pressure, and according to local residents have become increasingly degraded in recent years (at one point I thought our tour bus was going to end up in the rice paddy as the bus slipped around in the mud on the edge of the terrace). At this stage it appears well intentioned top-down planning has failed to address the needs of local residents.

On Friday I gave a short presentation at a workshop dedicated to eco-certification. It was a little daunting presenting to a room of experts, but they were all very forgiving and I didn’t cop too much abuse. After having spent the bulk of my time in Indonesia sitting in an office reading about eco-certification, it was great to finally meet some people in the industry and hear about what goes on behind the scenes. The meeting involved a lot of heated discussion between impassioned academics, but I think some sort of progress was made. 

As I finish writing this up, it’s about 8 pm, and I’ve just walked in the door after the flight and long drive. Much to my dismay the local school (which shares a wall with my lodging) is hosting some sort of music night. I’m not sure if it’s a real band or karaoke, but whatever it is should be illegal. By the sounds of it they’re using every subwoofer that was available within a 400-mile radius of Bogor. All I can say is that you’re lucky this isn’t an audio-blog.

The week after next things will get a little more serious when I will visit a rubber-producing district in Sumatra. I’m sure I’ll have some stories to tell.

*I should add that the conference venue is also the venue for this year’s Miss World contest. As we were leaving yesterday there were huge video screens and marquees being set up all over the place. I enquired about participating in the contest but was advised that I didn’t fulfill the eligibility requirements.


By Matthew Mizel, Social Welfare
August 22, 2013


I arrived in Kigali, Rwanda, on Monday from Zanzibar for a short break from work as I’m ahead of schedule on my project.  Afterall, I was in the neighborhood…

I still remember the genocide here that peaked in 1994, so it was a very strange experience to be descending into the same airport where the Rwandan president’s plane was shot down, beginning the horrific wave of killings that left a million Tutsis dead.  Moving through customs and getting a taxi, I was struck at how quiet it was.  Normally at international airports, especially those in poorer countries, people are hollering at me to get in their taxi.  Here, I had to seek one out.  I would notice this calm in many instances during my stay in Rwanda.

That night, I hopped on the back of a moto to head to a restaurant for dinner.  Even though Kigali is a little over 100 miles from the equator, the temperature was a refreshing 70 degrees or so.  Rwanda is known as “the land of a thousand hills,” and riding up and down the gentle slopes as house and street lights illuminated the crests and valleys displayed Kigali in all its beauty.  When my moto stopped at a traffic light, an SUV pulled up next to us bumping some Kendrick Lamar.  I nodded my head to the music, and the four guys inside yelled, “he knows it!”  I smiled at them, and they shouted, “Kendrick Lamar!”

“I know!  I’m from Los Angeles!”

The four guys flipped out.  “Compton!”  The light turned green, and that was the end to my first exposure to Rwanda’s friendliness and fun.  And maybe those four guys first exposure to someone from Compton…sort of.

The next morning, I went to the genocide museum.  I anticipated it being tough to handle, but it was even worse than I expected.  That is a credit to the well-designed exhibits.  A few quick facts…the Hutu people killed an estimated 1 million Tutsi people, mostly in the span of 100 days in 1994.  It was planned by Hutu leadership and carried out by both militia and ordinary citizens.  Neighbor killed neighbor.  The origin of the hatred was a propaganda campaign begun by Belgian occupiers to divide the native population, but after Rwandan independence in 1962 the Hutus carried it out all by themselves.  During the lead up to violence and during the actual genocide, the world’s nations and the UN did not stop it, as is often the case with genocides.  The most powerful museum exhibits came at the end.  One room had over a thousand pictures people had donated of their loved ones who had been killed.  These were the faces of genocide.  The next room had 12 photographs of kids who had been murdered.  These were the last photographs the family had of their children.  Beneath each was the child’s name and tidbits about their personality and their favorite things…soccer, ham and cheese sandwiches, his sister.  And then it listed how they died: hacked with machete, thrown against a wall, beaten with club.  It was simply horrible. 

Feeling awful about humanity, the universe somehow blessed me with a conversation with the museum café’s manager, Chris.  He was a kind and thoughtful, providing me with good food and suggestions for other sights to see.  His warm smile, strangely common among Rwandans, and positivity about the future was the lifeline I needed.

I took a moto to a market on the outskirts of Kigali.  I always like to see where people do their grocery shopping in foreign countries.  It gives me an idea of what is available to them and provides insight into the daily life.  This large covered market featured many fresh vegetables, bags of grain, and freshly killed chickens still with feathers. 




There were also rows of stalls where people sold clothes, household items, hardware, etc.  I stumbled across a hat stand and looked to fill a need for better sun protection.  The helpful salesman couldn’t produce options for me fast enough, and I tried on an old fedora.  It is a retro style that has passed many times, but a classic also never goes out of style.  The woman at the next stall smiled her endorsement, and I negotiated with the salesman.  He came down to $7.50, which I am sure was a great deal for him, and I gladly paid it.




Among my adventures that night, I had two beers at the Hotel des Milles Collines, the place that was the basis for the movie Hotel Rwanda.  In addition to satisfying the touristy cinephile in me, it’s the nicest poolside bar in Kigali.

The next day, I went to the hopping bus station that teemed with thousands of Africans traveling throughout the country (and beyond) and the dozens of Rwandans trying to sell them drinks and newspapers.  It reminded me in a way of Penn Station in New York City even though this was outdoors.  I got on a bus for a 3 hour ride out to Kibuye on Lake Kivu, a beautiful Rwandan getaway.  The bus ride was everything I hoped it would be: rolling hills and curvy roads that provided a glimpse into small towns and rural farms.  The driver tuned the radio to a soundtrack of African hip-hop, and he treated the curves in the road as completely appropriate places to pass tanker trucks.  I’m not sure the reason for this, but it seems the poorer a country the greater disregard its citizens have for basic road safety.

Lake Kivu was relaxing and beautiful.  I took a boat around in the late afternoon and could see the Congo on the far shore.  I wondered if Captain Kurtz was somewhere over there.

People often ask me the reasons I like to travel solo.  That night was a perfect example.  I had dinner at the hotel’s lakeside restaurant where the manager and I had a conversation about the area.  I wanted to head into town to see what it was like, so he called up his friend Jean Bosco to take me out.  Next thing I knew, the two of us were walking into a locals bar filled with about 40 Rwandans watching Premier League Football and playing pool.  Jean introduced me to his best friend Michel, and the bartender was giving me the local price on beers.  I bought Michel a beer, which he enjoyed before he told me he was going to be my moto ride home.  Oops.  We watched the local high school science teacher (and part-time class clown) defeat all-comers on the pool table.  After he dominated Michel, he graciously let Michel and I play a game.  Michel’s girlfriend showed up in time to watch me defeat her man, but the real satisfaction came from watching the two of them.  They were so much in love that they could not stand nearby without touching each other and smiling.  Both in their mid-twenties, they had grown up in Kibuye together but had only started dating a year ago.  Seeing them giggle, I was mystified by what took them so long to get together.  Jean introduced me to a friend who had earned a scholarship to study in California.  I pulled out my driver’s license, and he became all excited.  Hopefully, I’ll see him soon.  We had several rounds of beers (minus my moto driver), and I felt like I gained a little better sense of Rwandans.  They are more genuinely kind than the people in many other countries, and they like to have fun.  As is the case anywhere, there are some dishonest ones trying to make a buck.  But unlike other countries, in Rwanda when I called them on it and refused to pay any late additional costs, they relented.  There was no righteous indignation or entitlement to my tourist money.  Of course as a tourist I always pay more than the locals.  I am fine with that as long as there are no shady dealings.

But there also was a noticeable quietness here.  The people do not talk a lot or in a loud voice.  When they are friendly it is often when someone engages them—they tend to keep to themselves.  This reminded me of Cambodia, where there had also been a recent genocide when I was there.  I wondered if the trauma of the extreme mass violence produced this sort of reaction.  On my bus ride back to Kigali, I was fortunate to sit next to Caleb, a 25 year old business student who spoke some English.  About an hour into the trip, we drove through a collection of about twenty vacant and decrepit buildings.  He said to me that was a village that had been completely destroyed during the genocide.  I asked Caleb how the genocide had impacted his country.  He was proud of the progress that they had made, but he confirmed my theory.  Rwandans reacted to the genocide by being especially kind, but they also tended to keep to themselves.  It reminded me of the time in the U.S. after 9/11 when so many people made the extra effort to be polite to one another.  It’s a shame that it takes extreme tragedy to make us a little bit nicer.  But at least the Rwandans have chosen that route.  They seem to want to move forward.  I saw many people working hard and many people taking care of their kids.  There is an optimism in the air even though my bus passed a genocide memorial every 15 minutes.  Hopefully, they will continue to be kind and gracious towards one another and not repeat the mistakes of their past. 


By Matthew Mizel, Social Welfare
August 18, 2013


On Thursday, I flew from Joburg to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, with the plan of catching a quick flight to the island of Zanzibar.  When I landed in Dar, I joined the mass of people trying to gain an entry visa from the one immigration officer who I could quickly tell enjoyed his fiefdom.  He seemed to particularly relish telling the European travelers that it would cost them $50 per person in American cash.  A stack of passports stuffed with American bills rose next to him.  It looked awfully fishy.  When I gave him mine, he dictatorially glared at me and said, “U.S. Passport.  $100.”  At that moment, I realized I had been working off a guide book I bought in South Africa that had told me it would be much cheaper to get into Tanzania.  Fortunately, my friend Paul had said something to me about a dozen years prior in Brazil as he held a bunch of U.S. twenties: “Nothing gets you out of tight situations when travelling like American greenbacks.”  Since then, I always have travelled with some U.S. currency.  Those dollars have paid to put 8 stitches in my palm in Tulum, Mexico, and now they were sitting in my passport on a shelf in a little immigration booth in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.

And they sat there for quite a while.  An hour and a half to be exact.  I accept the pace of travel, especially in places that aren’t exactly modern.  However, I only had a two hour layover before my puddle jumper over to Zanzibar.  When they finally called my name (and took my photograph and fingerprints), I dashed over to the baggage claim.  Miraculously, my bag was waiting for me.  I ran the gauntlet of taxi drivers to reach the Coastal Aviation office to check in for my flight.  The airline clerk gave me a big-eyed look that said without actual speech, “you seriously think you’ll make your flight in 30 minutes?”  She began furiously typing and got on her walkie-talkie.  She then instructed me that I would have to grab a taxi.


“You need to take a taxi to the other terminal.  Five dollars.”  She helpfully grabbed me a trustworthy taxi.  My greenbacks were disappearing. 

He accepted the mission and raced through the streets of Dar.  These were already notoriously chaotic streets filled with overflowing trucks carrying people, and my taxi’s aggression added to the concoction.  I loved the energy and mayhem.

We screeched to a halt at Terminal 1, and I ran through the run down small building to the gate.  A dozen people stared at me as I hustled into the room panting.  The flight was delayed.

It wasn’t for too long, though, as soon we were walking onto the tarmac towards a one propeller Cessna.  I took the seat closest to the front directly behind the pilot so I could see all the action.  Having piloted a friend’s Cessna before, I could see that we cruised at 130 knots and at an altitude of 4500 feet.  I cold also see that the pilot touched us down exactly on the main marker on the runaway.  When the airport ATM failed to work, I used ten more of my few remaining American dollars to pay for my taxi to my hotel.  I can’t thank Paul enough.

I spent the first day and a half on Zanzibar in Stone Town, the population center of the island.  I loved walking around exploring the amalgam of cultures.  Zanzibar has been a crossroads for multiple civilizations through the centuries.  In addition to its native African population, Indians, Arabs, and Europeans have all occupied it and/or engaged extensively in business there.  That business has included being a thoroughfare for the East-West spice trade (and eventual home for its farming) as well as being a leading port for sending African slaves to Arabia.  One result is that there are Arabic looking buildings next to colonial ones and in between Indian styled homes.

