Letter Home from the Fall 2013 Cities in the 21st Century program

A Letter Home from students on the Cities in the 21st Century: People, Planning, and Politics program:

Edited by: Ciara Stein

We are a learning community shaped by the people who are part of it: program directors, administrators, country coordinators, faculty, different lecturers, nameless assistants, homestay families, street vendors, the people who we have meet all over, and of course, the students.  This fall we are a group of 32 students that come from different U.S. universities with the curiosity and responsibility to learn from cities of the world.  At a time when three-quarters of the world’s urban population, ninety per cent of urban population growth, and poverty and social exclusion are increasingly concentrated in towns and cities in developing regions, it is vital that we are challenged.  By being part of the IHP Cities Program, through experiential learning we are able to understand theoretical global urban issues considering a diversity of viewpoints, combined with local experiences that are allowing us to find the inspiration to deal with our predicaments, environmental and social in relationship to our homelands: U.S., China and UK.

Over the course of the program many of the students kept blogs and journals. These allowed us to record and reflect on the myriad of experiences we were having, and, in some cases, to share them with our friends and family back at home. Below are a few extracts from the works. They represent the many encounters we had in each city, and the effects they made on us. 


This photograph of the entire group of students was taken on our last full day in New Orleans, where we started our journey.

This photograph of the entire group of students was taken on our last full day in New Orleans, where we started our journey.

NOLA: “91 Bus, 9 days”

By Amanda Lineberry

 Her name is Brenda and she could have said nothing.

She could have decided she was too tired to talk to a stranger on a bus, a stranger who clearly was from out of town. She could have simply been not interested in the little white girl with messy curly hair. The 32 of us over-crowded the 91 bus, and we were loud. But instead, she smiled and said hello.

She asked who we were and where we were going. I asked if she’s seen a lot of groups like us before. She said she had. We talked about where we lived, our education, families. She lived in New Orleans East. She graduated from high school, which was difficult because she had twins when she was 17 years old. A boy and a girl, a rapper and a nurse respectively. She had two more daughters after that. She’s 60 now and has 6 grandchildren. Then I asked her where her family was.

“They’re here, all here. We all came back after Katrina.”

“Where were you during Katrina?”

“I was on the roof of my house for nine days in the Lower Ninth Ward.”

Pause. Blink. What?

Brenda was the only one in her family who stayed during Katrina. Her family all left to find safety from the storm in Texas. She was home when the storm hit, and all seemed to blow over. Then the water started coming in. She remembers all the water rushing into her nose, how she nearly drowned. She made it onto the roof of her house and waited there until she was evacuated. Helicopters came and dropped food and water from time to time, but there were many times where she didn’t catch it and it drifted away in the muddy water surrounding her. Eventually, a helicopter came and evacuated her to West Palm Beach, Florida.

Despite not being able to get in touch with her family, Brenda was happy in West Palm Beach. The people were nice and the weather was great. But she wasn’t home. After three months, her family found her online. She laughs when she remembers their shouting and hollering over the phone, filled with emotion and joy to know she was alive.

Brenda could have stayed in West Palm Beach, and she could have been happy there. She moved to Baton Rouge for a little while, “until the city was ready.” Then she came to New Orleans East, to be with the rest of her family, to be home.

She never moved back to the Lower Ninth Ward though. “There’s just nothing there,” she said. “There’s still nothing there.”

“Well, this is my stop. Nice talking’ to you.”

And just like that, Brenda went on with her morning. Nevertheless, she has stayed with me throughout this trip. I think what struck me the most about Brenda was how matter-of-factly she ran through her hardships like a grocery list. No facial expressions, no descriptions of the wear and tear that Katrina must have had on her. It was what it was, no more and no less.

Perhaps Brenda’s attitude reflects the general attitude of this city as well. Katrina happened, and it has changed and challenged everything about New Orleans. Yes, the sidewalks are a mess, the Lower Ninth is still a shadow of what it was, rent has sky-rocketed, there is blight all around the city, and much more.

But Katrina is not New Orleans.

New Orleans is people like Brenda, and so many others, who have come back or are still trying to make their way home. And, as far as I can find, there isn’t one person in New Orleans who isn’t willing to share their seat and their story with you in a few shared minutes on a 91 bus.

Looking back on New Orleans I am amazed at just how much we did ­– from NGO visits, to neighborhood tours, to jazz parades, our two weeks were full of exploration and invigoration. I was already astounded by the energy of the group and the amount I was learning from every experience, both inside and outside class times. We had begun to follow the advice of Sally, one of our faculty members, and were keeping our ‘antennas flapping.’ I know this phrase, and the thought processes behind it, stayed with my peers and me as we ventured to Sao Paulo, Cape Town, Hanoi, and beyond.

