I was 12 years old when the travel bug REALLY hit me. I remember I was sick and couldn’t attend school for a few days. When returning my friends had a big cheeky smile on their face telling me that there was a bit of a surprise waiting for me. I found out that while I was away they proudly appointed me as the team leader for an international project our school just took on. Alright, I thought. Apparently we would work together with schools from several countries in Europe, which also included a trip of all team leaders to share final results.
Soon I was standing at the airport heading off to represent my school. Arriving in London we continued by taking a ferry to the Shetland Islands from where we traveled on to visit some more countries in Northern Europe. Our group was filled with young passionate leaders from the UK, Sweden, Ireland, Czech Republic and many more. This trip was also combined with another project which brought together people from all over the world and I was left speechless meeting people from Australia, the US and other places that felt just so far away from where I lived (Germany).
I was amazed how we were all in the same spot, speaking the same language and sharing stories from all around the globe. It fascinated me that we all had such different lives, views, and expectations. But we all shared this experience and made it memorable by each adding our piece.
Not long after this trip, my mum received a call from one of my teachers. He suggested that it might be a good idea for me to do an exchange and live in another country for some time. What a great idea I thought! I couldn’t wait to go onto my next adventure getting a taste of other cultures and meeting more people from places far away. My mum quite liked the idea, too. Maybe Sweden would be a good idea? Our school offered an exchange with one of the schools there. Sweden? I can always go to Sweden I thought. I wanted to go FAR away. Somewhere completely different. What other options were there?
Well, it turned out our school also had a partnership with one of the schools in Cape Town, South Africa. Now we were talking.
You can probably imagine that my parents weren’t much impressed with my eagerness to travel to the other side of the world. My teachers and friends would look at me a little speechless, too. South Africa? Wasn’t that dangerous? Well, I haven’t been there before and no one I knew had either. So how could we know?
After many discussions, checks, preparations and plenty of other arrangements, I took off onto this big three month journey. My whole family came to the airport to say goodbye, everyone nervous including myself. Wuh, South Africa – that actually is quite a bit away from Germany. Standing there at the airport I started to questioning my decision. What would it be like? What did I even know about this side of the world? Nothing really. And I guess that’s what drove me this whole time to make this happen. I wanted to find out. I wanted to see, live, breathe South Africa.
And you know what?
I had the best time ever.
What a beautiful country. The people, nature, food, music – I was blown away. Throughout my stay I never had the feeling of being a stranger. My host family welcomed me with such warmth and kindness as if we’d known each other for many years. In school, students were curious to hear about stories from Europe and I was curious to listen to their stories. I was invited to trips, meet friends of friends and have dinner with lovely families.
I was very lucky in that my host family absolutely loved nature and took every opportunity to show me around, go camping and explore. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was standing on top of Table Mountain or looking down at Cape Point. Never would I have thought of waking up surrounded by ostriches and massive turtles, seeing orcas a few metres away from me, and saying Hi to monkeys on our way home from school.
On top of that, spiders, scorpions and snakes just seemed normal to be around. I didn’t grow up with these kind of animals, but seeing how calm people around me were when seeing a cobra down the road, I felt surprisingly ok about it. I wasn’t scared.
This as many other moments during my stay there has taught me a very good lesson – we do adjust to our environments and we can be happy anywhere if we allow ourselves to.
For my host brother and his friends it was normal to head down to the beach after school, hike around barefeet in the mountains, or have a potjie (dish prepared in a pot over a fire outdoors) for dinner. To me that was new, different, but at the same time so exciting and I loved it.
And who would have thought how similar Afrikaans sounds to German? Not that I learned to speak it, but here and there I picked up bits and pieces (definitely in school when we were singing the national anthem on Monday mornings).
But you know what got me most? The people. I was touched how caring everyone was. Whether your neighbour, class mate, friend, or just a stranger. Most of the people I met were absolutely kind hearted, generous, and friendly. Whether it was sharing your last bit of lunch with your class mates in school, bringing over a gift to your neighbour who had a rough time, or simply inviting your family, colleagues, or friends of your friends over for dinner to enjoy time together. It seemed there was always someone there for you, there was always someone who had time to listen to you no matter what they had on their agenda. I didn’t feel like anyone was rushing through their day, but take one step at a time.
And to answer that little question still sitting up there. No, not one moment did I feel like being in a dangerous country, which showed very well when visiting my host family again the following year 🙂