In the evening, when I went to the street food market, I was able to order freshly caught lobster spiced similar to that used in a tandoori.  I bargained with the clerk Thomas on the price, who maintained that I was getting the deal of the century.  However, when the chef Rafiki gave me my plate, it was only lukewarm.  Knowing I was taking my intestinal well-being in my hands, I politely asked him to heat it up some more.  At least I thought I asked him politely.  Rafiki clearly saw himself as an artist, and I had dared to question his creation.  I did my best to smooth it over, but he angrily wrapped the lobster (and shrimp) in foil and put it back on the grill.  A few minutes later, he re-(paper)-plated it for me.  Rafiki said I should give him an extra thousand Tanzanian Shilling for the extra cooking.  In addition to being an artist, he was also a businessman.

For brevity, I’m skipping over the fellow traveler friends I made, the 10 piece local music concert I attended, the horrific slave dungeon and caves, and the childhood home of Freddy Mercury (who grew up in Zanzibar).  After a day and a half, I went about 25 km to the north of the island to spend a couple of days on the sorta tranquil beaches.  The highlight of this time was today’s sunset dhouw (small sailboat) ride.  For the first hour, I was the only passenger on the 25 foot rickety old wooden vessel.  I stood on the roof watching the sun slowly go down on one side and the beach glide by on the other.  It had been a while since I had been sailing, and I forgot how calming being powered by the wind can be.  Unexpectedly, we went back to shore to pick up new passengers—a family of 10 Muslim kids and a few of their aunts and uncles.  (Tanzania is 98% Islamic.)  They were Muslim with a capital M—the girls and women were almost all covered head to toe, and one wore a full burqa revealing only her eyes.  (Tanzanian Muslims dress in a full range of attire ranging from very religious to Western stylings.)  It was a bit of a family reunion—they were all from nearby Dar Es Salaam, but some had moved to Toronto and London and were back visiting.  I welcomed them to “my” boat, and they asked where I was from.  One of the uncles was especially excited that I was from the U.S. as his son was now living in Dallas.  (I tried to imagine a relative of this group living there and hoped he was doing okay.)  The 12 year old girls joined me on the roof, excited to take their picture with me.  (I felt like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, who both have recently visited Zanzibar where they are extremely popular.)  I carefully stood next to them, making sure not to touch anyone (remembering the recent acid attack here on two British women who dressed revealing too much skin).  The adults appreciated the spectacle of the American blonde being photographed with the girls, though.  Nevertheless, when the girls wanted to send me the pictures, I debated giving them my jammasterjew email.  Instead, we went with facebook.  Over the next hour, I gave them suggestions of where to visit in the U.S., and they told me about their family relationships and migrations.  When one of the girls leaned into the wind as we glided across the water, I asked her if she had seen Titanic.  The girls giggled—they were thinking the same thing.  By the end of our hour together, they had made me feel like an honorary member of their family.

I have not done Zanzibar justice, but it’s my last night here.  We all have other things to do.


By Ruby Bolaria, Urban Planning
August 13, 2013

The Dark Side of Urban Planning

"It struck me that our history is contained in the home we live in, that we are shaped by the ability of these simple structures to resist being defiled." -Achmat Dangor from Kafka's Curse


Cape Town is undeniably beautiful. Table Rock mountain

Urban planning was used to control, manipulate and consolidate power under the Apartheid government. Its not the first time urban planning was used for evil...but its so visible in South Africa its almost laughable...almost. 

I try to imagine the conversations among the newly elected [by whites since nonwhites could not vote] National Party government in 1948. They won on the promise of apartheid, to ensure whites control South Africa to the detriment of non whites. 

I picture white men huddled over a map debating where to put the “natives” and how to best plan for them since “barbarous” blacks obviously could not govern themselves.  



Hendrik Verwoerd - chief architect of Apartheid. Created many of the key laws- a real mastermind. Assassinated in 1966 (after 1 unsuccessful attempt) 

City planning was critical in realizing their dream of segregation. South African cities still suffer from the apartheid legacy (To be fair, my observation on how apartheid legacy still haunts SA and is responsible for lasting inequality today is not universal -- some argue apartheid is over and people must not use race as an excuse ….sound familiar? The US is still debating the impact of race)

Among the hundreds of oppressive laws the Apartheid government issued, most dealt with the physical planning of cities, including the cornerstone Group Areas Act which forced people to relocate to townships based on their race (which was designated by the government thanks to the Population Registration Act) 

[Funny side note - whenever they encountered something new or if someone found a way around a law they just created another one - no one can argue they weren't efficient. Check out some of the main apartheid laws including the use of secret police to catch interracial couples in the act].






There are many signs like this on display that were common in Apartheid.

You couldn't ignore race even if you wanted to - it defined your life and livelihood. 

The architects of the apartheid cities were evil geniuses. They understood that the increasingly merging races were a threat to the white rule. As urbanization was rapidly bringing more bantu’s (black Africans) into cities, white government felt threatened and feared they would be overpowered. Their solution used urban planning to build transport, housing, schools, hospitals and everything else with the goal of segregation and oppression.  



European only bench. They used European and white synonymously 

The townships were almost always on the periphery, limiting nonwhite’s access to the central business district (CBD) where all the job, commerce, and recreational activity remained. The government created limited exit and entry points to townships enabling government to cut off entire areas during protests or any civil unrest.

The Master Plan: to segregate and control the inferior races.

Cape Town, like many other African cities resisted apartheid especially the Group Areas Act. The recent history of Cape Town's District 6 exemplifies this struggle and tragedy.  

In 1966, District 6 was designated a “whites only” area and forced over 60,000 (newly) classified coloreds (mixed race) to relocate. The government built a township in the Cape Flats about 15 miles away from District 6 (which was located in the heart of the city).

By 1982, after years of protests and violence the process was complete, almost all building were demolished and the once vibrant diverse district lay barren. The relocated residents attribute the rise in gang violence and poverty on their new location far away from jobs and any recreational activity  

"In District 6, we were in walking distance from work, cinemas, church, recreational areas. Now your new area has nothing - you have to travel to get to work and your children travel to get to school. And what happens when your kids get out of school? Both parents have to work because there is pressure for more money so children are left to their own devices. So this is where gangsterism really started in the Cape Flats." 

Joe Schaffers, former District 6 resident




The street signs from the demolished District 6. @ District 6 museum 

When I went to the District 6 museum established in 1994, a former district 6 resident was talking to kids about his experience during the tumultuous relocation period. That's how recent this all was and how deeply impacted communities still are today - this man exhibited a strong sense of pride, loss and triumph over a repressive regime that won many battles but not everything. He was eager to share his stories to the youth surrounding him and try to instill a similar sense of duty, pride and resilience  It reminded me of talking to civil rights activist in the US. 

The museum itself felt intrusive and intensely personal - like looking through old photo albums. It was informal and relatively unstructured with raw emotion pulsing throughout the small museum. Displays included poems, personal photos and even food recipes from residents. The nostalgia was palpable. 

Many former residents long to move back and land claims are being addressed by the government to move people back. I kept thinking, how can you move back? How can you restore community ties, neighbors, memories and just the feel of a place? 



Current map of district 6 with land claims - blue boxes represent land claims by former residents to move back. currently district 6 is vast empty fields. 

Even back then, District 6 had its problems of crime, poverty and general deterioration which prompted government intervention (whether residents wanted it or not). Does that come back too? With the promise of "coming home", are we romanticizing the past and trying to make amends in earnest yet misguided ways? I don’t know – I didn’t live it and can only half understand the pain, confusion and anger of the District 6 residents.

And throughout it all I grudgingly admit I kept thinking about Hunger Games….I wonder if the author was influenced by Apartheid history at all… 

On a lighter note - Cape town is BEAUTIFUL! 


The mountains rise out of flat plains and seem to shelter the town buried in its belly. Cape Town is pristine compared to Jozie. The streets are wide, carefree pedestrians, coffee shops, bars, retail stores and even real bike lines litter the inner city. The pace seems more relaxed than Joburg and the Capetonians I met were convinced Joburg is where the money is but Cape Town is where to live. It reminded me of debates I’ve had with friends from east coast – New York is the fast paced, fast money fast and fun life – while San Francisco is the chill, relaxed, more pleasurable way to live and enjoy life (I’m not biased or anything….).




view of CT from half way up Table Rock mountain




Truth Cafe - best coffee in SA - bold statement since it's all good here. The staff all wore top hats which won me over. I've completely indulged my new caffeine addiction and drink copious amounts of tea/coffee in CT especially. 

The winter time weather (which is SF weather at any time), actually enhanced the experience. The clear blue waters under the stormy fog laden sky that blanketed the mountains was truly magnificent. It seems like Cape Town stole a bit of beauty from every city – at times it felt like New Orleans, San Francisco, Santa Monica and even Barcelona and Amsterdam. I kept trying not to look like a tourist as I walked around the CBD jaw open, looking around the open squares, beautiful architecture and small parks.  


I know the distance to SF is cut out but trust me its far...  

I also realized how much I missed the ocean. The ocean soothes my soul in an indescribably way. Looking at the ocean, I feel happy for no apparent reason. I am sure there are many who can relate - suffice to say the Camps Bay drive (a 20 min stretch of scenic views and rest stops) was therapeutic.  



Camps Bay drive - reminded me of driving highway 1! 




“Gone. Buried. Covered by the dust of defeat – or so the conquerors believed. But there is nothing that can be hidden from the mind. Nothing that memory cannot reach or touch or call back” – Don Mattera, District 6 resident 1987.



By Sean Kennedy, Urban Planning
August 12, 2013

The emu has landed: a summer in Bogor, Indonesia.

On July 6, 2013, in a beautiful ceremony attended by my dearest family and friends set in the gorgeous surroundings of northern San Diego, I married the love of my life. 170 hours later, I found myself alone at LAX waiting for a flight. 

No, she didn’t kick me out. In fact, I left of my own volition. My name is Sean and I’m a soon-to-be second-year Master of Urban and Regional Planning student at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. I’ve come to Indonesia for my summer internship.

So, why am I in Indonesia? I’m in the city of Bogor, about 40 miles south of the capital Jakarta for a 3 month internship with the World Agroforestry Centre, known more commonly by its acronym ICRAF, and I’m here to work on the viability of agroforestry rubber eco-certification.

"What is agroforestry rubber certification?" I hear you ask.

Allow me to try and explain. Agroforestry, as the name suggests, is the integration of agriculture and forestry. It is a technique that has been practiced all through the tropics for centuries (at least) yet something that has come to the attention of western agricultural scientists only in the last century. Many researchers, including our own Professor Susanna Hecht, have been advocating agroforestry as a sustainable alternative to the ecologically and socially destructive practice of monoculture plantations, which often require clearing of forest and leave smallholders dependent on the income from an internationally traded and often volatile commodity. The idea of eco-certification is to find a way to provide a price premium to agroforestry rubber producers to compensate them for the ecosystem services they provide by opting for a slightly less profitable yet more sustainable land use.

My task for the summer is to write a chapter for an upcoming publication on eco-certification as it pertains to a range of commodities, with my focus solely on rubber. At the end of August I will present my findings at the international Ecosystem Services Partnership conference in Bali. The good news is that I get to spend a week in Bali. The bad news is that I’ll be presenting whatever groundbreaking findings I have made over the course of 8 weeks to a panel of experts who have been working on this topic for the best part of two decades – eek!  