Sao Paulo: “Home at Rua Frandique Coutinho”

By Mandeep Singh 

This photograph of the Sao Paulo skyline was taken during a hike on our first weekend in the city.

This photograph of the Sao Paulo skyline was taken during a hike on our first weekend in the city.

There have been so many things coming at me at once. I can’t believe three full weeks have passed already since I began the program. I feel caught between the feeling that everything is going by so fast and the feeling that I’ve already done and learned so much. I left the USA 9 days ago to fly to São Paulo, Brazil.

My two weeks in New Orleans were absolutely phenomenal. The introduction to the program, the people, and the analytical lens to observing life will take me a long way. I have a lot of thoughts and speculations about NOLA that I’d definitely like to write about sometime soon.

For the last week and a half, I’ve been swamped with classes, guest lectures, site visits and neighborhood days. I am exploring a variety of different aspects of the city through historical, social, cultural and political lenses. I’ve let my mind become a sponge—simply soaking up all the knowledge I can possibly absorb.

From what I’ve picked up in the limited time that I’ve been here, São Paulo is a mind-boggling place. Every time I think of its size and complexity, I get a slight shiver. The actual city population is about 11 million people and the general metropolis area has about 18-20 million people—making it one of the biggest metropolitan regions in the world. In the last 100 years, there has been a 40,000% growth rate!

The weight that the sheer number of people places on the infrastructure here is terrifying. Since the population grew so fast, the city is always playing a game of catch up when it comes to roads and public transportation. Although the train system here is pretty good, there are so many people that there are lines outside the station for people to get in. Trains come about every minute but people literally break arms and legs to get in. Believe me, I almost did.

Joey and his host mom, Evanir

Joey and his host mom, Evanir

My host family is AMAZING. I am thoroughly surprised at how I’ve been accepted here. It only costs of my host mom, my host sister, and my host sister’s boyfriend who is around often. This is the first time they’ve hosted students—and they’re doing a great job so far. Our host mom wakes up early to make us a solid breakfast.

She cuts us a fruit salad and makes us fresh squeezed orange juice (which we’ve told her not too) amongst an assortment of other things. Brazilians also don’t typically eat dinner until much later. It’s 9:10pm right now and I still haven’t really seen the site of dinner so far. But the food is always great so I am not even worried one bit.Our host mom does not speak English— which was extremely tough at first. However, it’s remarkable how much humans can communicate without speaking the same language. We communicate through point, laughing, music and dance. I’m sharing a room with another student on my program. We’ve both been trying to learn as much Portuguese so we can to communicate as best as possible with her. Google translate is also clutch.

But yet, even though we don’t speak the same language or have the same culture, I feel extremely loved. Since our family is much smaller, there’s so much love to go around. Evanir (mom), Natalia (sister), Joey (roomie) and I have developed a bond that I know will go much farther then the month that we’re here for. I’m really lucky that I was placed in this living situation. During the day I’m critically analyzing urban issues and my personal position within the system of society, but by night, I’m immersing myself in the company of humble people who are teaching me how to simply enjoy life.

Looking forward to continue dancing samba and learning about the world. Glad that I still have a few more weeks in the country!

To make sense of Sao Paulo is an impossible task. The city is far too vast, complex, and quick-paced to ever accurately pin it down. That is not to say we didn’t learn anything. To the contrary, our days were filled with site visits and guest lectures that taught us a wide range of topics through a variety of perspectives. We studied ‘the right to the city’ through the eyes of graffiti artists one day, only to discuss it with housing organizations the next. We looked at disparity on the streets, and ventured to the top floor of high-rises to observe from above. We learnt about plans for Cabuçu de Baxio 12, a peripheral favela, from architects, and then travelled to region and broke up into small groups to investigate aspects of the favela and formulate our own solutions. Despite all the time spent as a group, our experiences of the month were all very different, and even with hours of ‘debriefing’ there is an omnipresent question mark after descriptions of the city. The exhausting four weeks culminated in a much needed vacation. Some of our learning community chose to spend the week in Ilha Bela, while others ventured to Rio de Janiero. A week later, when we reunited to travel on to Cape Town, we all excited swapped stories and, as was now commonplace, debriefed our time apart.

