Follow your instincts to Africa

Not often does one actually listen when their instincts say something as ludicrous as, “Hey, Africa could be fun…I should go to Africa.”

I did.

Five months later, I found myself waiting at the gate for the first step on my journey to this mysterious, faraway land.  As customary before any journey, varying emotions swirled through me during the dwindling days prior to departure – excitement, uncertainty, apprehension, anxiety, expectations, fright.  Although swirling most of all (and probably most advantageous) was openness.

I know an 8,500 mile trip across the ocean should seem like a monumental event in one’s life, but, ironically, it seemed like such a natural decision to me that it did not cause as much apprehension as one might expect.

In no manner am I saying that I shrugged it off and took this opportunity for granted, but it seemed so innate that I even forgot to tell my parents that I had already paid and registered for the program.

I cannot express the constant throbbing instinct that hounded me to explore this country and culture.  Like the monotonous beat of a distant drum, this desire resounded within me, escalating in power and recognition until I caved and began to plan my trip.

Much to the concern of my parents, my decision to travel to the other side of the world completely and utterly by myself was a million red flags in their eyes. After accepting the fact that I was not going to change my mind, my family and close friends became my lifeline in the closing days leading up to departure and during my time in South Africa.

I was able to go to Africa only because I am lucky enough to be part of the Bonner scholarship chapter at Maryville College, which is a volunteer-based scholarship that employs the humble attitude of giving back to the community, the country and the world. Each scholar gives two summers of service during his or her college career, receiving scholarship funds as aid in volunteer efforts.

After saving personal funds as well as Bonner scholarship funds, I began planning a volunteer trip abroad … to Africa!

With the help of advisors and mentors, I was able to enroll in African Impact’s photography and conservation program, which would station me at Thanda Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, for a month.

I, along with fellow photographers from various stretches of the world, would be compiling a photographic inventory of the plant and animal life on Thanda Game Reserve for anti-poaching units and educational uses.

African Impact was created to foster a community of volunteer-rich opportunities while educating those involved on various issues and concerns of the African cultures and environment.  While focusing mainly on the photographic elements of the program, the photographers also worked with the sister program of conservation that served projects such as removing invasive species and teaching wildlife lessons to primary schools in the surrounding communities.

It is impossible to wrap all the amazing experiences into just a few words, much less wrap all the amazing experiences into just a few words in only one language.  It would take hints of Afrikaans, splashes of Zulu and an entire dictionary full of unspoken languages to color the paradise that I got to live in for a month.

Despite the lengths I stressed myself out to prepare for “the trip of a lifetime,” nothing I did or could do would have prepared me for this excursion.

On an already multiple-connections flight course, I knew the airports would be teeming with unorganized frustration.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

From being delayed two hours in a plane on the runway in an unexpected storm, to literally sprinting through the Schipol airport to catch my connecting flight, I felt as though I were in a movie … or on a sick European version of “Pranked.”  I was thankful of the somewhat intelligent brain my parents gave me, which allowed me to spontaneously conjure creative problem-solving skills that kept me from staying the night in the Johannesburg airport and saved me thousands of dollars.

No matter how highly I speak of that place now, the minute I stepped off the three-hour bus ride from the Durban airport, I hated it.  I hated the reserve, I hated the lodge, I hated the people, I hated that the airlines lost my luggage, but more than anything else, I hated the fact that I would be there for an entire month, with barely any contact with the outside world.

However, so many things changed from that first day that it is difficult for me to convey the significance of this small journey in my life.

Before leaving the U.S., I expected this to be a journey that would immediately change my life – not in the mediocre way that every traveler expects a different country to change them.  I honestly did not know what to expect, but when I stepped onto the reserve, I realized that it was not near anything that I had anticipated.

Regardless, I was there, in South Africa, and there was nothing I could do about it, so why not make the most of it?

I began journaling every day and started to remember how much I actually adored writing. I realized I had forgotten how much it taught me about myself.

One would think spending a month in no-man’s-land would make me focus on the lions, elephants, giraffes, hyenas, wildebeests and other wild animals that sauntered past my cabin at night. But being back in the States now and reflecting on everything I have experienced, I have to admit this was more of a self-changing journey than a life-changing one.

In common instances, one might journey to third-world countries to witness primary circumstances of poverty, poor living conditions and high death rates. In many cases, a trip such as this might be the first and only time one would be exposed to such culture shock, causing a short-term “life-changing” experience derived from the reflections of less fortunate cultures.

However, I have already been exposed to such cultures on numerous occasions; I have already experienced the culture shock and the humbling reminder that I live in a very fortunate manner.  By self-changing, I am stating the epiphany that changed my world view; this adventure revealed the impact that I could personally have on these cultures.  These communities are not meaningless, nor are they distant from my daily life.  They are made up of human beings, too. Human beings that deserve the care and love I receive from my culture.

While conversing with a Zulu lady in broken English and bits of the Zulu language, something stirred within my subconscious, telling me that I must help.  Help is a broad term, yes, but my final years of college are geared towards generating a plan to administer that help, whatever it may be.

I could ramble for pages about the experiences I had, the people I met, the languages I picked up on, the kids we taught, the animals I was two feet from, the fear of driving on the other side of the road, and the people I lived with for a month that grew so dear to my heart.

However, I’m afraid an entire book might be only way to contain those stories.  I feel as though my self-changing experience is not over, and if I am being honest, I would say it will never be over.

An old saying I was taught while watching the sun set over the Thanda Mountains explains that when one leaves Africa, it steals a little piece of your heart and never really returns it.  Most who travel to Africa agree with this and either return in travel or forever respect this great continent for its influence on their hearts.

In short, the most important things I learned while lost somewhere in the middle of the African bush: always trust your instincts that spontaneously tell you to go the other end of the world, and never assume that a lion isn’t stalking you at any given time.

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