One month ago today I remember driving to the airport with butterflys in my stomach – excited, nervous, not knowing what to expect. Could this be real? Am I really heading off to Africa? Was it possible that I would be working on an animal reserve in one of the most beautiful and diverse areas in the world, or was this just some sort of a phony con where I would find myself alone and stranded at an airport halfway around the world from my family? With little to no information on what I would be doing while I was down here, where I would be staying, or even what country I would end up in, I didn’t know what to expect. But I mustered up the courage and hopped on my plane, wondering if I would need to look up youth hostels when I landed in this unknown place with nobody waiting for me. After the grueling 15 hour flight, I waited for nearly an hour for my bags, and when the conveyor finally stopped I only had one of my two suitcases. This was a concern because not only did I not know where I would be headed when I left the terminal, I was also supposed to meet up with the guy that was picking me up nearly a half hour ago (I figured 45 minutes or so was enough time to get out into the terminal where I would meet up with him). I only hoped that I could resolve the luggage issue as quickly as possible and get into the terminal before he deemed I was missing or did not arrive, and drove off without me. I began to file a claim for a missing suitcase, and it dawned on me that I had no address to give them, not even a phone number to contact me at. I tried to picture everything I had in the bag, already thinking about what I could get by without on the trip and what I might have to have sent to me from home in case it never showed up. Just then, a man walked out from one of those ‘do not enter’ doors with a dolly carrying just my bag on it. I didn’t know why it was the only bag that showed up in this fashion, but at the time I didn’t ask questions as I was extremely delighted to see that my bag had arrived. I rushed to grab it and head out into the terminal where I could only hope the man that was supposed to meet me was still waiting. I had been told he would be holding a sign that said ‘Max’ on it, making it easy for me to locate him. When I rounded the final corner turning into the terminal and out the sliding doors, my eyes quickly scanned the bright room full of people. I looked at everyone who seemed to be waiting on someone, carefully reading signs they held up and looking for that familiar one that would have my name on it. This was the moment that would either make or break this entire trip – the moment that had caused me the only stress before arriving – whether or not this program was for real and whether someone would actually be waiting to pick me up when I got off the plane. I only hoped that my hour and a half delay at the luggage department hadn’t deterred whoever was supposed to be picking me up. As I looked at all the signs, I realized that none had my name on it. I looked around at the hundreds of people walking this way and that, and before I could really think about what to do next, a familiar voice asked from behind ‘Are you Max?’ I had spoken with Darin on the phone twice before so I knew what he sounded like, and he must have known who I was given my disoriented appearance when I walked out of the sliding doors and clearly didn’t find what I was looking for. At that moment, I nearly sighed with relief. My only worry had been settled, I would not be left stranded in the airport wondering what to do for the next three months.
It was already dark by the time we reached his car. He asked if I was hungry, and I quickly replied that I was. We stopped to get some food, and I must have annoyed him with the many questions that I had. After all, I knew nothing about what I had gotten myself into – not even which country we were headed to. He was delighted to have me though, very eager to answer any questions that I had. I was, after all, the first of four that would arrive for the program – he must have been exciting that things were finally getting under way (this is the first year this program has been established, another reason why I was slightly worried the program might be some sort of scam because I was not able to contact anyone who had done it before). As we drove out of Johannesburg that night, he showed me on the map exactly where we were headed – about 700k to the west to a small town called Kuruman. Around midnight we were both pretty tired, him from the five hour drive to get to the airport to pick me up and me from the 24 hours of travel to get to South Africa. We quickly fell asleep in the mini-sized car that I could hardly find enough room to sit in nevertheless try to lay back for a nights rest in. The jet lag must have caught up to me because by 2am I was already wide awake. I sat up in an attempt to let Darin know that I was awake and ready to cruise – we still had about 5 hours of driving to go. He was probably half asleep himself because when I sat up he asked if I was ready to continue driving. He let me take the wheel because he was still quite tired, but I had no problem with driving through the night as I had become quite accustomed to it having taken a 6,000 mile road-trip only a few months prior.