Cape Town

For the first two weeks in Cape Town we lived in Bo Kaap, a primarily Muslim community situated close to the city center. While we have been taught to use the word ‘community’ with caution (‘What is a community?), we agreed that Bo Kaap can be categorized as one. The residents have mostly lived there for their whole lives; indeed many had inherited their homes from their parents. As such, they are extremely tight knit, a fact that we were made very aware of during the celebration of Eid. Many of us went with our host families to visit nearby houses and were fed countless biscuits and cakes at each one. Unsurprisingly, after the 10th house I was in a food coma.

Next we moved to homestays in Langa, the oldest township in Cape Town. Here we began to comprehend firsthand the socio-economic and spatial legacies of Apartheid. We met our families at a performance by a local percussion group at the Guga S’Thebe community center, which was to be our classroom for the next two weeks. We were welcomed into their lives and made to feel safe at home despite the many security issues and curfew we had to be aware of in the township.

“The One with Settling in”

By Hayley Yudelman 

Bo Kaap is often categorized by its highly photographed colorful houses.

Bo Kaap is often categorized by its highly photographed colorful houses.

On Sunday we met arrived in front of a place called the Bo-Kaap museum to be greeted by many families waiting to pick us up. The girl from our program living with me is named Kidane. Our mom immediately called our names and we were greeted with hugs and kisses. They pulled their car down to the museum, just so we could throw our bags in, and then drove up about 10 houses to our house. Our house is purple and it is beautiful. Most of the houses are painted in varying colors, which creates a beautiful landscape. We put our bags in our room and came down for dinner. I was so exhausted I could barely engage in talk, but dinner was really good. We also met our host sister (age 22) and her daughter (age 4) and our home brothers (age 11 and 12) and sister (age 8). It’s been so fun to be around kids – yesterday we played with them at the playground for a good hour. Last night we also saw a beautiful play called A Woman in Waiting, which is a one-woman play about her life story, mostly during Apartheid. When she was a child, she never got to see her parents because they lived in Durban and her mom took care of other children and then when she grew up, she had to leave her own baby at home because she had to take care of children in order to make money. Here emotions were very realistic and it was overall an extremely powerful and inspirational play that really put a face and a person to the lectures we have been receiving in class the past week.

As a group we hiked to the top of Lions Head, where we were treated to panoramic views of Cape Town.

As a group we hiked to the top of Lions Head, where we were treated to panoramic views of Cape Town.

““Omleku” in Langa, Cape Town”

By Sophie Schultze-Allen

This past weekend, I had a conversation about “free range” chicken with two young South African women named Yulandi and Tebi. Tebi said, “I don’t know what’s the big deal about ‘free range’ chicken? When I was a kid, there were chickens running around everywhere!” Yulandi chimed in, “You know, in Xhosa (most prevalent African language in Cape Town), the word we use for chicken that you eat is “Omleku” (with a click at the end where the ‘k’ sound would be), which translates literally as ‘running chicken’ because if you wanted to eat a chicken, you had to chase it down!!”

I thought this was so incredible, that their language reminded them that the chicken used to be alive, and that you should be thankful that it gave you its life. The word references the fact that chickens should be able to run freely if you are going to eat them and that there is supposed to be the chase involved. It should not be so easy to kill an animal. It should be somewhat difficult so that you don’t eat it all the time. But now, meat has gotten cheap in South Africa too, and it’s a distinct part the culture here. Every weekend people attend Braais (their style of BBQ) where the meal is focused around meat products, most of which are not sustainably sourced.

However, you can still get Omleku, farm chicken that is ‘free range’ but not certified as such. My host mom, “Mama”, bought it for us at the market near our house this past weekend because she knew that I worked at a farm and would appreciate real farm chicken. It tasted much different than the chicken I had eaten the day previously at the Braai at Mzoli’s. It was tougher and darker, but had so much more flavor. It almost tasted like turkey, and reminded me of chicken potpie. So what really is the hype about ‘free range’ chicken and eggs? How does that apply in a place where that is what was already most commonly accepted until the idea of farmed meat infiltrated their previous perceptions of chicken production. They happily adopted this new way of producing meat in more cost efficient ways, living the life of the wealthy at their Braais every week. But now, the same western ideologies that brought in the factory farm model are condemning it and selling a ‘new’ idea to these South African women who don’t understand how it’s any different from the chicken they used to chase in their grandma’s backyard. Afterwards, my new friend Yulandi told me, “Now, they even sell lettuce with the roots still on it! What’s that all about?! What am I supposed to do with that?”

