We get up early, eager and ready to go to Swasiland.
I ride in the small car with Heather and Kelli, joined by Dan and Lucas. Nothing like a roadtrip through Africa,taking turns blasting our favorite songs with the windows down. My perfect happiness.
After awhile, we open a discussion by sharing stories about ourselves. Starting with a kissing story - either your first kiss or your best kiss. I share the first kiss from my summer fling last year, which later on the trip, I end up oddly grieving that entire relationship. Only after I get home and confess the strange remembrance of it all to Julie, she reminds me that this relationship was occurring exactly one year ago, so it makes sense that I'm mentally wandering through it again.
Then we take turns sharing our most adventurous tale. Dan shares a story about shrooms, as drugs is his main topic of conversation. And I quote the man himself: "I've done shrooms and acid at least a hundred times so I'm REALLY good at it." He spends the trip trying to convince us that drugs are productive and useful to society. And we spend the trip trying to point at that he's the only one who is homeless and running from the cops...
Lucas shares his story of Telos, the only boy on our trip who's honest and aware of his recovery. He went to Telos after struggling with major depression, anxiety, and a short-tempered fuse. But after leaving Telos, he is now far more calm and level-headed, and never falls back into his former dark emotional state. I really like Lucas, really appreciate how smart he is, and later we become great friends.
I share my story of the Philippines, and Heather is just blown away. Later she asks Josh at the passport gate leaving South Africa, "Do you know Chantel well?" He looks confused, so she follows up - "her trip to the Philippines. Holy Cow!" Then Josh replies, "Oh I know. I love to tell people that I have a friend who rushed over there after the typhoon." I just stand in silence, because I feel so humbled that my life stories are so interesting to others when they become just a normal bedtime tale to me, as I accept my scraggly looking passport back from the lady, and I have to explain for the thousandth time that it was monsoon season in the Philippines, and I weathered a fair number of storms in the bed of a truck. I get the award for most tattered passport hands-down.
At the second passport gate to enter Swasiland, we all use the restroom, as we are only halfway through the drive. All public restrooms are packed with boxes of condoms, shining great light on the massive HIV/Aids problem in Africa. Later, Dan will throw a pack of condoms in my lap at dinner and wink at me. He steals handfuls of them from every bathroom. "Not a chance, my friend." I will toss them back and tell him that I'm sure he'll get use out of them long before I will.
We continue our journey into Swasiland. Yes! Now THIS is Africa. Rolling hills for as far as the eye can see. Green everywhere. Trees that look just like I remember in The Lion King - all branches pointing upward so the leaves are a flat canopy at the top. And oh that blessed African sun. The sunsets are so captivatingly orange.
We make it to our home for the next week and a half. We are staying on the oustkirts of the small towns on a nature reserve, and as we slowly drive up and down the rocky red-dirt roads, we all have our heads glued to the windows observing hippos, monkeys, impalas, zebras, birds and 8,000 more creatures of the African wild. Kelli points to the Wildebeests and says, "Hey, aren't those the ones that trampled Mufasa?" We all affirm. Because The Lion King is the only reference point we have. Even though I want to reference Cool Runnings for no other reason than it also has black people. Then Dan points to a warthog and exclaims, "That is the UGLIEST FREAKING animal I have EVER seen." And I definitely don't disagree.
Once we reach our house, none of us know what to do except frantically run around each other and take a picture of every square inch of our surroundings. How can one stay calm on a nature reserve in AFRICA?? Dan smokes a cigarette in the corner, and I grimace at him on my way by. "Here? Really? That smell, Dan!" He just winks at me and gives some witty comment. That kid. I can't help but adore.
Finally we're checked in, and we unload our bags into the house. Upstairs is a big open loft of beds, and the main room downstairs is a vaulted room of more bunks. Below our patio is a trail that leads down to the hosting camp, containing a large camphouse where the boys will go to play pool, and the group will later go for a bonfire. Each morning, the women working at camp will come up to our house to collect any of our laundry and help with our dishes while we are away at work. The whole camp is surrounded with lush trees and brightly colored flowers. Nothing short of a dream.
While dinner is being prepared, I go upstairs and lay down on the bed next to Lucas. He flips around and we talk about our lives until it's time to eat. Everyone comes outside swaddled up for their first night in Swasiland.
Dan has taken a particular liking to me, as he must always be within one inch of me. After I clearly lay out that he is well below my age, and I won't be putting out for him at any point on this trip, I accept all his advances, actually find him really entertaining to be around. He keeps close by my side the whole rest of the trip - always fighting for the chair next to me so he can droop his arm around my shoulders. I go with it. Let this African experience just be lived in full.
After dinner, Kelli and I retreat to one of the bedrooms we selected down the hallway. We put on as many layers as we possibly can, and then burrow under the blankets. We talk until sleep forces our eyelids closed.
I'm already so happy and snuggled in here. I love Swasiland more than any other place I've ever been, except maybe Cebu, Philippines. It's enchanting and just as The Lion King always made it seem. Thank you Disney for being realistic in at least ONE movie.
The next 10 days here are going to be SO PERFECT!
And I drift off to sleep with my 18 layers of clothing.
Upward and onward,
All pictures are just from my iPhone. I'll add more photos from all the other volunteers as I get them.
Dan, Kelli, and I. Leaving our guest house in Johannesburg.
The most accepting bathroom doors I've ever seen. Never peed in such happy and diverse company before.
Croc. Also, "flatdog."
Hippo to the left.
That is one fine termite hill. Nothing I'd like to kick.
Lucas. Not wild animal.