(Left: Sean's office)

ICRAF is a very interesting workplace and attracts researchers from all over the world, with Australia, France and Holland having particularly high representation. The chance to mix with such a diverse group of people who have years of experience and others who are starting out like myself is incredibly beneficial. In addition, I’m in the heart of the action as Indonesia is currently the world’s second largest producer of natural rubber. Rubber, along with oil palm, is making massive contributions to economic growth but presenting huge ecological and social challenges at the plantations spread through the ever-decreasing forested landscape.

Although at this stage the majority of my work has taken place in the office, this hasn’t stopped me from exploring the local area. As a self-professed ‘foodie,’ street food has been high on my list of things to explore. The three servings of intense chili I’ve been consuming on a daily basis have ensured that any potential sickness-inducing bugs have been flushed from my body just as quickly as they enter.

So far so good. In fact, the food has been great – when I can find it. The month of Ramadan has meant that most restaurants have been closed during the day, and even the ones open in the evening tend to keep a low profile. It’s been quite an experience living through Ramadan, even without intentionally myself. Everyday as the clock approaches 6pm, the steady stream of scooters, motor bikes and angkots – little green vans that provide the backbone of the city’s public transport system – roaring through the rain gives way to the call to prayer signifying the end of the day’s fasting. Ramadan has now ended, and as the next few days of fasting comes to an end I am assured that everything will be back to normal soon enough.


My daily breakfast

An avocado latte

Out of sheer necessity, my Bahasa Indonesia is progressing nicely. Learning a bit of the local lingo has proved very beneficial, and enabled me to engage in very basic conversations with the locals, often to their amusement (I would strongly urge any traveler to Indonesia to at least master “ini enak sekali” – it translates as “this is delicious” and is an instant hit at any restaurant).

I’ve also been experimenting with various modes of local transport. The main way of getting around Bogor, unless you have your own motorbike or scooter, is the angkot. There are literally hundreds of these little green vans in the city, so you’re never waiting more than 5 minutes before your ride arrives. Most trips are about $0.20-$0.40, so it’s a cheap way to get around. The frequency of the angkots are offset by the fact that due to their size they are ultimately stuck in the traffic with everyone else (a problem that is not helped by the sheer number of angkots in the city).


Recently, however, I have discovered the ojek – motorbike taxi. Bliss! Traffic shmaffic say the ojek drivers, as they use sidewalks, gutters and people’s front yards (and sometimes pedestrians) to get you where you need to go ASAP. They run at about $2-$4 per trip, but I’d say the hour or two of my life that I save is well worth it. They usually give you a helmet so they’re sort of safe… a little bit… maybe. Anyway, as with the food, so far so good.


Riding on the back of an ojek

That’s it for now folks. More adventures to come I’m sure. Stayed tuned!

The ICRAF campus

My walk to work


By Matthew Mizel, Social Welfare
August 7, 2013


I went to bed last night both excited and nervous about my plans for today.  I was going to Tenikwa, a refuge center for big cats where they nurse them back to health and release them to the wild.  They also have some cheetahs who were born in captivity, so they can’t be released to the wild.  As a result, Tenikwa houses them on their property and uses this as an opportunity to draw attention and funds to their work.  The highlight is going on a walk with the cheetahs as part of their daily exercise.  And by walk, they mean taking them on a leash with nothing to separate human from cheetah other than goodwill.

When I woke up this morning, I suddenly became very concerned about ways to increase my odds of surviving.  I showered twice to make sure there was not the remaining scent of tasty elephant on me from the prior day’s visit with them.  At lunch, when I strangely wanted to get a hamburger, I decided it would be better to order fish with couscous and vegetables.  As I drove to Tenikwa, I hoped cheetahs weren’t drawn to—or irritated by—my deodorant.  Pulling into the driveway, my iPod shuffled to Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman” from the Superfly soundtrack.  I cannot thank my iPod enough.  Curtis both soothed my nerves and put a little swagger in my step—both of which I hoped would help me emanate the right aura for the big cats.  This trip has convinced me that my iPod and I were made for each other.

I’ll skip the release forms, safety video, and tour of the facility and get to the main event.  The main guide Joseph led me (and a British couple) to a large fenced in area.  He unlocked a gate and then another one, and next thing I knew I was walking into the enclosed area that was home to two cheetahs.  Having been to zoos and seen both the warnings and safety precautions, I had the definite feeling that this was not right.  And then I looked over and saw this…




That is Shaka and Thalia, brother and sister twins.  They gave us a quick once over and paid us no mind.  Clearly, they could sense my Superfly-ness.




In fact, I think the vibe I was throwing the cheetahs’ way was so strong that Thalia felt the need to play hard to get with me.  She is a cat, after all…




Soon, a few other tourists joined our group, and Joseph and two other guides put leashes on Thalia and her brother.  They were very eager to head out, stepping into the leashes knowing that it meant a walk.  Even though visitors join the cats for the walk, it really is all about the animals.  Even though Thalia and Shaka have never lived in the wild, they need the time to roam to stay healthy.  It exercises their body and their senses.

My girl Thalia and I leading the way…




Yes, that is my hand on her back.  Her fur was soft like…a cat’s.s

I hope you can get a sense of just how beautiful cheetahs are.  They are strong and athletic but yet lanky and awkward.  Their heads are small for their long limbed bodies.  They don’t move fluidly or powerfully like other big cats.  But standing next to a cheetah (with my hand on its back), it reminded me of sitting in a passenger seat of a Ferrari.  In both instances, I knew they were built for speed and could blast out of there in an instant.  (In fact, cheetahs can run 75 mph and accelerate to that speed in 3 seconds, faster than a Ferrari.)




But here is the shocking thing about cheetahs: they are the most fearful creatures I have ever been around.  Every movement and sound brought an anxious study from Thalia and Shaka (as can be seen above).  At one point, we crossed an unpaved road, and Thalia immediately spotted a person walking towards us about three-quarters of a mile away (cheetahs can see 2 miles away in detail).  I could sort of make out that it was a woman carrying a bag, but Thalia backed away in fear.  (Because I came in with the trusted Joseph, she was not afraid of me.  A stranger 4,000 feet away, though, was a threat.)  Joseph tried to calm her down and lead her across the path.  It was amazing, because she could kill that woman in a few seconds, yet Thalia was totally freaked out.  To make matters worse, somewhere off in the distance some baboons started screeching, and she didn’t know where to turn.  Somehow, Joseph maintained his cool, but then Thalia backed into the nearby fence.  Normally, the part of the fence that is electrified is turned off, but for some reason at this particular moment it was not.  Thalia snarled at Joseph (scary!!!), and then she raced off.  Like the Ferrari she is, Thalia left us in a cloud of dust.  I have always wanted to see a cheetah run but never thought it would happen.  It happened so quickly, I am still not sure I saw it.  She was simply gone.

Shaka took off after her (they are apparently quite close), and we were left with the guides on their walkie-talkies.  This apparently was not a usual occurrence.  I guess they don’t normally lose their cheetahs outside their facility.  The guides went off into the bush in search of the cats, calling out their names in a soothing manner.  Within about 10 minutes, one had found Thalia.  I was with another guide when we came across Shaka.  The guide led him in the direction of his sister, and they were relieved to be reunited.  Both cats were out of breath (they don’t have much endurance), and they needed a few moments to settle themselves.  It seemed a good idea to me, too, to let them calm down.

Soon, we resumed the walk.  This is what it looked like to walk behind Thalia (with the electric fence now turned off)…



Once my sweetheart had settled down, I took her leash again…



She was totally cool with me, but she did snarl a few times at the guide in the picture above with the green hat.  I’m not saying Thalia and I had a special connection, but I’m not saying we didn’t…





Shaka came up alongside her.  This was my perspective… 


At one point, I was flanked by the two cheetahs.  It was even better than standing between Halle Berry and Penelope Cruz at the Gothika premiere.


Shaka eating dinner after the walk.  Thankfully, he was satisfied by the meal.



By Nicole Walter, Urban Planning
August 6, 2013

Monkeys at the Office

Apparently the monkeys terrorize the United Nations offices. I have heard numerous stories of staff whose offices were rummaged through by monkeys that cleverly climb in through the windows. I saw one sneaking into the office the other day, but by the time I yelled, it had already entered the neighboring office! Despite everyone else’s reactions, I still get quite excited when I see a monkey sitting in a tree! They are SO much better than squirrels!



By Carlos Hernandez, Urban Planning
August 5, 2013

Working for two months in China is a big deal for me and my family. I’m the first to go anywhere that’s not Mexico and I’m going by myself.  I don’t know the language or the customs.  This will be fun!

Welcome to Chengdu: the land of milk and honey, the heart of the Sichuan province, the fourth largest city and the most important economic powerhouse in Western China.

The people

Immersing in a sea of 14 million people has been both challenging and entertaining as an Urban Planner. As a big city Chengdu really feels like a big town mainly because the residential areas offer just about all the daily needs within a 5 minute walk.  Of course the community organizer in me will always focus on quality of life and social interactions as much as physical city form. Chengdu seems like a place where locals enjoy life.  Great street food, plenty of massage parlors, multiple street nap areas, and some of the best fruit stands I have ever seen. The street corners are typically filled with senior folks playing cards or mahjong, drinking beer, eating food (hot pot of course) and small children running around.  I knew it was a safe city when I noticed that a lot of people walk around slowly with money in their hands.  All while listening to the soundtrack of cicadas and honking cars, buses, and scooters. Everywhere, all the time.

The weather

…because that’s what people talk about right? Well if I must pay my dues, the summer weather in Chengdu is hot, humid, overcast, and rains every morning at about 2am.  Though it sounds pretty terrible, it’s an interesting combination and a fresh change of pace from the San Fernando Valley’s dry heat. Pollution doesn’t seem like such a problem and the locals say it’s because the plains allow winds to sweep the air clean. I believe it!

The work

CDIPD – Chengdu Institute of Planning and Design.

First I have to give a shout out to my coworkers who have hosted me for the past month.  It’s very difficult working on planning projects in a language you don’t understand but the translations, maps, basketball games, and beat box sessions have made this a little less foreign for me.  I am currently working on two projects:

1. A strategic plan of rural Wenjiang. This suburban community of Chengdu has vast rural areas comprised of farmers and rivers. One of the goals set forth by Wenjiang’s planning administration is to develop eco-tourism areas that address the annual floods and watershed problems while finding a balance in displacing farmers.

2. The city of Mianyang (the second largest city in the Sichuan province) is a 2 hour drive to the north with a small downtown and plenty of open space.  Our institute was contracted to develop a master plan for a park that is currently inhabited by a slew of illegal commercial development.  Again, it rests on the institute to find a balance and see what type of policies and design solutions can create a riverfront park while allowing the local population to economically sustain themselves.

Both projects are within the Urban Design division of the Institute and working here has been some of the best experience in Urban Design thus far.



The streets

Preparing for a half marathon in Chengdu seemed like a good idea before arriving. I was wrong. Chengdu has been dealing with a growing traffic problem that is reminiscent of the city of angels. Bus only lanes and BRT lines on elevated highways have been the response but the automobile is by far the dominant force in the public realm.  Separate moped/bike ways are a major relief when I ride my bicycle in Chengdu but once in a while cars decide to join the narrow bikeway. Like other big cities (mainly Mexico City) that have lax traffic regulations, lanes only serve as guidelines and the bigger your vehicle, the more respect you command. I have now traded in running for swimming and wish I would have packed my bike helmet.



Chengdu as a City

Downtown areas and main corridors are littered with high profile fashion outlets (think Prada, Rolex, a McLaren dealership) but all of it vanishes once you turn the corner. Then you’re in my neighborhood with all the 6 kuai (1 USD) food and snacks you can eat.  Chengdu is also a radial city which is very fun for planning nerds like me.  Upon visiting the Planning Exhibition I learned about plans for Chengdu to have direct international connections for flights and the expansion of the subway system from 2 lines to 6 by 2030-ish. Considered a garden city, Chengdu boasts the concept of integrating nature with the built environment.  Perhaps they do this by planting more trees?

