Johannesburg, South Africa
My adventure to Africa really began with no expectation. Other than my passion to love people. It is no secret that others' suffering resonates deep with me, and I desire to learn about others, of all nationalities, and always lift however I can.
And, admittedly, I travel to free myself of the life weights that bind me down over time. The faulty voices that speak in my head, the stresses that corner me. Travel rids these from me to a much deeper and long-lasting degree than my other modalities of mental freedom. I'm always planted home fresh and anew.
And now, just home from my journey in Africa, I stand bold, deciding on change for my life, and eyes wide open to opportunity. I can't say for certain where Africa lies in my future, but I know that my connections to it will remain strong for a long, long time, and I will definitely go back again someday. I always felt like a piece of my heart belonged there. And I was right.
So I begin my tale.
I arrive at the airport. Wednesday morning. The last one to show.
Don't know anyone I'm meeting in my humanitarian group, except for my friend Josh, who I've traveled to India and Mexico with before. He's the mastermind behind all these trips. But I don't see him, as I pull my luggage down the line of check-in kiosks. Instead I look for a clump of assorted young adults. Bingo.
I walk towards them, and Josh immediately emerges from the crowd, hugging me and then introducing me to everyone. The nine other volunteers, with several moms disbursed in the crowd, tell me their names. I remember none of them. But I do note that I am one of the oldest.
We proceed to security, divided into separate lines. I'm flagged because I have TOO MANY small bottles of face paint in my backpack. Because probably at some point after an on-board paint war, that became a rule. Another volunteer named Lucas waits for me a few yards away. "Him," I point at him, "He's in my group. Put some of the face paint in HIS bags. Then we'll be under the limit per bag." The mean sir looks down at me as if my idea is absurd. What? It makes perfect sense if you know math and stuff.
Lucas saw us looking at him and sticks his hands in the air, as if being convicted of something. Then a kind sir comes to oversee the problem. After I tell him a heart-warming story about children in Africa. And that he will ruin all of their lives for the rest of forever if he doesn't let me bring EVERY color of face paint, he says I'm fine to go.
The rest of the group is beyond the security gate waiting for us. I inform them of the hold-up, and Lucas includes my implication of him, which later on the trip when we become good friends, we look back at this odd encounter as our strange first memory of each other.
We all sit down at our boarding gate and introduce ourselves more thoroughly. Asked to share our names, age, and a bit about us. I share that I just ran a marathon on Saturday so if I eat and sleep a ton, that's why.
We'll fly to Atlanta, pick up two more volunteers, and then fly to Johannesburg and pick up two more, including my best friend Kelli, coming from her home in Houston. Later, after coming to know everyone a bit more, I'll lump everyone into a category. Fifteen people on this trip: one third are girls in high school or recently graduated - innocent, still laying foot into the real world, fresh, untainted minds, and full of energy. One third are young guys from Telos, a local school for youth treatment center for drugs or emotional issues - come from wealthy homes, really rough backgrounds, specialize in potty mouths and some sort of addictive and manipulative behaviors. And the last third are older Mormon singles - the bridge between the two groups - keeping the one tamed and the other protected, and getting real deep with each other. Soon to reveal a mighty interesting combination of people.
Anyway, once at the boarding gate, everyone disburses for food and bathroom breaks. I sit down between two girls, Makele and Candace. We start asking each other how we ended up on this trip. This was Candace's first trip out of the country, just barely graduated from highschool. Makele is closer to my age, a very open and engaging person. And, well, one story of a woman leads to other stories, and pretty soon we are talking about break-ups. Naturally. Twenty minutes later, I've shared more about my life than I share with any new person. But the responses are comfortable, empathetic, and safe. And who would have known that one person knocking the domino of vulnerability would lead to so much more on the rest of the trip.
The time comes and we board the plane. Ironically, I am assigned to the row with Makele and Candace. Four hours to Atlanta. Fourteen to Johannesburg. Which I become known for just sleeping the whole time. Which turns to my advantage on the flight home, because everyone will trade their seats around, and since everyone knows I'll just sleep the whole time, I am traded into a loner seat with two seats to myself. Davy will take a picture of me sleeping across both tray tables, and then when he walks by later and I'm awake, he gets so happy that he kisses my forehead. Mostly I just wonder how many pictures of me sleeping are floating around the internet. Because I am already aware of a far above average number. Assuming the average is 0.
Also, not important to note, the plane earplugs look like chopped finger tips.
We finally arrive in Johannesburg on Thursday evening. And Kelli and I are reunited! A roommate from college, but becoming really close several years later after a stream of heavy break-ups for me. Now we're committed travel buddies. Which has a double advantage as we reserve all our accumulated Delta miles for flying each other out to visit.
At the Johannesburg airport, we all exchange our money from USD to Rand - a 1030% exchange rate! Then head out for the rental vehicles. Driving happens on the left-hand side of the road, so the steering wheel is on the right-hand side. Which really confuses me when I get back to the states. The first time I drive a car back home, my buddy happens to call, and all I can say to him is "I have a car! I have MY OWN car! CAN YOU BELIEVE IT???" Because this is now an unbelievable realization for me. And as I'm ready to cry about it, I swerve out of the left lane in front of an oncoming car because I suddenly remember US road laws, and then he says he'll call me later.
So, we pack most of our luggage into a large van, and the remainder into a smaller car, and then each climb into one of the vehicles. We drive through Johannesburg to our guest houses. So far the town just looks like a really sketchy suburb in the states. And we are in a white people pocket, so again, not feeling the AFRICAN dig. Also, June is wintertime in Africa, which I wasn't aware of until AFTER I packed my suitcase with leggings and T-shirts and then flew completely across the world. But I can be strategic in layering so it's fine.
We are divided between two guest houses, so we stop at one to drop off some luggage, including my own where I'm assigned to a room with Kelli and another volunteer named Heather. Heather is soon to become one of my most adored people.
Then we drive to the other where we drop off the other half of the volunteers and sit down for dinner. I basically sit on top of the heater. The boys make sure the World Cup is playing every night for the rest of our trip, so after dinner, we watch the game and enjoy macaroons that Kelli brought from her layover in Versaille.
After a rundown of the whole trip, half of us head back to the first guest house, where I soak in a scorching hot bath to thaw myself out, and then sit down on the bed by Heather. I learn that Heather is 37, never married, likes to run half marathons, and looooooooves Africa. Later I learn that when she was 29, she saved up money to move to Zambia and started a school for orphans. She lived in a tent for two years, and then once the school was established and well-grown, she moved home to resume her job as a high school math teacher. We will continue to grow in awe of each other until our love of Africa and our passion and empathy combines...
I wind down for bed with a checked-out library book about a story of a family told in each of their eight different perspectives. One of them is a 17 year-old boy. Several pages in, I realize the mind of a 17 year-old boy is no mind I would ever like to be inside, so I shut the book and push it down to the bottom of my bag. Never to be opened again.
Then I drift off to sleep, ready to begin my true stay in Africa. Eager to see the ways my heart will grab hold.
Also, loving the 8 pm bedtime. Because jet lag headed east ROCKS.
Upward and onward,