I haven’t traveled much. One time, my cousin (SOPHIA!!!) and I were discussing my current high school Spanish class. I told her my teacher didn’t speak much English,
“He’s from some foreign country,” I explained to her.
“Oh, so is he Latino?” she inquired.
“No, no he’s from El Salvador.”
Go me. Seriously, that private school education was definitely paying off…
At the start of junior year, a trip to South Africa was advertised at a school-wide meeting; I applied to go, and 7 months later, I was on a plane with 30 other students to Johannesburg. That first night we arrived at the African Leadership Academy, where we were to stay, in the middle of the night. The next morning we were woken, jet-lagged and cranky, to depart for the Apartheid Museum in the city. After hours of tours, the group staggered back onto the bus, exhausted. We drove for about a half an hour until the bus stopped in the middle of a barren dirt road. Had we broken down? Then a tiny, barefoot, young girl approached my window, beckoning to come towards her. A boy crept up beside her, then another, and soon at least thirty children had surrounded the bus. Our chaperones announced this surprise visit to the local township of Kliptown, one of the poorest communities in South Africa. I was amazed, scared, and speechless by the community that seemed to gather out of nowhere. Stepping off the bus, I was met with hugs and greetings. The children gave us a tour around their school with fervent details about their everyday schedule and afterwards the entire village performed multiple songs and dances in honor of our arrival. It was the most incredible sight I had ever seen.
The rest of my visit to South Africa was wonderful–we went to a World Cup game, roadtripped to Cape Town, and climbed Table Mountain. But there is something unforgettable about that first night in Kliptown. I was raised in an affluent family, in a suburban town, with a clear naivety to life beyond my own (see starting anecdote). South Africa, in accordance with what I heard, was supposed to be a mystical land that would forever change me as I touched the lives of those less fortunate. It, I promise you, was not. I didn’t return from my trip having “found myself,” nor did I even come back with improved geographical understanding of the globe. What I did come back with was a single, long-lasting memory. In Kliptown, there is no electricity, no formal bathrooms, thin rags for clothes–it is exactly how you are picturing it. But that place embodied a feeling that is extraordinary. The spirit of the town that had nothing was universally jovial, equipped with an ability to spread that happiness like wildfire. I’ve never seen such genuine contentment and I’ve personally never been more privileged than to meet those people–the most amazing people on earth.
I’m a strong advocate that young people, when given the opportunity, should through by any means travel. My trip to South Africa didn’t turn me into Angelina Jolie nor much help my geographical sense, but it did make me significantly more aware of another culture. And that culture, in its own special way, made me more aware of myself. Experiencing new places at a young age is really the best way to gain knowledge of and appreciation for the world we live in. So, travel often, and if you find yourself in Kliptown, please say hi to them for me.