Tuesday, 26 July 2016

When in Africa

If I had to describe my three weeks spent volunteering in South Africa in one word, that word would be...dusty. For the first time in 22 days, I feel clean. I can tell what is tan and what is dust; I know that my eyes are just sore from tiredness, not because they're 10% eyeball and 90% desert; and I can eat my snacks without them being grainy...with dust. 

Dust aside, I've had a pretty crazy three weeks. I'd hoped to keep you all updated, but South African WiFi is not the one - especially when 100 volunteers/hotel guests/students are trying to blog/FaceTime/Instagram a picture of a lion all at once. Basically, we've got a lot to catch up on. The project that I volunteered on was an hour East of Port Elizabeth at the Kwantu Game Reserve. It was called "The Big 5", and was basically an opportunity to go and hang out with elephants, rhinos, lions, water buffalo and leopards. I saw four of the five - turns out leopards are hard to come by. The actual 'volunteering' bit took the form of helping repair roads in the reserve, patrolling the fence, chopping trees, weeding and all manner of digging. I am pretty much a qualified 5'1 labourer now for any builders or gardeners who need a hand. There was one 'fun' activity pretty much every day, ranging from game drives to feeding the animals in the predator rehabilitation camp to feeding the elephants in the sanctuary down the road. 

So why did I go, I hear you ask? Why not Zante, or Budapest, or Cornwall? Honestly, because being hungover in 35°c heat makes me want to be sick even thinking about it; because I wanted a change from city breaks; and because the "British Summer" is too unreliable. I've wanted to go on safari ever since I can remember, and seeing elephants has long been at the top of my bucket list. I wanted to go somewhere and do something that made me feel independent and brave, and give me new experiences. I wanted to meet new people and make new friends. I wanted to get away and live and think and experience (pretentious travelling bit over, promise). The best thing about this trip was that I've done all those things: I did everything I went there to do and more. 

Our days spent at the reserve (Monday - Friday) looked a little something like this:
7am - 7.29am: Get up
7.30am - 9.30am: Activity 1 - usually something like digging holes or road repairing 
9.30am - 10:30am: Breakfast - I am all about the homemade bread
10:30am - 1pm: Activity 2 - usually fence patrol, tree chopping or weeding
1pm - 2pm: Lunch - something fried or pasta 
2pm - 5pm: Activity 3 - usually the fun one, game drives or visiting the elephants 
6pm: Dinner - some sort of red meat stew and rice. Rice, rice, rice 
Evenings: How many people can you fit on a sofa? How long does it take 15 people to agree on a film? Why did we go to bed so late?

I enjoyed the weekdays. They were pretty jam-packed, and by the time you got to the evening you'd forgotten what you'd done in the mornings. The evenings spent cuddled up on the sofa with your new best mates, chatting about life and lions and bowel habits made the trip though...because they made the friends. The weekends were the most stressful and disorganised periods of free time that you could possibly imagine, but they saved you from going stir crazy at the reserve, and permitted afternoons on the beach, horse riding in the mountains and food that wasn't rice. They were boozy and sleepy and action packed all at the same time. One day might be spent bungee jumping (or watching your mates bungee jump) and the next curled up under 4 blankets next to the fire, ordering takeout to your hostel because you're too cold and lazy to move. I wish I'd had more weekends to go and explore, or some more time and a travel buddy to sightsee with afterwards. I really, really wanted to go to Cape Town...but it was a 10hr drive away and, thus, a trip for another time. 

The part of this trip that I am and, I'm sure, always will look back on most fondly though, is the people. I can't imagine these last three weeks without all the friends I made - even those I only really got to know the Friday night before the Sunday morning I jetted off. Throwing a group of people together, from different countries, who speak different languages, are different ages, and from all walks of life, and then giving them very little entertainment and making them chat was a great way to create friendships. I've made friends from Belgium, France, Spain, Australia and the US. I have new friends down the road in London, but also in Middlesborough, Edinburgh, Birmingham and Liverpool. I've got friends who I arrived and instantly bonded with, and ones I wish I'd met earlier and known for longer. I'm so, so fortunate to have met so many interesting, funny, kind and happy people, who I can't wait to see again on home turf. 