Sightseeing in the city remains a mystery to me mainly because it’s a city for living and not much of a tourist attraction.  Jinli Street and Kuanzhai Xiangzi (wide and narrow alleys) are by far the most well-known tourist areas in the city.  Of course if you’re me, and Lucia and Chelsea, two other UCLA MURP’s who are visiting Chengdu, you take them to the animal market.  It’s a combination of misery, cuteness, sadness, and foul smelling air, all within a 2 story building down the street from the Prada store. The market specializes in fish and turtles but there are many small puppies, cats, chinchillas, ferrets, and neon frogs.  Apparently the baby alligators are sold in the fish market and not as pets. Of course there’s Tianfu Square which is a little more depressing than Pershing Square but has a giant saluting Chairman Mao in the background and a subway transfer station beneath. On a side note, I have not found anyone willing to express how they feel about Mao.

In summation Chengdu is a city for living and enjoying but definitely lacking in tourist attractions. That might be a good thing.

Shout out to the NE Valley, the MURPs, and Ciudad Nezahulcóyotl for preparing me for just about anything.  Keep posted for the story of Pandas!




















By Matthew Mizel, Social Welfare
August 2, 2013

Swimming with Sharks

I woke up at 6:10 this morning to get to Gansbaai by 7:30am for shark diving in an area known as “Shark Alley.”  A nearby island is home to several thousand seals, so this area of ocean is Studio 54 for great white sharks.  Two burly heavy accented white South Africans (who reminded me of Hans and Franz) from the dive company greeted me and the others who would be going on the boat.  We were running late, so they abbreviated the safety instructions.  In hindsight, I don’t know why this didn’t faze me except maybe because I was distracted by this piece of information: the water would be 66 degrees.

We took a quick 5 km ride out before the guides settled on a patch of ocean to drop anchor.  The divemaster, captain, crew proceeded to lace the water with chum.  In about 20 minutes, the first great white made an appearance, circling the boat looking for the goodies.  I was prepared to be the goodies, so I went in the first group in the shark cage.  Even with wet suit on, we were all instantly shivering in the water.  As much as I was looking forward to this experience, nothing in life had prepared me for it.  Not even being an assistant at a Hollywood talent agency.  Growing up post-Jaws, the dorsal fin instantly inspires fear.

And it definitely is not supposed to inspire one to get in the water.  But there I was.

And it was mesmerizing.  Making eye contact with a great white shark, having it swim towards me, seeing it close enough to touch, and then watching it violently attack the bait left me in awe.  Great whites are amazingly powerful, graceful, and silent.  Enjoy the pictures.




By Chelsea Richer, Urban Planning
August 2, 2013

Chongqing Sightseeing: Hua Yan Tourist Spot

Last weekend, our friend Frank offered to take us to his favorite temple in Chongqing. This turned out to be a fantastic afternoon, if a little hot. The temple complex, called Hua Yan Tourist Spot, was not listed in the Lonely Planet, so Lucia and I felt pretty lucky to have found out about it from someone in the know.

It was about an hour and a half away from our house, via two metro transfers and a bus transfer (almost feels like living in LA!). We stopped mid-way for some noodle lunch with Frank after meeting up with him at the appointed metro stop.

The most incredible thing about this "tourist spot" is how tucked away it is, yet how firmly it remains in the urban landscape. It doesn't look like much from the street, albeit a beautiful gateway.
Hua Yan Temple on the approach...

Lucia, Frank and I in front of the entrance gate to the Hua Yan Tourist Spot
 Once inside, though, the intricacies of the extensive temple grounds begin to present themselves.

Vibrant paint job on the ceiling of the entrance hall.
 And then, once you pass through the entrance hall, you get your first glimpse of the main attraction: a gigantic golden Buddha. Passing through this hall felt like stepping out of the city and into ...well, a temple.
Through the gate: Lucia approaches the Golden Buddha 
The Golden Buddha is truly incredible, sitting atop a long staircase bisected by planters full of lotuses. Around the base of the Buddha are probably a dozen sand boxes full of incense sticks, lit and placed by temple-goers. The whole area smells like incense and between that and the heat, it creates quite the transcendent experience. 
Golden Buddha watches over

Golden Buddha against unusually clear skies
Looking in the other direction, though, squarely places you back in the city of Chongqing - the iconic high rise buildings and the mountains behind them.
The Golden Buddha's view: the towers and hills of Chongqing
In addition to the Golden Buddha, there are a number of other sites at the Hua Yan Tourist Spot. Several temples, gardens, caves, a vegetarian restaurant (!! But we didn't go.) and some residences for the monks dot the grounds.
Temple on the Hua Yan grounds

Some more intricate ceiling work inside the temple

Frank translates one of the signs for Lucia

Temple built into the walls and crevices of a cave!

Some beautiful lotus-flower candles burning outside the cave temple

Stairs leading up some hills on the temple grounds
The Seven Step Lotus Pond was my favorite part of the grounds. The introductory sign, which was translated into halting English, says this about the pond (I have slightly edited it so that it makes sense):

"Legend has it that Shakyamuni was born to walk, and when he was born, he walked seven steps. Every step he walked was followed by the growth of a lotus. Hence lotuses have closely been associated with Buddhism, and it can be seen everywhere in temples."

The sign goes on to incomprehensibly describe the "nature of the lotus" but one point manages to stick out: "...though baptized by ripples, she stands modest." I'm not entirely sure what that means, but I think I like it. 
Frank revels in the enormous lotus pond 

Some lotuses "baptized by ripples, standing modest."
All in all, a fantastic outing. A beautiful respite from the bustling city. Still hot, but somehow more tolerable with all the greenery. How is this not covered in the Lonely Planet? Actually, on second thought, better let it be.



By Chelsea Richer, Urban Planning
July 21, 2013

ChaoTianMen, an Evening Boat Ride, and Chongqing's Cable Car

This weekend, our friend and classmate, Carlos, visited Lucia and I here in Chongqing. He's living in Chengdu for the summer, working at the Chengdu Institute of Urban Planning and Design. Chongqing and Chengdu are very close cities, and Lucia and I plan to return the visit in a couple of weeks. Having a guest gave us a chance to show off Chongqing, to see some of the tourist attractions we haven't been to yet, and to trade stories about living in central China as a foreigner.

On Saturday, we visited the Chongqing Urban Planning Exhibition Hall. They had some pretty neat scale models of the city and the region, but I won't bore you with more photos of tiny buildings. If you really want to see them, feel free to email me and I'll send them your way.

The Exhibition Hall is right under the plaza at ChaoTianMen, which is the tip of the peninsula that makes up the Yuzhong District (downtown) of Chongqing.

Lots of people sell stuff at the ChaoTianMen plaza, most notably, some awesome kites and tickets for all the cruise ships that circle around the Yangtze River and the Jialin River (to the south and north of the peninsula, respectively). Despite some significant language-barrier issues, we managed to haggle the price down for some nighttime boat tickets on a "4-star" boat. We were not disappointed. (Sorry for the blurry photos - only had my phone camera on me!)

Kites at ChaoTianMen

Lucia and Carlos, excited for our boat ride
The decoration atop our "4-Star" cruise boat

I think this was the "5-Star" option...More lights?

JieFangBei by night
Sunday, we decided to check out Chongqing's famous cable car. The cable car took a break in 2011, but was apparently put back into action in 2012. I can't find any information about why the city decided against demolishing it, but the cable car is a great attraction. It costs 5 yuan to cross (one direction), which isn't much more expensive than the metro. It was initially built to help relieve some of the congestion on the single bridge that connected the Yuzhong District peninsula to the districts north and south. Since the 1970s, there have been additional bridges built (and more underway), along with the subway, which renders the cable cars slightly...antiquated (at least in the minds of the forward-thinking transportation planners of Chongqing!). While the cable car that crosses the Jialin River remains inoperative, the Yangtze River cable car is up and running. It seems to be a popular tourist attraction as well as a functioning mode choice for commuters, so, ultimately, Chongqing made the right call in opening this option back up.



By Ruby Bolaria, Urban Planning
July 18, 2013

Getting to Work 

I figure I should explain a bit about what I’m doing in my internship here to ensure everyone I’m not just touring around Joburg and enjoying the sites. After I got here and Stephen realized my interest was more in housing he set me up at the Housing Department for the City of Joburg (COJ). I’m particularly focusing on upgrading projects and policy for informal settlements (aka slums).

 Before I get into that, the housing world here is fascinating. There are a few different ways people find housing;

  • Private market housing
  • Social housing (public housing – have to make more than R7500 ($750 USD) per month)
  • RDP housing – qualify if earning below R3500 ($350 USD) per month, government gives you a house for free. They are 36 sq. meters
  • Informal settlements
  • Squatters (live in abandoned buildings, owner of building sometimes unknown)
  • Backyard shacks – people who build shacks literally in their backyard and rent it out – poor RDP owners often do this.

For reference, about R1200/month is the poverty line. Vacancy rate is measured by the HOUR!

The big gap market is those making between 3500-7500R per month. Those people are receiving no government assistance and are at the mercy of the market.

The RDP housing sounds like a neat idea – and similar to the US is based on the idea that housing is a unique good and source of wealth (equity). South Africa is one of the few countries in the world that guarantees housing as a right in their constitution. By focusing on providing housing for everyone the government intended on building wealth in poor and historically excluded communities.

However, the RDP housing has largely been seen as a failure. The wait time to get an RDP house is enormous. Currently, the communications staff in my office are working on the “96/97 campaign” – which refers to the people who have been waiting for a house since 1996/1997! Elections are next year and the staff are in overdrive working to get those people into homes before then.

RDP housing is also usually located in remote areas, increasing resident’s transportation time and cost. Often times, people rent out their RDP house and move back to the informal settlement closer to jobs. It is illegal to sell your home before 8 years and always illegal to rent it out, but it’s hard for the government to enforce.

The other main problem of RDP houses is the quality. There are numerous reports about the poor quality of the homes and high maintenance costs. The utility and maintained costs alone make these free houses unaffordable.

The failure of RDP housing means many of the poorest residents are in informal settlements or occupy abandoned buildings.

To me, the squatters seem to have the worst deal. The owners of many of these buildings, if not owned by the government, have left the country, have no legal documents proving ownership or it’s just a mystery. This leaves room for slumlords to come in and extort the poor with inflated rents and provide no typical landlord benefits. Many of the buildings no longer have electricity or running water. 

Squatters occupy an abandoned factory or warehouse in the run down Marlboro district (former industrial precinct) and have to use candles 24-7 because it’s so dark inside you can’t even see your feet. The candles increase fire risk, which are common especially now in the dry winter.

My work… 

I don’t really know what people are doing or what’s going on most of the time in the office because English is rarely spoken. It’s mostly Sesotho and some Xhosa (the click language). Lots of laughter – seems like a weird thing to highlight but I don’t think I’ve been in an office environment with so many people laughing all the time!

Thabo is the informal settlement guy – he seems to know and be involved in anything informal. He’s a great resource for me and helped narrow my focus. I really wanted to look at housing and planning with a gender perspective.

How can we foster and accommodate the input and needs of women in the informal settlements and economy? I wanted to focus in on something within that behemoth of a question. I soon realized gender analysis generally was a really weak area for South African government (in practice). Everyone admitted there was a need for more gender analysis, and the legislation strongly emphasizes gender equality, but there is no will or resources devoted to implementation.

I wish I was here longer to do proper research and put together something, but I had to recognize the limits of my time here and chose to do whatever I could and learn as much as possible by seeing and doing. So Thabo setup multiple trips to informal settlements so I could see and talk to community activists.

