Before leaving for South Africa for the Orr Fellowship capstone trip, I compiled a to-read list that included what I believed would be more than enough reading material to last me for a 16-hour flight to Johannesburg and over 40 hours of travel from Cape Town to Amsterdam to Minneapolis to Indianapolis.
I was ambitious.
As it turns out, when you’re stuck in a steel tube for hours on end, reading doesn’t pass the time as quickly as you might prefer. I will now (sheepishly) relay my list of accomplished readings (i.e. writings/ viewings) from the trip:
- About 50 pages of Long Walk to Freedom
- 4 journal entries
- Season 6, Episodes 1-7 of The Good Wife
- A LOT of movies:
- The Hunger Games: Mockingjay
- The Hundred-Foot Journey
- This Is Where I Leave You
- Still Alice
- The Fault In Our Stars
- The Imitation Game
- A few episodes of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
- A couple episodes of The Mindy Project
When you’re faced with countless hours of boredom, sleep deprivation, and stale air, it’s difficult to resist the six-inch screen on the back of the seat in front of you. So I gave in and caught up with enough screen time to take my conversations about last year’s movies from abysmal to simply inadequate. As for my time in South Africa, during which I had assumed I’d want to get away from the group and immerse myself in Mandela’s autobiography every now and then, I was equally mistaken. There was far too much to do and see for me to waste time doing something I could do at home. (I did, however, purchase a copy of South African author Nadine Gordimer’s A Sport of Nature, and look forward to reading that now that I’m back home.)
From the time we arrived in Johannesburg to the time we departed Stellenbosch for the Cape Town airport, we were immersed in activities, sightseeing, and some of the best meals I’ve ever eaten, thanks to a very favorable dollar-to-rand exchange rate.
Chapter Two is a reading blog, so I won’t give a comprehensive play-by-play of my travel experiences, but there were a few takeaways worth sharing that readers might appreciate or find interesting:
1. Cape Town is beautiful and you should go there.
2. Read Long Walk to Freedom.
I know I just said that I didn’t read as much of this as I wanted to before and during the trip, but I’m working my way through it now. Before visiting South Africa, my knowledge of apartheid was woefully pathetic, and I still have a lot to learn.
Our tour of the Old Fort Prison, known as Number Four, quickly brought to light the atrocities committed against its prisoners. Viewing the exhibits within the prison was an experience from which we in the United States can learn a lot. From my short time in South Africa, the museums we saw and people we talked to didn’t seem to selectively choose which parts of history they showcase in the way we tend to do in the U.S. They didn’t shy away from discussing the often-disturbing realities of the country’s past, perhaps because many things are still so fresh, with apartheid only being abolished in 1994.
Seeing the prison was a sobering experience, and an instructive way to start the trip. Long Walk to Freedom provides a snapshot of this experience without the $2000 plane ticket.
3. Wild animals are way cooler than the ones in captivity.
As part of our trip, we went to the Mabula Game Reserve, a 30,000-acre private reserve that’s home to the “big five” (Cape buffalo, African elephant, leopard, rhinoceros, lion), along with hundreds of other species. Before arriving, I thought that our scheduled four game drives would be overkill, but I was quickly proven wrong. My group’s ranger, Damian, hunted down lions solely by following their tracks, taught us about plant defense mechanisms (yes, it’s a thing: check out chemical signaling), and answered every question we could throw at him — including ones about animal duels between lions and crocodiles asked by a certain member of our group. The views of the scenery and wildlife were incredible from our open 4×4 vehicle, and seeing the sunset from the side of a mountain was an amazing experience that I can’t even give credit by describing or illustrating with a photo.
Fun fact: The morning we saw the lions was the morning of my birthday. There’s no way another birthday will ever be able to compete.
4. Be a respectful traveler.
Traveling as a group of 34 is never easy, and I’m proud of everyone for being attentive, respectful, and curious about our surroundings. I do wish I had taken more of an initiative to research South African history and culture before we left; I read the Wikipedia page, attended a pre-trip meeting, read some of Mandela’s autobiography, and perused the information the travel agency sent over. It wasn’t enough, and I won’t make the same mistake again.
Our group handled all minor setbacks of our trip with grace and dignity. A bus that won’t start? No problem. A cluster of long flights and layovers? Easy. Everyone’s attitudes were laid back and easygoing. I believe there’s room, though, for small improvements in our generation’s travel habits:
Social Media: Look, I love Insta. There on 9 photos on my account from this trip, and I’m more than slightly ashamed to admit that. It won’t stop me though. Social media is a very real part of our lives, and that can be a positive thing, but this trip sometimes brought some of the uglier aspects into focus. I found myself sifting through my photos solely focused on which would make the best post — an unflattering realization. During one occasion in Cape Town, while surrounded by the most picturesque sunset I’ve ever seen, there was chatter about “queueing up Instagram,” and a quick survey of the bus revealed more people glued to their phones in excitement about the upcoming possibility of WiFi than those just taking in their surroundings. I don’t know exactly where that balance lies, but I want to improve it during my next travel experience.
Photos: Broadening the scope of the social media observation, let’s tackle photography in general. Documenting a trip like this is very important to many people, myself included. The problems arise when the need to capture every single landmark with a photo that includes your ideal group of people eclipses the experience itself. In the frenzy of finding the perfect angle, lighting, view, and composition of people, it’s easy to forget that you’re literally standing at the most southwestern point of the continent of Africa. Soak it in. Sometimes the best moments go undocumented, and that’s okay. Retaining a few private, unsharable instances within your own memory is one of the true luxuries of traveling.
Being Okay with Being Uncomfortable: When you’re dropped into a completely different country, it’s easy to feel disconcerted or out of place, but that shouldn’t limit curiosity and open-mindedness. Attempting to find other Americans our age during a 10-day trip is missing the point. Refusing to take the time to read through the text on a museum exhibit timeline because there isn’t a shorter explanation of events is missing the point. Leaving a visit to the U.S. Embassy wishing you had asked more questions is missing the point. I hope we can learn from these experiences and continue to evolve as educated, responsible travelers.
Our group had the once in a lifetime opportunity to go to South Africa basically free of charge. I truly believe that everyone took away something important from this trip, and I’m proud to be part of such an open-minded, respectful group of individuals. Calling attention to a few of the less savory details does what Orr Fellows constantly strive to do in our daily work and lives: it pushes us to be better.
This trip was a perfect way to commemorate our two years together, and taught me not only about a different country, but about other perspectives, other people, and myself. I’m grateful to have created and shared some incredible memories with such a classy, zany group of individuals.
And that’s about as sappy as you’ll ever hear me get.
What does this have to do with reading? Not much, really. Only this: traveling to another part of the world brings to light how very little I know, and how much more there is to read, experience, and learn.
Here’s to a continuation of that.