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. 

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