Being away, and really far from home, also gave me the chance to think about things - things that pass you by in normal, everyday life and you think differently about when informed by all the different people you meet. It made me realise how lucky I am (and have been), and how admirable so many other people are. It showed me that the world is full of lovely people, and I should get rid of the toxic or boring or uninteresting people in my life and replace them with people like this. It made me realise that taking risks are often not as scary as you think, and the consequences can be really damn great. It introduced me to people who are adventurous and thoughtful well beyond their years, and showed me that the greatest fear is fear itself (and flying on planes by yourself). 

I am home happy, enthused and relieved. I have never been more ready for a dinner that isn't rice based, a shower that isn't freezing cold or a single drip, and a sleep in a room without 20 other people in it. But I'm not leaving completely - I'm bringing back the fears I've overcome, the knowledge I've gained, and the friends I've made. What happens in Africa definitely does not stay in Africa. 

***Disclaimer: No one ever talks about the bad bits about going away/travelling, and that's important too. In the last three weeks, I've never been so afraid of dying: on planes, from snakes, from spiders in my bed, from Marmosets who nibble your face and hopefully don't have Rabies, from rogue taxi drivers, and from ODing on white carbs. Mostly just planes though. The first day you're 10,000km away from home and you have a tummy ache or a cheeky wisdom tooth is the worst. All your want is your bed and your boyfriend to stroke your hair, and all you have is water that tastes like chemicals. You become acutely aware of everything going in your mouth when your friends get food poisoning; I will never consume a South African pizza. But I think this is part of what makes it: you're a more confident and collected person for having those weeks of terror and surviving, and for battling ultimate sleep deprivation and then smashing 39 hours without sleep. You know you can do it. You've done it before and you're big enough, silly enough and brave enough to do it again. 

Saturday, 9 July 2016

South Africa, day 6 - weekend in a hippy camp

I'm almost at the end of my first week here, and I'd be lying if I said it had flown by. I expected it to, and it hasn't - in good ways and in bad. I feel like I've been here for weeks, months, and it feels like so long ago that I was in my bed, guaranteed a hot shower and a meal that wasn't inevitably rice based. It's an experience though, and one I'm trying to make the most of, embracing the good and the bad.

First of all, I'm incredibly lucky to be here, and even luckier to be here with such a lovely group of people. There's nothing like spending every minute of your day with someone to make or break a friendship, and I'm so happy that I've made plenty here. I'm already dreading our group of 11 suddenly becoming 4, and the friends I've been so close to here in South Africa dispersed across the UK, Europe and the world. I'm excited to meet the new people that'll join us next week and the week after, and the chance to make new friends and have new experiences together before I come back to British soil and the comfort of everything at home. 

In the week I've been here I've seen lions, giraffes, tigers, zebras and cheetahs; I've fed elephants and stroked their trunks and tried to work out the best way to smuggle one home; and I've (sort of) watched a cow and Impala being chopped up to feed to the animals in rehab (there is no smell like it). This weekend I've travelled 5 hours to stay in the most bizarre place I've ever been, Wild Spirit Backpackers Lodge, a camp full of hippies who hug a lot, don't wear shoes, give out free shots and make excellent cottage pie. I've been to a party that was supposed to be in bus, but was actually in a tent, and then spent half the evening holding a torch so my friend could be sick out the tent. I've had conversations about Palmo's at 3am, and woken up to the most beautiful view of mountains. I've been horse riding in the mountains, on a horse named James Bond, and have the bruises on my bum to show for it. When I think about it, and I write about it, I've had a lot of new experiences this week and that was pretty much why I came here - to do something new. 