Photo courtesy of Amanda Lineberry

Photo courtesy of Amanda Lineberry



‘Already in love with the architecture of the place. Vines flowing from a house in front of a small pool between tightly woven alleyways that make up the city.’ Mandeep Singh

‘Already in love with the architecture of the place. Vines flowing from a house in front of a small pool between tightly woven alleyways that make up the city.’ Mandeep Singh

 “Bike Outing with my new Vietnamese Family”

By Sophie Schultze-Allen


Sophie with her 10 year old host brother, Phuc.

Sophie with her 10 year old host brother, Phuc.

This past Saturday, our host brother Phuc (10 years old) and his second cousin Charlie (26 years old) took Zoe and me on a bike ride through Hanoi. In addition to seeing a couple lakes (past post) they also took us to the First National University of Vietnam where lucky students got to take their final exam from the King. It’s no longer a functioning school but now acts as a popular photographing location for graduating students. We also went to the Ethnographic Museum where I learned more about the 54 different ethnic groups that live in Vietnam. Outside, I got to see a traditional water puppet show and some traditional architecture from different ethnic groups such as the tall community building below.

At first Hanoi appeared to be the most unfamiliar city we studied in. The architecture, transportation, daily lives of the citizens, and food differed greatly from New Orleans, Sao Paulo and Cape Town. Nevertheless, we were surprised by the commonalities we could draw – for example between the gated communities of Century City, Cape Town, and Ciputra, Hanoi. It seemed the cross-comparative learning of our program had become ingrained in all of our thinking as we synthesized and analyzed our experiences in each city. Of course this was just in time for our final papers and presentation on our independent research projects. We watched each other’s passionate and informed presentation in awe at what we collectively and individually had accomplished over the semester.

The goodbyes in Hanoi were filled with tears and hugging, by both students and faculty alike. While it will be hard and sad to be geographically apart, our learning community will continue and our ‘antennas will be flapping’ as we travel through life. 


First National University of Hanoi

First National University of Hanoi

“The Five River Flow”

By Mandeep Singh


Growing up in the cracks of neglected public programs

We rose fast and fought against our expected life spans,

Opening our wings ad stretching past the sky,

High and far past those we left, cried and died.

Started from the bottom and now we here,

But yet, I’m still sitting on my throne, so engrained with fear.

Struggled to sleep at night, the tears continued to flow,

I’m tired of this fame, this fatigue,

I don’t want it anymore.

Depression: it greys and muddles the pigments of our lives.

Our eyes closed and watery, fists thrown up in the air,

Just trying to fight this journey of mine.


“Our Story”

By Abigail Mariam


How can we describe our IHP group?

Well…pick your metaphor.

Are we a salad?

No, we don’t just nestle together in a bed of leaves.

 Sure, a salad captures our many colors, shapes, and sizes, but can it showcase our flavor, the sugar and spice and sometimes bitterness we bring to every country we visit?

No, no amount of dressing can dress these leaves and veggies into the delicious dish we all are together.

How about a Rainbow Nation, adopted from the nation in which we learned that colors are not so perfectly arranged next to each other?

No, true to what we saw in South Africa we are a range of diversity, too large to be put into confined lines of belonging in this slot, in that box.

In our capacity to learn and be open we defy attempts to keep us in those delicate beams of light.

Well, how about a mosaic? Each piece of us fits into a larger framework, and while our individual beauty is apparent in unity we compose a far more beautiful picture.

No, a mosaic doesn’t capture our connections, our bonds which hold us together and encourage us to change.

These connections shift the shape of our pieces, giving us the gift of transformation which is preserved by the very key adhesives of understanding and forgiveness.

A mosaic is too static, too still to capture the dynamic growth we experience.

Okay, so how can we describe what we are?

We don’t.

We can’t use metaphors or similes,

Or poems or short stories,

Or novels or volumes or encyclopedias

Or libraries full of books to tell our story

Because it is far too extraordinary to fit in them.

No, the only medium capable of illustrating who we are is our lives,

The book we’ve been given to tell a tale that impacts not only us but those around us.

Our group lives and breathes through my words,

Through his voice,

Through her actions,

Through our thoughts.

Yes, the best way for us to share the knowledge, wisdom, and understanding of our group is to share ourselves.



http://lightofmind.tumblr.com/ – Mandeep Singh

http://citiesnthings.wordpress.com/category/usa/new-orleans/ – Hayley Yudelman

http://thesophiecyclediaries.wordpress.com/ Sophie Schultze-Allen

http://the804.wordpress.com/Amanda Lineberry

Our learning community in the final days of the program, at Mai Chau village.

Our learning community in the final days of the program, at Mai Chau village.

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