My Project ...

Ruimsig settlement is a category 3 informal settlement – meaning it’s slated for upgrades. The COJ is using it as a pilot to test more community engagement strategies. It seems odd and even disturbing to think about how little government interacted with these people before taking action. They relied on evictions, relocation or upgrading plans favoring on the technocrat over local knowledge.

As we drove to Ruimsig – in the northwestern area of the city – we passed massive estates – not houses, estates! The incredible wealth was so visible behind the gated walls and electric fences. To top it off, just as we began to see the Ruimsig settlement, a golf course sprawled itself out. The settlement literally hugged the boundary of the resort golf course. You could see houses nestled up against the wire fence separating the golf course, a hole just a few yards away.

Ruimsig has 369 households (at last count in 2012, so it’s probably more now) and was established in the early 1980’s. The settlement is on wetlands and owned by the COJ. The nearest school is 15K (a little over 9 miles) away and the school bus is unreliable. When I went there kids were running around without many adults around. If the bus doesn’t come, the kids just don’t go.

I met with Albert, a community member and activist who works with the NGO, SDI alliance (shack/slum dwellers international association) that is helping empower the community – mostly through teaching about savings and providing some capital for upgrade projects.

 It is one of the first times in Joburg the community is partnering directly with government to address their infrastructure needs. The community sets the priorities and with SDI’s help negotiate with government. Right now the priorities are:

  • more open spaces, including wide roads to increase access within the settlement
  • more water taps. Currently there are 2 water taps for the entire community
  • better working latrines that are better designed and placed - currently there are 71 (only 55 are working). There’s even talk of communal flushing toilets thanks to new technology.

Albert stressed livable homes – “we need our space and privacy too” he said as he explained the new size of his sturdy looking home. It was strange as we were walking through to see some really derelict shacks next to nice wooden ones or solid concrete homes with glass windows even. There were backyard gardens and even some patio space on some lots where you could see young guys playing checkers.

Albert admitted there was a severe lack of female participation in the process. He thought it was because of both a cultural issue and realities of the triple-role demands on women – as caretakers, income earners and child bearers. People from the NGO said women tend to be play the financial role – as accountants, in charge of the savings and loans, while the men are the front line organizers. 

The piece I'm working on is the relocation of about 80 households (they say families here, which is misleading since families can need more than one new home built) from Ruimsig settlement periphery into the settlement. This relocation, unlike many, is a good thing – these families are in crammed, dire conditions without even running water. They want the relocation as much as the government land owner does. Some of the families we are moving are staying in the White House soccer stadium, so there is more pressure to get them out ASAP.

The project is unique because it is really community led. The community will build and pay for the new homes themselves – technically they raise 10% of total cost first and then SDI alliance’s CUFF fund pays the remainder. The other catch is they don’t add a roof. So the families must pay and add that themselves. Government is paying the transportation related cost – and demolition of the old shacks.

To my horror, in past relocations the government tells the people to bring their materials with them and they rebuild the shacks at other locations. This is ridiculous since most of these materials are so flimsy they blow away in the wind. So government is literally just moving the problem elsewhere.

It’s pretty exciting how I get to be so involved. I made the business plan, implementation and timeline plan and am helping to design where the new homes will go. I don’t think I would ever get this kind of responsibility in the States, so it’s a bit daunting. However, I feel like I can’t make it any worse so why not go for it!

Everyone has the right to live in dignity and people should not be criminalized for being poor and living in informal settlements, which is usually for their proximity to jobs. The policy goals for Joburg outlined in the Joburg 2040 initiative, agree and advocate for the same – getting it implemented is the tough part. But this project is proof that change is happening; progress is being made! 


By Matthew Mizel, Social Welfare
July 16, 2013
Johannesburg, South Africa 

My Day in Court

Yesterday, I spent the day in the main Johannesburg court house learning about South Africa’s approach to juvenile crime. Most of the time I was with a probation officer who I will call J.  PO’s in South Africa are trained as social workers and function more in that role than as enforcement officers. J was an inspiring combination of being insightful, tough, and nurturing — exactly the kind of person who should be doing that job. 

To provide some background, in 2006 South Africa locked up youth at the second highest rate in the world according to a study by Neal Hazel of The University of Salford in the UK. Sixty-nine youth out of every 100,000 were in custody. (By comparison, the United States led the way with 336 youth per 100,000.) In 2010, South Africa began implementing a new approach based on the concept of restorative justice. The foundation of restorative justice is that crime is a violation of people and relationships and not just a violation of law. Therefore, the best response to criminal behavior is to repair the damage caused by it. The approach is to create a forum where the victim, the offender, and the community can develop an appropriate solution to attempt to heal the damage and prevent future acts by the offender. There can also be reparation that can include public service, fines, and incarceration. (To learn more, you can read Howard Zehr’s The Little Book of Restorative Justice. Or, you can facebook contact my friend Seth Lennon Weiner, the Co-Director of the Center for Restorative Justice at Loyola Law School.)

J walked me around the juvenile justice section of the building, which included the probation offices, court rooms (for both restorative justice meetings and for legal proceedings), and a juvenile jail (which looked to be one cell). She explained that all youth under the age of 18 are eligible to participate in the restorative justice process regardless of offense or history as long as they admit their responsibility for their crime. It is her job as a probation officer to do an extensive assessment of the youth to figure out “how the child wound up here.” She showed me the form she uses. Less than 10% of it was devoted to the crime. There even was an area to describe the kid’s generosity. In my 10 years in the Los Angeles juvenile halls, I don’t think I’ve ever even heard a PO use that word in any context. (And, by the way, whenever I’ve been teaching a class during snack time, the students always without fail offer to share with me some of their meager food.)

In South Africa, the probation officers then report to the court a thorough background about the youth with recommendations for services to help out the child and family. The probation officer, magistrate, youth, family of the youth, public defender, attorney for the state, and the crime survivor (optional) then all meet to determine the best steps to address the youth’s needs. J told me about various programs that address educational, work, psychological, and addiction needs. (I will be hopefully doing site visits with some of them, soon.) Due to confidentiality, I can’t write about all that I saw yesterday, but after having spent countless hours and days throughout all the stages of the Los Angeles juvenile justice and incarceration processes, I was astounded by the happenings here. Standing in the middle of a court room in which chairs circled a table (no witness stand or podium for a judge), J said to me, “the purpose of our courts is to help the youth. Prison is a last resort.”

And the facts back it up. In Joburg, a city of 5 million people, there are currently 25 incarcerated juveniles. (In Los Angeles County, there are about 2,200 youth in detention camps. That does not include the 1,500 in juvenile halls awaiting adjudication or the thousands of youth sentenced to the state prison system.) I asked her if their system was effective. Early returns on the data were showing kids were committing fewer crimes and recidivism was down. Anecdotally, she swore by the positive impact. I will reserve judgment until I see hard data and until I hear from the kids themselves, but I was in a state of thrilled disbelief to see a juvenile justice system orientated to help kids as opposed to throwing them away. I said to her, “In the United States, we have thousands of kids serving lift sentences without even the possibility of parole.”  (Currently, there are over 2,500 youth with that sentence.)

J said, “We don’t do that anymore. We used to during Apartheid.”


By Matthew Mizel, Social Welfare
July 10, 2013
Johannesburg, South Africa 

Lunchtime Nirvana

Steve and I were working from his home office this morning, but to be honest I did not accomplish much. There were tantalizing aromas floating our way from the kitchen where Charlene was cooking vegetarian Indian food. She wants to open a stand at the Market on Main in Maboneng on Sundays, a festival of incredible homemade food featuring cuisines from around the world. She was preparing a trial run of dishes that could then be photographed as part of her application to participate. Steve and I kept getting up and wandering into the kitchen as mad genius Charlene knowingly smiled at our intrusions. And then we’d disappointedly walk back to our computers—you can’t eat a dish before its time.

After several hours of enduring the spicy scent of temptation, Charlene announced that the food was ready. Steve and I did not wait any longer by our computers. However, Charlene’s version of “ready” did not match ours—she meant ready to be photographed. Like kids being told the ice cream cake needed to defrost first, we begrudgingly helped her set up the 11 dishes by the best natural light and began photographing them. As soon as Charlene said she had the pictures we needed, Steve and I pounced on the food. “Mmmmmmm.” “Incredible.” “Love, you’ve really made something special here.” “How’d I get so lucky?”

I love food, I love Indian food, and there’s nothing like great homemade food of any cuisine. So when I write that all 11 dishes would have made Vishnu cry tears of joy (or Jesus or Oprah or whomever or whatever you like), please believe it to be true. Steve and I bounced from bowl to bowl, mainlining that Indian deliciousness but still savoring every rapturous bite. I don’t know how long it lasted, but I only stopped eating when my stomach said no more in ALL CAPS and with multiple!!! exclamation!!! points!!!

That satisfaction and contentment turned to possessiveness and anger, though. First Charlene’s sister Shanaaz and then Steve’s Mom stopped by to take some home with them. I recognized that they had seniority over me, but I was still incensed. I was only here for two more months, but they have had this treat for years and would have it for untold years more! I could not believe I had to experience this injustice in my own (temporary visiting) home.

I returned to my computer ready to have a more productive afternoon – that was maybe interrupted with a food coma nap or two.


By Matthew Mizel, Social Welfare
July 3, 2013
Johannesburg, South Africa 

Meeting Demon

By necessity, I'm skipping lots of stuff in my updates: the incredible hosts Steve and Charlene have been; the tremendous network of friends and family they have introduced me to; the research I love doing for Steve, Isso and Kree’s iKlipse about violence prevention, restorative justice, and community responses to crime; the moving personal stories that they have shared with me that motivate them to do their work; and the diamonds in the rough that I have been finding that are Joburg’s strengths. For now, I want to write about two people I spent time with this weekend: Gia and Demon.

Gia is the little boy in the pictures with me on my Facebook wall. After being so viscerally confronted by some of the realities of South Africa last week and while also recovering from a strong sickness, I was not feeling settled here. Gia is Charlene’s grandson, and he came to stay with us for Friday and Saturday. He instantly brought with him all of his 3 year old exuberance and openness to the world. All day he wore his Manchester United uniform with his cleats—inside. When I pretended to fall on him over and over again, every time he laughed as if it was the first time. When I said to him, “Dude, you’re gonna spill your juice,” he responded with a “Dude, no I’m not”—his first use of the word “dude.” He was nonstop energy and cheer.

On Saturday morning after Gia greeted me with a “Dude, good morning,” we all went to a park to play soccer. Gia was so overjoyed that he didn’t know what to do at first when we got on the field. He just stood there holding his soccer ball looking at the expanse of green and the goal posts. Then it quickly became chase Gia around the field while he kicked the ball “just out of my reach.” I laughed and played like a kid, too. Thank you, Gia.

Sunday morning, I woke at 7:20am to join Kree in his training session with Demon. Yes, Kree’s trainer is actually named Demon. But this meeting was about more than ripped abs. Demon’s primary job is being a Joburg police officer patrolling the rough neighborhood of Hillbrow. Kree had arranged the meeting for me as background research about police work in Joburg and South Africa. I hadn’t worked out in ten days due to the travel and being sick, so I was both excited and nervous about training with Demon. That became compounded when I went out the prior night with the iKlipse crew and Pravani Govender. They insisted we spend time with their old friend Lady Tequila, but my ability to burn the candle at both ends has not waned. I made it to Demon’s fresh and ready to go the next morning.