I'm not going to lie though, and pretend it's all been sunshine and rainbows. I've been cold almost constantly since I got here (Africa, what you up to?) and that's put us all in difficult moods. Whether it's a night of very little sleep because we're awake shivering, an early morning moving rubble and not being able to feel our hands, or the physical pain of not being able to have a hot shower on a freezing cold evening. We've had too little sleep, too many early mornings, too much rice and too little fibre. We've turned up at hostels which, despite being told they had, hadn't been booked and gone on a metaphorical wild goose chase to find somewhere else to stay. I miss home, and I miss not being cold and tired, and the knowledge that I'm here for another 3 weeks sounds and feels so daunting and scary...and cold. But I'm here, so I can't let it get me down just yet, and remember the awesome things I've done and the awesome things I have left to do.

Africa, it's been a long week - and I hope the next 3 weeks feel a bit more settled, because I've got rhinos to see, more elephants to feed, and orphans to meet. Over and out. X

Monday, 4 July 2016

South Africa, day 1 - I'm not even there yet

I'm writing this from Johannesburg airport. I've been here for 8 hours now, and still have an hour and a half to go. It is not the travelling dream. After a delayed flight, horrible turbulence, a missed connection, the rudest and least helpful airport staff, a terrifying porter who followed me and hassled me for money and threatened to take my phone when I didn't give him any, I have spent the last 4 or 5 hours sitting in an airport lounge with unlimited marshmallows, waiting for my flight - 8 hours later than planned. I haven't really slept, and I've reached the point where I can't read anymore because my eyes are just blurring. I've enjoyed some jam sandwiches and lemon tea and tiny pots of melon, and I've never been so in need of actual hot food. I'm not quite sure what to do with myself. It feels a bit like an out of body experience. I've never done anything like this before, and I couldn't imagine what it would be like to travel by myself - let alone have the worst journey ever by myself. Although I'm basically a zombie and I haven't brushed my teeth in a disgusting amount of time, it's kind of fine. I mean, it's not ideal, but nothing THAT bad has actually happened. I'm still alive and I haven't lost anything (yet) and, with some luck, I'll be at the reserve tonight with all my new mates and have the best sleep I've ever had. By this time tomorrow, I hope today's antics will be almost forgotten. All the nervous, stressed, panicked and confused tears will have dried up and have been swapped for efforts to sing every song from the Lion King. 

I guess the point of this post is that I was so scared of going and all the things that could happen and, largely, they were worse than I expected (apart from actually surviving the plane journey), and I'm still pretty much fine. Sometimes the things you worry about aren't the things that you needed to have worried about, and all the rubbish stuff that ends up happening didn't even cross your mind and you were in no way prepared for. In amongst all of the crying babies on the plane, vomiting passengers, terrifying airport staff and South African Airways employees that you want to punch in the face, I also made a friend - a South African lady who kept asking me if I was ok on the plane, who offered to share her chocolate pot with me and stood with me at the airport to make sure I got through security ok. Even on the worst days there are the glimmers of hope - you know, as well as your boyfriend on the other end of the phone who you ring in floods of tears and he sorts you out. I figure it's all part of the experience, and it's all going to work out. It can only get better, right? I'm so ready for a sleep and a hug from an elephant. Fingers crossed. X

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Happy...Sunday (#24)

Happy...or absolutely-petrified-don't-make-me-go-to-Heathrow-this-evening-Sunday? Question of the day. This week's show of gratefulness is coming to you a day early since my Monday will be spent on a plane, on another plane, and finally ending up in my new home for the next four weeks meeting all my new pals. So today I should have lots of things to be happy about and excited for. And I do, it's just hidden beneath nerves and nausea. This week has been such a great week, and it feels like it's opened lots of doors and things are so different and so much more structured than they were a week ago. I've had the chance to catch up with lots of friends, and make lots of new ones. I've lived off toast and had a lot less sleep than I'm used to. I'm exhausted, but I'm warm and fuzzy and so, so thankful for this last week. And now I'm going, and suddenly I don't feel ready. I feel like there's so much here that I want to stay for, because it's just getting so exciting, and there's so much to look forward to. I feel like I've not had much time this week to get excited about going away, because I'm so excited about being here. But I'm going, and it's going to be great, and everything that's wonderful at home will still be here when I get back. I've just got to suck up all the worries, or head to Pret and transfer worries for plane snacks, and go. Ready or not. 

