In the car, I rambled about my year of ups and downs, but again, she pressed, “So why did you want to come here?” I froze. Real reasons weren’t clear in my mind, but it was possibly a combination of an obsession with Trevor Noah, a hatred of winter and stunning pictures of Cape Town on Instagram. I purchased my plane ticket, though, because South Africa is a popular destination for English-speaking travelers, and, I gathered, like an "Africa 101" for first-timers to the continent.
But as my travel funds were running low, I needed to find work there. Except wages in South Africa are unlivable, and as a short-term visitor, it’s nearly impossible to get a job. And so, I found myself volunteering through the site Workaway.info near the city of East London on the Eastern Cape, where I'd spend the next month at a farm that schooled and housed abandoned children.
I arrived after a week in Cape Town, where I climbed Table Mountain and (IMO) the more challenging Lion’s Head, which locals hike as if it's a simple walk around the neighborhood. I relaxed in a lovely, peaceful hostel in Simon’s Town to make obligatory stops at Cape Point and to see penguins having a pool party at Boulder's Beach. Back in the city center, I ate delicious Ethiopian food at Addis, had political conversations with locals, and made friends with other solo female travelers on a citywide wine tasting. There was also a night of salsa dancing that involved getting laughed off the dance floor (as predicted).
Fast forward to the farm, where I was joined by three female European volunteers. On our two days off each week, we headed out to find fun things to do. Despite its seafront location, East London is not on the radar for tourism. The realization that they rarely see foreigners didn't sink in until I noticed we were getting the same attention as models while wearing dirty clothes, no makeup, and hair that we only washed on days the water was running.
Learning where to go from locals, our disheveled group spent a day at suburban Gonubie Beach. The Indian Ocean waves crashed high, leaving only one daring surfer in the water. We split off to take solo walks on the firm sand, the cool saltwater washing the farm mud off our feet. We reconvened to trek around the bend of the coast where the ocean becomes a teal river with a stunning Amazonian-type backdrop.
For more beach time, we spent a night at Cintsa. Buccaneers Backpackers has stunning views over the beach, and the town has a bistro as well as Barefoot Café, where you can get your own DIY pizza for 5 USD (and a plethora of creatively named dessert shots, like Ebola Vaccine, for less than $1.50).
One last beach trip I made was five hours up the coast to Port St. Johns. The lively, hippie Amapondo Backpackers was filled with more local visitors than foreign tourists. I hiked gorgeous trails, ate delicious seafood and chips with mayo, and met some interesting characters, including a tribal chief named Africa with a tattoo of Africa over his heart. (For real).
Before leaving the country, I headed to Inkwenkwezi Game Reserve. For a reasonable price, a tour guide will accompany your group for 24 hours. The visit includes feeding an elephant, petting a cheetah, getting scarily close to lions, and a game drive to spot rhinos, zebras, giraffes, wildebeests, buffalos, ostriches, and various bucks, birds, and lizards. Lodging is in a cozy cottage. Words can’t describe waking up to a view of immense green, high in the hills of the African bush. It was true peace and quiet, with only the sounds of nature—although we were (accurately) warned that some birds sound like crying babies.
From beaches to the bush, East London has all that other parts of South Africa have, but with a calmer, authentic feel. I didn’t come across any other tourists, which allowed for a true local kind of travel. And I picked up an acronym that I’ll be using in the future when referring to the tales that didn’t make it into this post: TIA (This Is Africa).
My time in East London, South Africa taught me things I subconsciously knew I needed to learn, even if I couldn’t come up with the words beforehand. I might still run from bees like a scared little girl, but I managed to cohabitate with cockroaches, jumping spiders, pre-historic moths and other gargantuan creepy-crawlies. More importantly, I learned that my background in school counseling was less helpful when working with children at the orphanage than my experience as a nanny. In a culture where kids are extremely physical (from fighting to jumping to hugging), I could be most useful by cuddling them and showing love. The children there taught me much more than I taught them, and the same goes for the kind locals who showed us around East London.
And maybe that was the reason I wanted to come—I didn’t know what would happen, but I knew I’d be changed in the end. And that's the beauty of traveling. You start with an idea, which sometimes is nothing more than just a jumping off point. The rest gets sorted out as you go.