Or so I thought I was prepared. Demon is 5’8” and weighs 260 pounds. It’s not fat. Not only is he a body builder himself, but he trains other ones. His presence matches the physical dimensions. When he came outside to greet us, he had covered his dark brown Indian body in all white sweats that featured hand written Bible verses. When he turned around, I read the back of his stretched sweatshirt: “He who does not believe in Jesus will burn in Hell.” Or something similarly ominous. Demon is legendary as a cop: twice shot, an ear surgically re-attached, numerous stab wounds, and an incredible record for apprehending criminals. And, by the way, he’s the only cop in Hillbrow who doesn’t wear Kevlar because “it slows him down.” Good thing I didn’t go out the night before.

While I warmed up, Demon put Kree through the first rotation of leg exercises. I scanned the walls decorated with bodybuilding photos and newspaper clippings of Demon making arrests. I had a good sweat going when Demon announced it was my turn. I said I was looking to do a total body workout—but not too intense—as I hadn’t been in the gym in 10 days.

“You’re in my gym. I’m in charge.” Demon responded.


He put me through the same rotation as Kree. Did I mention that Kree looks like he could open a tin can by staring at it? Every squat, every lunge, every box step up with dumbbells made me curse Isso, Kree, and Pravani and their sweet, sweet tequila. Somehow, I made it through without collapsing (unlike the guy in the video on Demon’s phone), and I think I heard over my panting a compliment or two.

Afterwards, the three of us kicked it in Demon’s den talking about his background while he held his 5-month-old baby in his arms, doting on the minimini-Demon who slept peacefully. He described the intensity and violence of his job and some of the life and death encounters he had faced. I can’t go into all the details here, but some of it even raised my eyebrows despite all the stories I’ve heard through the years. His approach to policing changed for him a few years ago when he found Jesus, which provided him with an inner peace that he had lacked. His Christianity was central to his life now. Demon and I made plans to get together again during the week to discuss more.

As I begin a new work week, I find myself rejuvenated by the smallest and the largest of human beings who I had the good fortune of spending time with this weekend. Hopefully, I will enjoy my medium-sized existence.


By Ruby Bolaria, Urban Planning
July 1, 2013
Limpopo, South Africa 

From Urban to Rural 
This weekend I went to Limpopo, which is about a 7 hour drive northeast of Joburg. I joined a group of ten young people from the Boksburg Lake Rotaract club on their expedition to the Dimini village to help educate youth about HIV/AIDS and encourage learning in general.

The experience was humbling to say the least. We arrived to the village just before sundown and drove in on dirt roads that spilled red dust all over the plants nearby giving everything a deep dusty red glow. The green hills and sprinkled huts were a stark contrast to the flat urban landscape in Joburg. Women and children stopped whatever they were doing to stare at the two cars passing through. The blank stares were interrupted by smiles as we waved and they ferociously waved back. I was with a group of all white people and soon realized that seeing so many white people was shocking in these parts.

When we pulled up to the open square to meet our hosts it looked like the entire village was there to greet us. The screams of the women reminded me of Xena the warrior princess’s battle cry – you could see the way their tongues wiggled left and right at a ridiculous speed. Children ran up to the door and as soon as I stepped out a little girl grabbed my hand and told me her name, which I repeated as the children laughed and pointed at my poor pronunciation.

The kids all had their hands out waiting for a handshake and to get my attention. Some kids were dressed in quilted fabrics that were tied on by string and looked like brightly colored blankets. One girl with gorgeous skin, perfect white teeth and intricately braided hair led me by the hand to one of ten chairs set up in front of the crowd. She instructed me to sit and I followed suit, glad for some direction. The crowds were still yelling and cheering and a man on a microphone was speaking in Tshivenda (or Venda), the native language. I was surprised to see a microphone and two big speakers connected to a laptop playing loud muffled music. It seemed a bit out of place next to the cow pen, small concrete and straw huts, brick latrine and stretches of red dusty earth, but I guess that’s the power of globalization.

Everyone was smiling and laughing and I heard a few words of English welcoming us and expressing how happy everyone was to see us. I noticed that besides the man speaking and the one or two behind the makeshift DJ booth, there were no other grown men, just women and children. Apparently in Venda culture, men avoid big celebrations, church and other community gatherings. There was a local tavern just across the fence of the space we were in where most of the men gathered. 

The absence of men did not stop the euphoria, awe and utter shock I felt. I could not believe how excited these people were – they didn’t know us at all! These kids were literally jumping all around us while the women and younger ones sat a few feet in front of us waving and smiling. 

As we all sat down, they introduced us one by one and I was actually one of three people originally from America. There were two Peace Corps volunteers who took a weekend off from their respective villages to help in the Dimini village. After the introductions the kids in the colorful quilted outfits lined up and performed a traditional dance for us. It was great – the older women played a rhythmic drum beat as the kids stomped on the ground kicking up more red dust and clapped their hands while singing.

After dancing in a circle for a while they started to have solo dances in the middle. At one point the dance became about picking your mate – one dancer would start a move and then walk up to someone and step lightly on a person’s foot signaling they had to join the circle and dance with them. You could see some of the shy grins on the girls faces as they danced over to the boys and kept their eyes down as they tapped their feet – some kids had obvious crushes.

After the dance the people swarmed at us – I have never been so overwhelmed. Is this what celebrities feel like? It was nuts! People had no concept of personal space as they pulled and pushed, hugged and kissed you. Teenagers started pulling out their cell phones and demanding pictures while mothers were handing over their crying babies. Some ladies started pulling my hair, asking me if it was real and tugging on it to make sure I wasn’t lying. I don’t even know what I was feeling other than surprise at the overflowing attention and love pouring from these people. My checks started to hurt from smiling so much.

As soon as I thought it would never end and we’d spend the whole night bouncing like beach balls from person to person in the crowd, the music started to blare and people moved to the “dance floor” – closer to the speakers. The women and children started begging me to dance and acted like they would die or be severely insulted if we refused. Luckily I love dancing and unlike some of my group mates I was ready to go. The kids looked shocked as I began to move, but I guess they are used to rhythmless volunteers? Not sure, but we had a good time and danced until there was only a small group of young boys left huddling around the one light on the speaker. They were still dancing, moving and popping as if they were on "So you Think You Can Dance" or some other dance competition. They reminded me of little MJ’s in training. 

We were all exhausted from the drive and still did not know where we were going to sleep. All we had seen so far was one empty concrete hut that was the community center and a latrine. I couldn’t see any other homes and the lack of light limited our mobility. However, it also gave an amazing view of the night sky. I have never in my life seen so many stars. Even camping in remote areas paled in comparison. The Milky Way was so clearly visible it was surreal – it looked like Van Gogh’s "Starry Night."   

Dinner was prepared for us by the women on an outdoor fire behind the dancing. The women prepared the staple traditional papa, a sticky dense mixture of cornmeal that goes with any dish. Paap is not super bland but it doesn’t really have a specific taste – it reminded me of a condensed version of cream of wheat. There was also chicken, a butterbean stew and some creamy sautéed veggies, mostly spinach or another green leaf. We ate with our hands which was more normal for me coming from an Indian family although the lack of napkins was different. We washed in communal water bowls afterwards. It was delicious and I became a big fan of paap.

After dinner, Deon, the community leader that really made the trip possible, led us to his aunt’s house where we would sleep. We walked in and I was surprised to see a TV beneath a dangling bulb. The whole family gathered around the TV – there were about 6 or 7 people standing and sitting in the tiny room. They greeted us warmly and we sat and talked with the help of Deon translating. 

I kept getting lumped into the “white people” talk and it started to really irritate me. I’m not white – I’m brown or ethnically-speaking, Indian. However, there seemed to be white and black – not much in between. I’m not dark enough to be considered black so I fall into the white category. After asking Deon a bit more about this he said calling someone Indian is considered derogatory for reasons I still don’t understand. He was shocked to find out I was Indian and even more surprised when I confirmed he could say I was Indian-American if he wanted – or a person of color – which was met with laughs all around. I resigned to my fate and dropped it – white for the weekend I guess.

The next day was a thoroughly planned packed day of workshops and training with the kids. We split them into groups and did rotating workshops teaching kids about HIV prevention, job training, how to get scholarships, CV writing and general empowerment or affirmation teachings. Some of it was definitely over their heads and the kids looked confused at certain concepts like a CV. You quickly realize the lack of information and limited resources they have makes diction extremely important. Certain words or concepts have to be translated to village analogies.

One kid asked me if there were other planets how come he couldn’t see them – luckily someone had an iphone that you could hold up to the stars and could see which was a planet. I’m not sure how much the kid understood but it was an interesting paradox to explain things to kids and asking them to just believe it’s true – education seemed like faith in the village.

Most kids wanted to be a police officer, social worker or doctor. I think most didn’t know about any other options, or as Deon pointed out, the good people (especially men) in the village fit in one of those categories.

After the workshops, we gave the kids soccer and net ball (a girls' game similar to basketball) jerseys and let them play for a few hours. The boys especially went berserk. They were jumping over each other to snatch a the basic orange mesh jerseys – no numbers, no design, nothing.

During  game time we started painting their new community center and set up games for the little kids. The day flew by and in between plates of paap and chocolate I felt exhausted. Every Venda word I learned kept slipping from me and I had to ask how to say "thank you" countless times.   

Right before the sun went down, the girls and women started to leave (except the cooking ladies) and hug us goodbye. The younger boys stayed and either danced, sang or hung around with no parents in sight. The boys started asking me all types of questions about America and how I got here and how much it costs. They were surprised to learn we don’t accept Rand in the US and use dollars instead. They even asked about the solar system, evolution theory and where gold and coal come from. I tried to answer best I could using simple language, even acting out how the earth rotates around the sun- but I’m still unsure how much stuck. Some questions were also about race, such as why white people have softer skin (which we proved untrue – these people had the best skin I’ve ever seen!). Once we got on the topic of homosexuality I was graciously saved by the older women calling me to dinner.

The next day we headed to morning church service before leaving. The people were dressed up in their finest and sweating straight through. Unlike Joburg, Venda is warm year around and the temperatures get up to high 70s and 80s even in the winter. The women even wore high heels as they trekked across dirt roads, getting that red dust all over. 

I’m not Christian and never went to church growing up, but I’ve been to some services before. However, nothing was like this – people literally started dancing as they were asked to give tithe and pray through song and dance. We were given seats in the front and asked to make a statement, all while someone was videotaping the entire event. We walked in with the video camera on our faces like we were coming to a press conference. It was strange and felt again like we were celebrities – but not the real kind, the reality TV kind. 

Before we left we even went to meet the chief of the village. Yes, they still have chiefs – even in urban communities, chiefs are thriving and hold power. We had to bow and kneel on the ground when we came to his hut and wait until he told us we could get up and sit down. This chief was pretty chill apparently – some chiefs are pretty stringent about the rules, which actually specify you have to lay on your side, belly exposed (the way dogs do) when you see the chief, to show he’s the boss. This chief was sweet and reminded me of my own grandpa. He smiled widely and told us how proud and happy he was for our visit and the work we do. He even offered to build a hut for us if the group returns annually. Pretty sweet deal!

After a late lunch of some more paap – my stomach started to resent paap – we left and began the long journey back to Joburg. When we got back I had to stop myself multiple times from picking up random cute children I saw and smiling and waving vigorously at everyone. I was overjoyed to shower and use a proper toilet. I never thought I’d get so giddy about using a toilet and hearing that glorious flush.

I’m back in the city, and I have to alter my attitude to city living again. I love cities and I love living in a city, but it was a beautiful experience to breathe rural red dusty air. We didn’t provide systemic change – their lives won’t change dramatically because of this one weekend. I feel that I gained more in the experience, but I hope we were able to provide something useful and lasting in exchange. The love and joy of those people burn with me still and I’ll never forget that feeling.


By Matthew Mizel, Social Welfare
June 30, 2013
Johannesburg, South Africa 

The Road to Alex

I am way behind on my updates, especially as so much has happened since the Iron Chef night. I will quickly run through some highlights before getting to the main story.

