Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Goodbye Cape Town // Hello Christchurch, NZ

After many delays, side-trips and attempts to prolong my time in Cape Town, I've finally shipped off from South Africa and moved on to WATSON PHASE IV: NEW ZEALAND. I've been in Christchurch for four days now, and have already settled in and established myself and my project in ways that usually take a few weeks of Watson-time. Within 36 hours of arrival, I had already:

1.     Settled into a homey place to stay with three wonderful housemates
2.     Figured out public transit and found a bike to use (thanks wonderful housemates)
3.     Received an office with desk space and computer from the University of Canterbury's astronomy department
4.     Played ultimate frisbee
5.     Recovered from ten hours of jet-lag (almost)
6.     Spoken with students about outer space!

All in all, I'm quite proud of myself. There have been times when I've kicked myself for delaying my trip to NZ -- I was originally supposed to arrive in late February!-- but I know that the other trips I've taken have been well worth the delay, and also that the resources and accessibility here, combined with my experience traveling, will make it possible to get the most out of a shorter amount of time.

But I think I'm getting ahead of myself. My last few days in Cape Town were perfect. Although I had a lot to do in terms of wrapping things up and getting ready to leave, the sun was shining in that ideal early-autumn way, and there was still time for adventures and saying goodbye properly.

I forgot to mention in my last post that I had my birthday on my last day in Ethiopia. I celebrated by going to two schools and chatting with students about astronomy, and having huge, traditional, delicious meals with both The Ethiopian Space Science Society and Birukti & co. It was an ideal way to celebrate my 23rd journey around the Sun. Plus, messages through email and facebook poured in from around the world, and I felt absolutely loved from all directions.
My birthday lunch with the ESSS in Ethiopia
When I got back to Cape Town, though, I did have a small casual get together both for another excuse to eat cake and a chance to say goodbye.
Birthday cake, food and friends in the park for a final get-together
We also had time for one last OAD-family hike up Table Mountain. Seeing the city from above at all angles was the perfect way to say goodbye to this beautiful city/country that has taught me so much.
Final climb up Table Mountain
On my last day in South Africa, I was able to squeeze in one final chat with students. SHAWCO is a non-profit organization run by the University of Cape Town that does a number of outreach projects in the community. My friend Ru runs one of the education projects, which tutors high school students and also helps the students organize independent research projects. Some of the groups are doing projects on science (one in particular on space science), and so I came in and spoke with them about astronomy and all that South Africa had to offer. Even though the project is huge, most of the students had not previously heard about the SKA and what it's going to bring to SA. It was great to hear their ideas about astronomy and also to see them get excited for the projects that are being developed in their country. 
Final chat with South African students

And then it was off to New Zealand! 36 hours, three stops, and ten time-zones later, I was in Christchurch. While the journey was exhausting, I will say this about long flights -- having a window seat gives astronomical perspective. In those 36 hours, I saw two sunrises, two sunsets, and the crescent moon go from the left side to the bottom as we neared the equator, and back to the left as we returned back to the Southern Hemisphere. 
Sunset after Capet Town take-off (crescent moon still on the left)
I arrived in Christchurch in the early afternoon, and by the evening, I was speaking with students from the AURORA school -- a one-week camp for high school students interested in astronomy. They had just returned from a [cloudy] trip the Mt John Observatory, and the leaders of the camp were running a fun Astro-Quiz night. I hung out with the group, and heard about the things they had enjoyed learning during the camp. Topics ranged from exoplanet detection to dark matter candidates to telescope operations. The students are all in their final year of high school, and it seemed that many of them became more interested in studying astronomy in college (or "Uni" as they say here), because of the AURORA school.

AURORA school students showing off their clay-model telescopes at Astro-Quiz night
The University of Canterbury astronomy faculty, who ran the AURORA school, has since welcomed me into the department as a visitor, and has provided me with office, desk and computer. I'll be working with them here on campus and also with teaching fellow Ben McNabb, who will help me organize visits to primary and secondary schools around Christchurch. 

Since settling in, I hoped to explore town a little bit more, but since the weather has been cold, rainy and miserable, I've mostly kept indoors. On Sunday, it was raining and sad, so I spent the afternoon at my local public library, only a 5 minute bike-ride away. I thought I'd go for the computers or to find a nice novel to read, but I found myself instead in the children's section, in a tiny chair, covered in children's books about outer space. The most interesting books were Maori legends that explained how the Sun, Earth, Moon and stars came into being.
Rainy day at the Papanui public library, reading children's books of Maori astro-legends

I'm here in New Zealand to explore this intersection between access to a high-achieving public education system (NZ ranks 4th in reading and science and 7th in math globally), and a strong traditional astronomical culture. Reading these legends was fascinating, and also gave some insight into how children in NZ are learning about astronomy. 

This week, I'm settling into life here, getting adjusted and getting some practical things done (like blogging!). These next two weeks are school holidays, proving that I am absolutely the worst at timing my travels so that I'll be able to speak with kids in schools (Chilean independence, Dasain in Nepal, Christmas/New Years in South Africa...) I don't think this holiday will inhibit my activities too much, though, as next week I'll travel to visit the South Canterbury Astronomical Society in Geraldine and Timaru to take part in their Global Astronomy Month events, and also hopefully take a trip to the Mt John Observatory near Lake Tekapo. 


UPDATE since the first part of this post was written -- the skies have finally cleared, and the weather report is now calling for "mild temperatures and abundant sunshine" for the next few days. Visions of gorgeous Christchurch autumn:
View from my 8th floor office (see mountains in background)
Campus walkways. I can't help but think of the Haverford nature trail in October


  1. Amazing! You are so inspiring as a go-getter and adventuress. On the first afternoon after a 36 hour flight, I'd be face-down in bed. You rock.

  2. Dear Maya,
    Foremost Congratulations for your valuable activities on promote Peace,Astronomy and Educational Justice .
    I have read your great blog on the Astronomers Without Borders' website. I was wondered to see someone who is like-minded in Educational Equality with me.
    Please let me know what's your idea about my blog on the AWB Featured Member Blogs:


    Clear skies,

  3. update your blog, woman!!

    by that i mean, i love you and your adventures. you're incredible. bring back some children's books!!