The things that have made me happy this week...

1. Geography pals
Spending two long days this week surrounded by lovely, hilarious people - you know the ones that just get you - has been the dream. In my fourth year as a volunteer on this nationwide scheme, I'm so happy to have made so many fabulous friends, even if they are scattered all over the country. Even if our friendship is largely restricted to texts throughout the year, I'm grateful for the opportunities we do have to meet up, catch up and plan our next meeting (with all expenses paid!) This year's meet up was especially killer because of the huge number of new people to meet, and to decide are going to be your new bffs, as well. I spent two days geography-ing so hard, and now have new friends from Lancaster and Surrey and Cambridge and London and Ireland and Exeter as a result. I hope now that we're becoming wise, old graduates we manage to keep in touch, keep making the time to see each other, and keep the old #geographylove alive. 

2. July, August AND September
Everyone talks about the post-travelling lull: the not wanting to come home, the not wanting to leave your new friends, the not wanting to go from this exciting experience back to normal, everyday life. And I reckon it's true. But when you've got an August and September as fun and hectic as mine planned, there's plenty to look forward to on the other side. There's no doubt that July is going to be a pretty awesome month, full of elephants and the outdoors, but so are August and September. I'm not sure there'll be quite so many elephants, but plenty of adventures, birthday trips, future planning, friend hanging...and hopefully sun. If there's one thing better than a whole month living the dream away, it's a whole month away living the dream followed by two months at home (and on holiday) doing the same. 

3. Travelling prep
I enjoy a list...more than the next person. So a week of list-making, for clothes, for a DIY first aid kit, for snacks, for toiletries, for plane reads, for a playlist was something quite special. The result is a case I can barely carry; clothes and shoes for all weathers and occasions; a range of writing and photo taking materials; every single thing I could ever need from a first aid kit for every single minor medical emergency ever; two rucksacks; plenty of snacks; a choice of 17 books for the plane...and Simon's carefully designed playlist. I'm pretty sure that this is everything I could possibly need, and more than I could possibly use/wear/read/listen to for 4 weeks away. Bet I've still forgotten something...but at least I enjoyed making all the lists. 

4. Last supper
My first thought when I woke up yesterday morning was this is my last full day in the UK for a month and that's scary, but I had some toast, watched some Motorway Cops and found some things to add to my IKEA wishlist and all was well again. I feel like I'm massively overreacting about, and overestimating the time I'm spending away and spent a long time thinking about what I wanted my last dinner to be. I chose Greek. I shopped Greek (at Tesco). I ate Greek. And shared it with my best pals. I'm pretty sure at some time over the next month I'm going to eat bread and meat and salad, and that's basically just the same...but there might not be any houmous, and that was the real clincher. Thanks to my pals for keeping me company and distracting me from last night worries (terrors) and for Si for putting up with all my irrational fears and tears. I miss you guys already. 

So here it is. A scared Sunday, but a happy one, with lots to look forward to today and tomorrow and for the next few months. My heart is in my throat, I feel in no way ready to be dropped off at Heathrow this afternoon to say goodbye and navigate the airport and survive the plane by myself, but I don't know if I ever will. I hope to be able to keep this little space updated over the next few weeks, with tales and photos and new experiences, so keep an eye out for elephants. Wish me luck, metaphorically hold my hand, and I'll be back before you know it. X
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