I am proud to write that I still very rarely get hangovers, so I was surprised when the day after the welcome party I began to feel like I was coming down with a cold. The symptoms confused me, though. The Joburg air is both incredibly dry and chock full of pollution (some days the air smells like a campfire), and they were wreaking havoc with my allergies. However, when I slept for 30 out of 36 hours and awoke feeling that someone was sitting on my chest (and no one was), I knew it was time to go to the doctor. Since this was “non-urgent” care, I was required to get approval from my primary care physician back in the U.S. I sent an email, but since it was midnight back in LA I was not about to wait for a reply. Steve and Charlene took me to a local physician, who loaded me up with 5 medicines. Costs (pre-insurance): $30 for the doctor and $45 for the meds. Total time spent waiting for the doctor and pharmacy: 30 minutes. Quality of medical care: as good as in the U.S.

Steve took Ruby and me to Maboneng, a tiny neighborhood in downtown Joburg where he and his partners were looking to rent new office space. In the last two years, a developer has purchased all 30 or so buildings in the area and has been fixing them up to be fashionable living, work, restaurant, and retail spaces. Yet, unlike many other such projects, he has not been forcing the prior low-income inhabitants to move out. Instead, the neighborhood has become home to a swath of people who have bonded to take pride in the area. This is especially remarkable in South Africa where racial segregation (and poverty) has remained the rule even though it is no longer the law.

Ruby and I hired a local resident/tour guide named Jabu to show us around the surrounding areas in the central business district downtown. He took us down a little alleyway next to a freeway entrance that opened into a Zulu market where people sold local foods, medicines from indigenous herbs, and handmade clothes. Jabu then brought us to the Southern Hemisphere’s largest secondhand bookshop, which housed over a million books and antiques. Ruby bought a Bolex hand crank camera that may have been 90 years old (and similar to the one I used in my first undergrad film class). We then walked in the direction of Joburg’s tallest office tower to get a panoramic view of the city from the 50th floor. We had been outside for several hours, and I began to feel the African sun on my alabaster skin. I asked Jabu if we could walk on the other side of the street in the shade. Confused, he asked, “Why?” Brown skinned Ruby pointed out my melanin deficiency. None of this computed for Jabu, but he was easygoing and went with it.

There are many similarities between Joburg and LA, and one of them is that downtown has some sketchy areas. To be more exact, I’d say Joburg’s resembles LA’s dangerous one from about 15-20 years ago and not today’s increasingly hipster version. As we headed toward the Carlton Tower (and deeper into a poor and all “black” South African area), I noticed more and more people staring at me. It was hard for me to figure out exactly the meaning behind the looks, but they were not inviting. At one point, an older black man yelled out to Jabu, who is also black, “What are you doing with the white people?” Jabu laughed it off, and then said to us that there are people who think in the “old way.” In hindsight, I am still not sure what to make of the entire experience. Many times I’ve been in environments in the U.S. where I was the only white person and everyone else was black (or, as we’d say, African-American). I’ve also been in sketchy areas in the U.S. and abroad. However, this was different. There was a different look I was receiving—and it did not feel friendly. I asked Steve about it later to try to figure out whether my own deeply hidden racial fears were coming out or whether it was something else. He responded, “Trust your instincts.” He pointed out that there is a lot of violence and danger in Joburg (a fact), and it can be race-based. Maybe I picked something up that was real. It is hard to say—for instance, Ruby did not have as hostile a sense of the situation as I had, but she is also Indian. Ultimately, I’m going to sit with it. Racial stereotypes and prejudices are very powerful, and as much as one of my life quests has been to rid myself of them there still may be some lurking deep within. I want to learn my truth.

Fortunately, I returned to Steve’s office safe and sound, with no sunburn. He then took Ruby and I on a driving tour of the city. Much like LA, it is the best way to see the many neighborhoods of the city. And, much like LA, Joburg is organized into areas along ridges and valleys. He began by taking us to the top of one hill called Yeoville. Steve worked for the last several years for the mayor developing the city strategy, so he is an incredible font of both official history and insider knowledge. He detailed Yeoville’s history over the prior 70 years describing how it went from a Jewish community to a mixed neighborhood to a black slum through policies ranging from Apartheid to rent control. It reminded me of parts of Newark and North Jersey where I grew up that had gone through a similar transformation. Yeoville could not be strictly defined by poverty, though, as we passed a vibrant one square block outdoor market where locals sold fresh food and groceries. It was leaps and bounds ahead of the food access in America’s poor inner city neighborhoods in that way.

We drove around a corner and across a street and suddenly the roads were tree-lined and the houses sprawled inside walled compounds. They were on par with Beverly Hills. New European cars waited at traffic lights as their white drivers appeared eager to get home. We then drove for several miles on Louis Botha Avenue, a main North-South road, through a variety of neighborhoods—commercial and residential, affluent and poor. The Apartheid Group Areas Acts of the early 1950’s may long have been revoked, but there was still little racial mixing.

Steve then drove us into the black township of Alexandra. I have seen favelas in Brazil where people struggle to keep their shacks moored to a muddy hillside and some of the poorest areas on Earth in Cambodia where kids play in minefields, but Alex is a special kind of poverty. Aluminum shacks have been crammed into every inch for as far as the eye can see, as an estimated half a million people call this township home. Many do not have running water, sewage, or electricity. Of all the poor areas of South Africa, it has the greatest population density. Words or pictures cannot communicate the meaning of Alex—it is something that can only be felt. The philosopher Galtung (I won’t debate his shortcomings here) defined violence as the cause of the difference between actual and potential. As I looked out across Alexandra at the hundreds of thousands of people living in extreme poverty, I saw countless acts of violence that caused so many people to be born into and to remain in such horrid conditions. And the reason they were living there was simply because of their race. They had been required to live there during Apartheid, and in the 20 years since its fall nothing had changed.

Traffic slowed to a halt as we headed up a small hill, and we spotted some burning tires on the side of the road. Farther ahead were riot police. A demonstration had recently taken place. Steve said it was not safe for us to go on, so we turned around. We drove less than a mile across a lowland towards the business district of Sandton. In the cars, I could see aggravated white faces (and a few Indian and “colored” ones) beginning their rush hour commute home. Along the side of the road, hundreds (thousands) of black people made the walk from their jobs in Sandton to their homes in Alex. When we reached Sandton, it was as modern and beautiful a business and commercial center as I’ve seen in the world. Massive new buildings of steel, stone, and glass (with their 10 story atriums) acted as the canyon walls to the wide avenues of the freshly paved streets. For those in LA, imagine Century City 5 times the size and in which every building has been built in the last 10 years. Now picture thousands of black men and women hiking to their shanty town a mile away as the white people who make up 10% of the country’s population drive past on their way home.

The extreme juxtaposition of wealth and poverty that was so clearly racially delineated was hard to experience. But, I think it’s important to see. I am a firm believer in living in truth and knowledge and not in denial and ignorance. In Los Angeles and the United States, we foster those blinders by putting our homeless in Skid Row and hiding our trails of racially divided labor in buses and subways. (That is not to say mass transit is a bad thing, as it would greatly improve the lives of many in Joburg.) The blatant, extreme and wide-scale inequality and injustice ruined me for the rest of that day. There was nothing to be said or done, either. I just had to experience it. I had been through this before when bearing witness to other stories of violence and oppression. I knew I would take it in and add it to the reserve of fuel that I had stored inside for the long battles that lay ahead in the never-ending pursuit of social justice.

The next morning I woke up and had breakfast with Steve and Charlene. I had a cup of Rooibos tea, a South African brew that is high in anti-oxidants, and took my 5 different prescription medicines to further send my flu and cold into oblivion. They asked, “How are you feeling?”

“I’m on the mend.”


By Ruby Bolaria, Urban Planning
June 27, 2013
Johannesburg, South Africa 

The last week felt like a whirlwind. I am more exposed to the many different sites and current state of Jozie. The complex duality of this city can either be a source of frustration or hope--or both.

Last weekend, Steve Narsoo had a bunch of friends over at his place and we emulated Iron Chef--South Africa style (my idea of course!). Steve went all out! He organized his guests into 4 teams of 2 and had all the ingredients and cooking stations ready to go when we arrived. Matthew Mizel, a social welfare PHD student at Luskin arrived the day before and was thrown into the mix without hesitation.

With my apron on and ready to go I was introduced to my partner Mohammad who brought his own knives and spices--he meant business. I acted as his sous chef, since clearly he was a pro and we started cooking! Mohammad’s intensity was not unique--everyone was running around the kitchen gathering ingredients and checking the time. Each team was responsible for making starters and a main course in about 1.5 hours--most teams made 2 of each. I loved how everyone took it so seriously! Steve became a different person and barely looked up from his station. To be honest, I could not tell you what most people made--a mix of curries, spices, some fish or chicken thrown in, vegetable stews, chicken skewers, rice, and other goodies. Everything was delicious and by the end of it no one cared who won (my team didn't win that’s why it doesn't matter). After dinner an impromptu dance party broke out and we were listening to MJ and Steve’s moonwalk was the highlight. I got a samba lesson and everyone broke into the shuffle at one point. Great night.

My experience in Joburg seems to be centered around living rooms and kitchens. It is a unique gift to come to a new country, be welcomed like family and experience life like a local. I am honored to have such great company and honest people talking about the good, bad, ugly and the beautiful that is Jozie.

The immense inequality (Joburg scored the highest for income inequality of any major city in the world), high unemployment (25%) and high crime paint a bleak picture of Jozie. However, since I arrived I felt sheltered from any of that. I have not really explored Jozie outside of the Kensington area. Like L.A., Jozie is large and spread out, made up of small suburbs and towns that are linked through vast highways, which by the way are some of the best roads I have ever seen! I wanted to go out and talk to more people and explore the city. Matthew and I went on a walking tour with Main Street Walks which was a great way to interact with the city.

We explored the Maboneng district--which is part of the inner city and is being redeveloped. It was a very rundown area, business had fled long ago and most people avoided it. However, 30-year-old urban entrepreneur Jonathon Liebmann saw an opportunity to breathe new life into the district. Using money from his wealthy uncle, he bought many of the deserted industrial buildings in the area and began to implement his vision to attract creativity and build a vibrant community where people can live, work and play in the inner city. Now the area is littered with hip coffee shops, retail shops, graffiti murals, new lofts and apartments that cater to mostly artist types and new office space. There is even a hotel with 12 rooms that represent 12 decades in South African History. It looks like SOHO or parts of Brooklyn--it was so strange and amazing! You could see the four or five blocks the district trickled into creating vibrant public spaces and an undeniable buzz. The people all bought into the lifestyle which is the real reason the project is a success. The mostly young inhabitants want a fun, safe and lively place to work, play and live! It’s that simple. Walk one or two blocks away from the renovated area and you are faced with stark poverty, abandoned buildings now inhabited by squatters, trash piles, homeless and all the problems that once plagued the Maboneng district.

Further into the city center we ventured to the Carlton Center building and went to the 50th floor for a spectacular view of the entire city! Joburg is so flat you can see so far out (it used to be lion country). There were various mounds in the distance which were mines--many of are still active but the gold rush is over and platinum is the new gold. One of the most interesting things was seeing little houses on the top of huge skyscrapers. These houses were for the poor--but ironically they had the best view.

After the tour, Steve took us for a drive on the north part of the city, since most of what we saw was south/east area. The north part of Joburg is where the rich, mostly white folks live. However, patches of poverty are woven throughout even the northern part of the city. We drove through Alexandra Township which has now deteriorated into an informal settlement and is one of the poorest areas in South Africa. The homes were literally tin shacks, people were weaving in and out of the dense area and everyone was black. Alexandra, unlike other townships is mostly South African black. Many other townships are a mix of Africans from various countries including Nigeria, Botswana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe among others. These other townships are formal settlements--meaning formal structured housing. They have their own set of problems, including xenophobia--but Alexandra still struggles with basic services like water and sanitation.

