What an experience!

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October 17th 2012
Published: October 17th 2012
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I am writing this last entry from the plane on my second of two flights that is taking me back home to Chicago. For the sake of closure, I want to do one final post. I have thought of posting often over the past few weeks, but the longer I have stayed living at Aviva and working at Sanccob, the less my experiences have felt like “travel blog” experiences. Instead, my days and nights have begun to feel more like going to work at a job that I love and hanging out with people who have moved from acquaintances to friends. All the way to the last day, there were still “new” things that I felt like I was learning and doing at Sanccob. But, in many more ways, I pretty much knew what to do throughout the day depending on where I was assigned to work. I can’t say that my “bird skills” are terribly impressive, but I do think that I improved so much over the 6 weeks. And, when it comes to my free time over these last couple of weeks, it was much less doing something touristy in Cape Town (or beyond) than it was seeing what my friends wanted to do and hanging out together. The natural settling into a routine coupled with the deepening of friendships makes it VERY hard to leave. I am a nester, enjoying what is familiar and known. As much as I like learning something new, the best part, for me, is when I have mastered it. I am also a relationship person. I love meeting new people, but the best part is feeling like you are getting to really know them.

There was one stand out “travel blog” type of activity that I should highlight. My friends Zak and Joris went snorkeling with the cape fur seals, and it was an absolutely spectacular experience. We took a taxi out to Hout Bay, where you can find seal island (and where you can’t find sharks!). Then we suited up in head to toe wetsuits, loaded up on a small bout (there were 5 tourists and 3 crew). They anchored near the massive seal colony, and we put on flippers, masks, and snorkels and then “gracefully” hopped out of the boat. The next thing I knew, I was face to face with a seal with many others playfully swimming all around you. They were cute, curious, and interactive. There were a couple of moments when my heart skipped a beat (aka, nearly peed in my wetsuit!) – when a seal zoomed right for my face only turning at the last second. But, mostly it was a mix of exhilarating and peaceful. It was a major highlight of my entire trip, and I would have done it again in a heartbeat.

Another major highlight since my last post was celebrating my birthday in South Africa. When I booked my trip, I wasn’t sure how I would feel about celebrating my birthday so far away from home. But, since I wanted to be home for my Dad’s 60th in August, the only way that the timing would work would be if I stayed in SA though mid-October. And, it turned out to be a pretty awesome birthday – including “Birthday Tuesday” and the days leading up to and following my actual birthday. On my actual birthday, I spent most of the day with my friends Marguerite and Zak. The morning started with a sunrise hike up Lion’s Head, which was a decent hike, with spectacular views of the sunrise and the area. Watching the sunrise on my birthday is a particularly important tradition for me, and I feel totally grateful to my friends for not only making it happen but doing so in such a cool way. It was quiet (mostly) at the top of the mountain, and we just enjoyed the view, a picnic, and each other’s company for a few hours. Then, Zak and I chilled for a while, watching American sports (which only airs in SA in the mornings… and even then you can’t count on it) and drinking mimosas. Then we had a relaxing, delicious lunch out at a winery – followed by wine and cheese tasting. The night ended with drinks with more friends who all met up with they could. There were some things that were a little unusual – my birthday cake was a pecan pie (so delicious) enjoyed in the car (because non-aviva people aren’t allowed in the aviva house), I blew out a lighter instead of candles (and that was only after they couldn’t get the flaming shot to light), and instead of hearing happy birthday, the singing at the end of the night was a car sing-along to the blaring of what is now one of my new favorite South African songs. Those things along with the kindness and generosity of my friends made this birthday fantastic and memorable. I was also treated to a cake before my birthday by my friend Nathalie, and penguin brownies at a dinner at another friend Cheryl’s house. Plus, I still get to celebrate my birthday back at home. All it all, it worked out better than I could have hoped!

Mostly, though, these last few weeks have been working and spending time with friends. Funny how quickly new can become normal. And now here I am reflecting on the trip as I am flying home. Everything that I would want to write about my trip sounds so cheesy – and probably more for a private journal, thank you letters, and conversations with people back home than in a public travel blog. But, I will say that this experience has been incredible gift. I can’t say exactly what I was hoping to get out of it before hand, but it’s been better than I ever could have dreamed. Working at Sanccob is a lot of hard work, but it’s completely rewarding. I know that I will try to stay connected with them, if nothing else than to have people to talk about penguins with when every non-Sanccob person gets sick of it. The people that I have met along the way, both local South Africans and other international travelers, have been fantastic. As things go, I’m sure most of us will lose touch, but I am going to do my best to stay connected. The country of South Africa is beautiful and surprising. I hope to someday see more of it.

And, as cheeseball as this sounds, I have learned (or relearned) so much about myself. I don’t think that I took this trip to “find myself” and I don’t think that I’m coming back “a different person”. Instead, I think that my world was turned upside down when Emma died. And, I think that when my world was shaken to it’s core, I didn’t feel like I was on solid footing with my ideas of who I am, what I want out of life, and how to be happy. I don’t think that I have that completely worked out yet, but I do think that I have made some progress. It’s like, you know when you meet up with an old friend, with whom you were once close but have lost touch more than you wanted, and you find that you slip right back into the intimacy and laughter of a good friendship? You find yourself thinking – “oh yeah, I still really know and care about this person!” I think that my experience of self-discovery on this trip was similar to that. I found myself thinking “Oh yeah, I really like people.” “Oh yeah, that’s right, I know how to make friends.” “Right, I am a person who really likes to work hard and feel like you have been helpful at the end of the day.” “Of course, how could I forget that I tend to make the best out of things… or have fun no matter what I am doing.” And even, “Yep, I’m still a klutz…” (I feel down at least 3 times) and “Oh yeah, I’m still the type of person who leaves her wallet behind in a hostel (that happened)… and gets lost with the simplest of directions (twice)”. And, it feels really, really, really good to feel like myself again – both the good and the bad. I don’t know how long these feelings will last – I know that there is still more to be sorted both psychologically (e.g., when I get home today, Emma still won’t be there) and practically (e.g., figuring out where I am going to work and live… and, oh yeah, reintroduce myself to my dusty EPPP materials). But, seriously, it’s been a gift.

So, there you have it. Two months in Africa pretty much blew my mind. Once I convinced myself that it really wasn’t realistic to apply for one of the open positions at Sanccob so that I could just stay, I have made a promise to myself to get back someday. And, to continue to look for opportunities to travel and volunteer. After, of course, I take a bath, a nap, and some snuggles with Gus and Charlie – not to mention spending time with the friends and family that I have been missing so much while I have been away. :

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