“Just remember to stay on the left side of the road” – the words struck me at first, but then I remembered that I wasn’t driving in the States anymore. I had to be careful that I didn’t accidentally drive on the right side of the road by habit... not as easy as it sounds. Then he was asleep, and I was to myself as I drove the 400k or so left to Kuruman. I must say, we’ve got it good in America… after having driven in both Switzerland and South Africa, I have found that other countries don’t believe in providing enough road room for even a bike to squeeze through two cars on opposite sides of the road. Incredibly narrow, I had to be fully attentive not only to stay on the road, but also not to sway even the slightest into the next lane where trucks were passing at 120kph just inches from the side of the car. After about an hour I began to feel more confident and was beginning to feel more comfortable behind the wheel. This allowed me to focus more on something that had been in the back of my mind all night - I had been in the country for nearly half a day, having driven several hundred miles through Africa, but I had not yet seen Africa. One of the biggest curiosities I had was what the land actually looked like, but because I arrived so late and had been driving through the night, I had no idea what the landscape looked like. I felt like a kid up all night anxious for Santa to come on Christmas morning – I was just so excited to see where I had landed myself, what the other side of the world looks like!
I drove on for a few more hours and by now Darin had woken up and I was beginning to feel my eyelids getting a little heavy. I pulled over and let him take over, while I took a cat nap in the passenger seat. Not realizing how exhausted I was, I crashed instantly. I woke up around 8 am slightly disoriented – as if the past 40 hours was some kind of blurry dream. When I squinted my still sensitive eyes out the window, I could what I was looking at. I remember jumping up in my seat at that moment, glancing over at Darin and announcing “the sun came up!” I quickly looked out every window, front and back, to see exactly where we were and what this place looked like. We were in Kuruman now, and the town looked vaguely familiar – I realized it had components from a number of places I had been before. The buildings resembled those I had seen in Jamaica just a few weeks earlier, the people as well, but the vegetation and trees almost looked like those on one of the Florida Keys, some almost palm-like. The roads, as I said before, reminded me of the narrow streets in Europe, and the grass fields that spread for miles just outside town made me think of the plains in Croatia that stretched out as far as the eyes could see. Despite being completely foreign and unknown to me, I felt a slight familiarity to where I was. The feeling was comforting and warm – at that moment I grinned and said to myself ‘this is going to be one hell of a trip.’
My parents were right. I didn’t think it at the time, but the more that I experience here, the more I realize the truth in what they had told each other the day I left. Just as they had dropped me off at the airport and were heading back into the van, my mom caught my dad’s eye and said “Africa’s going to pull him in. Do you really expect he’ll be back in three months?”
I’ve been lucky enough to meet several groups of people that have stopped by the farm, all of them coming from different parts of South Africa. They all seem interested in the foreign kid from America and have been overly kind to me, but better yet many have invited me to come visit where they live. As if pushing pins into a map, I am slowly filling in the gaps where I can hop from house to house around the country to visit the folks I meet here, thus prolonging my stay here and getting a better idea of what Africa is like from a locals perspective. This is quite exciting because it provides me with a free ticket to cruise around the country heading from one person I've met to the next while experiencing the many different landscapes along the way. Just last night, in fact, I met a guy who worked for a tour company in Kruger National Park (the biggest national park in South Africa and one of the most famous in all of Africa). He told me he has several connections and that it would not be a problem getting me a place to stay, and possibly even working for the tour company he worked for if I was interested. I couldn’t believe my luck when I heard this! It is through these random turn of events that my door to Africa has opened up more and more, and even though it has only been a month since I arrived, I feel like I already know enough people to make this trip last a year! This is not to say that I will end up stuck here forever, or even a year for that matter, but I am just excited at all the friendly people I am meeting doors that are opening up. And it may very well be the case that I fly home in August as planned, but one thing I do know for sure, this will not be my last time visiting this beautiful country and its wonderful people.