Like many poor areas, it is sandwiched in between two extremely wealthy neighborhoods--Observatory and Sandton. Observatory is old money wealth, with people living in ridiculous mansions with heavy security including electric fences and large gates. Sandton is even wealthier and sits just across the bridge from Alexandra. Sandton, unlike Observatory is really its own suburb--it’s where Forbes and other banking and finance industry located in the 90s, right before the end of the Apartheid regime. So it was a drain of capital from the city center to Sandton, helping to cement its immense wealth and prestige in the country. People say any [financial] deal worthwhile is made in Sandton.

On the way to Sandton from Alexandra mass amounts of people were walking on foot. There is no transit, few sidewalks and no bike paths so people walk alongside cars, causing more traffic. The legions of people walking back from working in Sandton (mostly as blue collar jobs such as domestic workers, commercial industry, construction, gardening, etc.) was astonishing. Even if you avoid Alexandra and ignore the inequality, how can you turn a blind eye to all these people!? It was sickening. In some ways it reminded of me of India and the slums sitting across the street from many people’s mansions.

I guess it’s easy for people to justify to themselves their position and the position of others. I try to empathize, but I just get angry. This is what I needed to see. This is why I'm here. To learn more about what is being done to improve people’s lives. How can we work to ensure basic human rights and basic services are available to everyone. In a city that has such immense wealth, how can those resources best be used to improve the quality of life for everyone? I know this is more of a career/lifetime question but I hope to find some pieces to the puzzle here in Jozie.


By Matthew Mizel, Social Welfare
(at left below, with Ruby Bolaria)
June 27, 2013
Johannesburg, South Africa 

My journey to Africa began the moment I stepped out of my front door with my two voluminous suitcases on Tuesday, June 18. The shuttle driver was an African immigrant, unusual for Los Angeles, and twenty minutes late. I would later learn that was early on the African clock. A quick hop to LAX followed by a skip on an 11 hour overnight flight on Lufthansa to Munich left me in an outdoor beer garden for my 4 ½ hour layover. That prepared me for the jump to Africa on another 11 hour overnight flight on South African Airways into Johannesburg. I cruised through immigration to emerge into a sea of unfamiliar faces out of which I hoped to pick out Stephen Narsoo, my host for the next 2 months in South Africa. I had only seen a picture of Steve, so the odds were much better that he would be able to spot my blonde head than I’d find his dark Indian one. We were going to have to do it the old school way, too, as I had left my American cell phone and its international roaming charges in LA. I’d previously run the gauntlet of dock hockers in many an international airport so had perfected the polite but firm “no thank you” to all the people who professed how much they wanted to “help” me get to some place to stay. It wasn’t long before I spotted Ruby Bolaria, my American compatriot who had come to Joburg a week earlier. (She is currently in the Master’s of Urban Planning program at UCLA Luskin.) It was a good thing she was there—Steve looked nothing like the photo I had seen. He and Ruby gave me a warm welcome, and he introduced me to his wife, Charlene.

On the drive to his house, which was to become my home as well for the upcoming two months, we talked about Mandela’s health (not good), music tastes (hip-hop all around), and cooking (they loved to cook, I loved to eat). We quickly settled into a comfortable rhythm. As we moved from the highway to Joburg’s residential streets, I was struck by the way that every house was surrounded by 8 foot concrete walls, barbed wire, and electrical fencing. Crime and robbery were such serious threats that people chose to barricade their homes in this manner. They had good reason: Steve told me their house had been broken into twice in the last 6 months until they recently added the electrical fence. He hated doing it as he felt it was oppressive and ultimately did nothing to fix the causes of crime.

Steve and Charlene’s house sat on a ridge overlooking the Kensington neighborhood and the Joburg skyline beyond. They showed me the second floor bedroom that was for me. The view from the next level was even more breathtaking. The house contained all hardwood floors and smelled of Indian spices. Perhaps I had made another step closer to nirvana.

Fortunately, my pacing of sleep on the flights (and the timing of the outdoor beer garden in Munich) had left me without jetlag despite the 9 hour time difference from LA. Therefore, Steve, Ruby, and I spent part of the afternoon discussing our work plans. Steve and his partners at their new venture iKlipse wanted us to work with them on their project titled “City Strategy in a Box.” Steve had written for the City of Joburg their city plan over the last few years after earning his Master’s in Urban Planning from UCLA in 2008. He had done such an excellent job creating it that municipalities all over Africa wanted to use it to build their own versions. This led Steve and his partners to create iKlipse to consult on those projects. Ruby and I were there to help them build out sections in our areas of expertise. Ruby’s was housing, and mine was criminology, particularly with youth. We developed a framework for the deliverables and the ways we would fit them into the needs of Joburg and beyond.

The next night, Steve and Charlene hosted a welcome dinner for Ruby and me. They invited Steve’s two business partners, Kree and Isso, as well as other friends and family. The format was to be an Iron Chef cook-off complete with mystery ingredients. Ruby teamed with Mohammed, a criminal judge, Steve partnered with his sister in law Shamim, and I paired with Charlene’s best friend Anusia, who thankfully worked as a caterer. It quickly became clear that not only did Mohammed and Anusia have a passion for cooking but they also had an even greater passion for winning. Charlene presented the three teams with the ingredients: yellowtail, chicken, lamb, a cornucopia of fresh vegetables, and three mandated South African indigenous foods of corn, peppadew (a type of pepper), and snoek (a fish). We had 45 minutes to prepare a starter. Anusia had me slicing chicken to prepare kabobs in a light curry sauce that was to be paired with a corn dip. Mohammed and Ruby were creating a fish stew. Steve and Shamim huddled in the corner secretly cooking. When Charlene announced that time was up, we presented our dishes to the four judges. One of the judges rated our chicken as a bit dry, which drew outrage from Anusia. “No one in 20 years has ever said my chicken was dry!” We placed second to Steve and Shamim. Whispers about the competition being rigged for the host spread through the party.

We had an hour for the main course. A determined Anusia had us working on yellowtail curry with seasoned rice. And when I say “us” I actually mean “her.” Yes, I did a little mixing of this and a little crushing of that, but she was very clearly driving the train. Her need to finish the competition on top (and my increasing amount of time spent with a wine glass in my hand) skewed the cooking input. Plus, this was my first time meeting Kree and Isso, who were both engaging. Anusia was a pro, and we brought out our food 10 minutes early. It was beyond delicious. Mohammed and Ruby also stepped up their game to produce a magnificent lamb curry. But Steve and Shamim’s food was nowhere in sight even though time was up. Despite a roar of protest, they unveiled three mains 10 minutes late. On top of that, they only prepared enough for each of the judges. Both Anusia and Mohammed were up in arms. The judges met privately in the kitchen. They awarded Steve and Shamim the most points but also docked them 2 points for being late. The net result: they were winners by half a point.

Hisses and howls rained from the partygoers. Anusia cried corruption. Mohammed had never seen such a travesty. I could not believe I had landed in Joburg to be surrounded by so much delicious Indian food, one of my favorite cuisines. (Interestingly, all 20 party attendees were of Indian descent, including even the other American, Ruby. South Africa is about 80% black, 10% white, 5% Indian, and 5% “colored”—people of mixed race). Peace was made through offerings of wine, and after several bottles of negotiations there was a Michael Jackson dance-off in the living room. Ruby rocked her best MJ impersonation (clearly this had been an important part of her teen years), and Steve dazzled during “The Way You Make Me Feel.” When “Billie Jean” came on, I unveiled my origin as a child of the 80’s complete with a moonwalk. I still cannot thank enough my 6th grade friend Eric LaRosa for teaching me how to do it.

When Steve, Charlene, and I descended downstairs to the kitchen the next morning (afternoon?), we peered into the space that used to be known as the kitchen. It now resembled an Indian spice factory that had left its conveyor belt running with no one attending. Steve suggested we sit outside on the patio with a view of Joburg and revel in eating the scrumptious leftovers. Neither Charlene nor I argued. There would be plenty of time later to scrub the thousands of used pots and dishes and wipe down every stained tile surface. For now, we were all content to bask in our new friendship and piece together exactly how the evening had become so bonding.


By Ruby Bolaria, Urban Planning
June 17, 2013
Johannesburg, South Africa 

How’s it!?

Writing from a cafe Johannesburg (aka Joburg or Jozie to the young ppl) feels surreal. My first impression when I landed in Joburg was how developed it actually is. Well paved roads, American looking single-family homes, wide highways with tons of cars – if it weren’t for the driving on the opposite side of the road it felt like I was still in LA.  

I was welcomed at the airport by Stephen Narsoo, a UCLA Luskin Urban Planning alumnus who offered me the internship this summer. He was a chief city strategist and still advises the city government but left recently to help launch the new company iKlipse.

He gave me a quick tour of downtown Joburg then took me to my new home in the Kensington neighborhood. Like LA, urban sprawl is painfully obvious in Joburg with vast highways connecting various neighborhoods at clearly different income levels. With poor public transit capacity, people are mostly limited to cars as their main form of transportation.

My host family, a mother-daughter duo, Sam and Nadine are wonderful. I felt instantly like I was part of the family. They hosted Sara Pilgreen, a social welfare PhD student last summer and gushed about her and the fun times they shared. Luckily she left such a good impression they were happy to host another UCLA Luskin student.  Their apartment is beautiful and in a safe neighborhood with 24 hours security. Anyone with a little money spends it on security here. Gated single family homes, security officers and bars on the doors and windows are normal.

Sunday was a holiday, so Monday (today) everyone has off for Youth Day. The holiday is to commemorate the Soweto riots of 1976, initially sparked by a government law instructing schools would be taught in Afrikaans. Afrikaans was a language spoken exclusively by whites and many Indians, but not black South Africans. On July 16th, students from Orlando West Junior High School from the poor all-black Soweto Township refused to go to school and protested the edict. The Apartheid regime reacted by mercilessly shooting many of the student protestors exposing the brutalities of the Apartheid government.

Ruby Bolaria, far right, in Johannesburg with, from left: Stephen's wife, his grandson, Stephen Narsoo, his parents and Kree, the iKlipse business partner.


As I learn more about how systemic and entrenched the Apartheid 100-year period was, it makes me amazed at how much South Africa has changed in 20 years. Yes, there is still a long way to go –the U.S. shares many parallels– but progress has been made. It’s crazy to think there were over 100 laws passed specifically to segregate races, including strict anti-interracial marriage laws and separate take out lines for nonwhites (nonwhites were not allowed to even eat inside fast food restaurants). Secret police would watch out to ensure races were not fraternizing too excessively.

Social transformation takes time, and Stephen and his partners who started iKlipse understand that and are actively working towards that transformation. Black empowerment is a major part of that – which sounds like affirmative action programs in the U.S. but I’m still learning how it plays out here. I start at iKlipse on Tuesday with Stephen and his two partners.

I’m sure I can talk more about iKlipse later, but today I met with one of the partners at iKlipse, Kree for a hike at the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens, which is about 40 minutes outside Jozie. It was beautiful! The waterfalls were great and the view of the city and its surroundings is amazing. It even reminded me of some parts of California. Again I find it surprising how I find so many similarities between the U.S and South Africa. 


Feature Weight: 
Feature Image: 
Feature Teaser: 
Several UCLA Luskin students are working abroad this summer. Watch this space to learn where they are and what they're doing



This summer, numerous students from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs are working and interning around the globe as part of UCLA Luskin's strategic plan to engage the School and its mission in international issues. The UCLA Luskin students will be sharing their thoughts on their work and their travels through a series of first person blogs.