Starting Out

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I know that this is a bit late, but Internet access is scarce, so it may take me a while to get these posted. Nevertheless, after close to forty-eight hours of travel, two flights and an overnight layover in the Dubai airport, I finally arrived in Cape Town, exhausted and very jet-lagged. Upon my arrival, I was greeted by our lovely program directors, Marion and Avril. As we waited for the rest of the students to arrive in the airport, Marion asked me a question, a question I should have been able to give her an answer to. She asked what my expectations were about the program. My initial response was that I didn’t have any expectations, although this is clearly not true. So I got to thinking…what the heck am I doing in South Africa? As I attempted to answer this question for myself, aspects of my journey came to mind. I thought about the people I came into contact with during my many of travel across three continents. Although I could not recollect any of their names, I remembered their faces, and, most importantly, I remembered their stories. First there was the lady I met in the airport at Los Angeles International; I watched her carry-on for her as she took a trip to the restroom before the flight; she in turn watched my pizza. She was an older lady, probably in her mid-sixties, returning home to Nigeria after visiting her children, and ten month old grandchild, in the states. She told me about her home country, why she prefers Nigeria to the US, and why Emirates is her favorite airline to travel. Then there was the lady dressed in all coral with a black headscarf and a navy blue neck pillow constantly around her neck, who sat in front of me on the plane, and misheard my name, continually calling me Leslie throughout the sixteen hour flight. She turned around a few hours into the flight to visit, asked if I was Arab, and then about what I was doing and where I was going. She told me about Dubai, where she lives and works, and about her son, who lives and attends college in Toronto. Then there was the couple I met in line for the bathroom on the plane. Originally from Mexico, and they were travelling back home to Saudi Arabia, where they had been working at a local university for the past few years. Next there was the girl I met in line to go through security at the Dubai airport; she was headed back home to Jordan after completing her summer session at UCI. Then there was the girl at the Emirates information booth; she was in her late twenties, had grown up and attended college in Michigan, and now was working in Los Angeles. She was headed to Johannesburg to meet up with her church group who had arrived a week earlier and was volunteering there. We wandered the airport for a couple hours together, until she fell asleep, and I wandered off to find a way to entertain myself for my eight-hour airport stay. Then, and probably the one who I connected with the most, was the girl I met waiting at gate B30 for my flight to South Africa. She was in her mid-twenties, about my height, with blonde hair, blue eyes and a thick German accent. Born, raised, and now working as an occupational therapist in Hamburg, Germany, she was travelling to visit her boyfriend, who is South African. They met two years ago, during her nine month volunteer trip in Cape Town, and were now planning to get married and move to Germany. We talked about her time in South Africa, and gave me travel tips. She also told me about the different signs for sharks in the water, and we laughed at her surf instructor’s ridiculous advice regarding sharks, who told her if the sign says that a shark was spotted in the next town over, its ok to stay in the water, because it’s the next town over and sharks don’t move that fast. Then I thought about all of the people I did not talk to. There was the middle-aged Indian couple that sat next to me for sixteen long hours on the first flight from LAX to Dubai, watching children’s movies on the entertainment system and waking me up every three hours to go to the bathroom. The only English that they spoke the entire flight was when ordering food from the stewardess. There was the middle-aged African American man who sat at the next table over at Costa Coffee in the Dubai airport. He was next to me for two hours and we never spoke a word to each other. Then there was the Muslim woman who sat next to me for two hours waiting for the flight to Cape Town, and then one seat away from me during the ten-hour flight. Dressed in all black, and fully covered except for her face, the two of us seemed to not have very much in common. Although we exchanged a few glances, and a few nods, we never spoke a word to each other during those thirteen hours. As I began to try to decipher what led to these conversations, and what didn’t, it was clear that the people who I had developed a relationship with all had something in common with me. Sometimes it was clear, a similar situation, in the case of the girls who were around my age and travelling alone, a common ethnicity, or seemingly shared one, as was the case with the woman in front of me on the plane. With the couple, we seemed to connect over the mutual connection to Mexico, as my family has a home there and I had spent a significant amount of time in the country. Others it wasn’t as clear, as with the older woman from the airport. Perhaps it I reminded her of her children, or perhaps it was just a friendly face, someone who seemed trustworthy enough. Nevertheless, after just a few minutes of time spent together, she trusted me enough to leave her luggage under my supervision. Even more apparent was the people who I didn’t connect with didn’t seem to have this; they seemed to view us as entirely separate, lacking any common ground, including ethnicity, culture, and language. Nevertheless, on the flight I noticed something about the woman dressed in all black. On the plane she watched the same movie that I had watched on the previous flight, smiled at the things I had smiled at, and laughed at the same things that I had laughed at. This in combination with something that Avril said to me while I was waiting made me realize that I do know what I am expecting on this trip. While I was waiting for the rest of the students, Avril, who has worked with CFHI since 2004, told me about how students are always coming to South Africa and are being expected to learn and respect the culture of its residents, but how the people they meet in South Africa do not understand anything about where the students, most of whom are American, are coming from. Furthermore, she said that until she and Marion travelled to the US for the first time in 2009, she did not understand many things about the students. Yet less than twenty-four hours into her trip to the US, so many things finally made sense to her. This, in a nutshell, is why I am spending the last month of my summer working at a hospital in the middle of winter in South Africa rather than relaxing on a beach in the hot California sun. Although I may not see or understand things completely, every experience that I have provides me with one more way of connecting with other people, one more culture that I will be able to better relate to, appreciate, and respect. These are my expectations for this summer.

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1 Comment

  1. This was, it sounds like, a revelation that came to you after quite some thought and introspection. A great reason to travel the world which will seem smaller and smaller as you realize that we are all more alike than different and to appreciate and respect the differences.

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