By: Erin Kelly
Traveling. It’s something that so many people talk about doing, but never actually do. Luckily, last summer I got the opportunity to go to South Africa for two weeks. It was one of the most unforgettable experiences I have had in my short twenty years of existence. It was unforgettable, not because of how perfect the trip went, but for all the dysfunctional moments that made the trip what it was. It made me realize a lot of things about myself. Here are some of my experiences and maybe this will inspire you to go on your own adventure one day.
One thing I recommend highly, if traveling is something you really want to do, is to get in touch with volunteer organizations. They offer inexpensive trips to different countries and you not only get the chance to travel, but you get to help others as well. “Reach Out Volunteers”, which is the volunteer organization I went with, came to my school to present and gave all interested students information on each trip they offered. As soon as I went to the presentation I was hooked and immediately called my mom after the presentation was over. Over the next 6 months we would fundraise $4500, enough money to pay for the trip and plane ticket. This was actually happening! I was nineteen and already going across the world for the first time!
Did I mention I was going to be traveling to the other side of the world by myself and I wasn’t going to know anyone in my group that I would also be living with for two weeks? For those of you that don’t know me-I am extremely shy, awkward, and I have a fear of meeting new people. I faced all three of these demons head on and ended up realizing that I had been selling myself short all along. I was more independent and outgoing then I thought. (realization number one) It took two days to get to South Africa. Jetlagged and tired as hell, me and three other girls who were also from the states, wandered around the Johannesburg airport trying to find the gate we needed to transfer flights with. While we were wandering around the airport two men that were dressed in airport security outfits said that they could take our luggage for us and show us where the gate was. How nice, we all thought! But soon we realized we were the only ones getting “escorted” by “airport security” and once we got to the gate both men turned around and demanded we tip them. We had been in South Africa for 20 minutes and already got hustled. (dysfunctional memory number 1) Alright, not the best first impression but we were still hopeful.
For the first week we were in Africa we would be building a kindergarten in a nearby village and playing with the children that would be going to that school, all while experiencing the culture around us. The first day meeting the kids was like something out of a movie. We pulled up in trucks and off in the distance you could see tiny bodies running towards us. In the crowd of extremely excited children I spotted a shy four year old with a smile that could probably cure cancer. Needless to say for the next week we were conjoined at the hip. Even though he only knew how to say numbers in English I still felt a connection with him. Every afternoon as soon as he would see me he would get a huge smile on his face and run over to me. The end of the week came and before we left that day two older girls, probably around 12 or 13 years old, came up to my friend Melani and I. They kissed us on the cheek and said “We appreciate all of you so much. Don’t forget about us.” Wow. You don’t realize how easy it is to get attached to people in a week or how much of an impact you can truly have on another person’s life until something like this happens. (realization number two)
Through out the first week we also had language lessons, went to markets, safari’s, and even got to have a tour of one of the wildlife reserves via horseback. Which reminds me, while we were on horseback the horse in front of mine decided it didn’t like my horse and kicked both its hind legs up into the air. As if that wasn’t scary enough, the horse’s hind legs slammed into my leg…it kicked me! I almost fell off my horse but luckily I didn’t. All I had was a nasty bruise on my leg…and a great story to tell to my mom via skype at the end of the day. (dysfunctional memory number 2)
The second week we stayed inside a wildlife reserve to do conservation work. We tracked different animals like elephants and buffalo, picked weeds (which was more like chopping down mini trees. we had to use machetes because the roots were so thick), and we conducted research. Doing this type of volunteer work was completely different from the physical demand & emotional toll of the previous week. Besides the weed wacking, the other things we were doing seemed very mediocre. I felt like I was just sitting around because that’s what I was doing. Did I really spend all that money to sit on my ass? But even though it didn’t seem like we were making that much of a difference at the reserve, we were. Doing even the littlest jobs can make a huge difference. (realization number 3) Because of the research and tracking that we did for the reserve we helped everyone that works there better understand what’s going on in the reserve. Making someone’s life easier is a rewarding feeling.
On one of our free days, right before it was time to leave, we got to go to a wild cat rehabilitation center. The center took care of servals, wild cats that looked like obese house cats, caracals, and cheetahs! We actually got to sit with the cheetah’s and pet them! The man that was in charge of the cheetah’s said that they were extremely gentle as long as you were gentle and didn’t look the cat’s in the eye. Pretty intimidating but nonetheless exciting. It was my turn to take a picture with the cat and as soon as a sat down and started petting the cheetah, it rolled over onto my lap! I looked down and out of nowhere all I saw was cheetah paw in my face….yes, it scratched my face. (dysfunctional memory number 3) It’s at this point that I realized maybe me and animals just don’t mix. (realization number 4)
So many other memories were made and I wish I could go into further detail, but then this article would turn into a book. But during this trip I realized certain things about myself that maybe I wouldn’t have realized if not for this experience. I guess what I’m trying to say is go out and do things. Experience life and embrace all of its’ moments, even the dysfunctional ones. Inevitably, it’s the dysfunctional ones that make you who you are.