They tell us that Field Studies are difficult, but they don’t prepare us for the things that are the hardest. In the prep course I learned about culture shock, safety concerns, project challenges, susceptibility to disease, traffic accidents. They warn us that we’re set up to fail: that almost none of the projects that students plan and prepare for actually work as anticipated, and that we just have to be flexible and willing to accept changes and failures. We were cautioned not to take on too many class credits for the time we’re there, because it will be far more difficult than we think to get everything done, and we don’t want to spend too much time on class work when we could be out interacting with the culture or spending time with our host families. We’re told to be prepared for challenges in our living situations, to be clear about our roles within the host family, and to communicate with our group members, to avoid disagreements or harboring grudges while living in such close quarters for so long. So I left the United States prepared for all of these possible setbacks and difficulties, but not at all prepared for East London.
Almost none of the issues that we covered in the prep course affected me, at least not to a degree worth mentioning. The second I landed in East London I knew I was going to love it. I’d just suffered through 36 long, sleepless, nervous, uncomfortable hours in airplanes and airports, fretting the whole time about what I was getting myself into, worried about my project and being on the other side of the world. In the airport in Johannesburg I felt exhausted and isolated, distant from anything and anyone I knew and loved and unsure of whether I’d make it through the following months. But a couple hours later, stepping off the plane at the East London airport, staring around me at the incredibly green trees and breathing in the salty coastal air, everything felt right. It was such an intense and unexpected sensation after so many miserable hours travelling, but I knew then and there that this was exactly where I needed to be. I never lost that feeling in my entire time in South Africa. I missed my family and friends, but no more than I ever miss the one when I’m with the other. I faced frustrations with my project, but never anything I couldn’t work around. I had my disagreements with roommates, but never over anything very important, and never anything that lasted. None of the problems I had been warned about and had prepared myself for showed up as problems. Nearly everything was perfect.
In my first week I wrote a post to this blog, in which I described some of the first people I’d met, how they shaped my impressions of East London and South Africa, and how they welcomed me immediately into their lives and families. Later I wrote about how even the ocean and the forest seemed to offer me an invitation accompanied by total acceptance, willing to take in this total outsider. Everything and everyone that I saw and met in South Africa welcomed me and shared with me. So many people were happy to help me with my research, and then so often wanted to do more, to share their lives, their culture, their friendship and their country with me. I was able to spend so much time with incredible and inspiring people and organizations, learning so much from them constantly, and learning just as much about myself in the process. The people of South Africa really did shape my whole experience and make everything I did possible.
This is where the problem arises, the one that the prep course and all my preliminary research and preparations could never have prepared me for. I had to leave. After all of the connections and unbelievable people and experiences I found in and around East London, after putting all of myself into making these connections and getting to know these people and seeking out these experiences, after finding my niche in this community and feeling entirely whole and accomplished and ready to live life and make things happen with all of it together, I had to pull the plug and fly away, leaving all of it behind.
Standing in the East London airport the second time was so much the same, but in such a bittersweet way. I could feel so strongly that same sensation I felt on my arrival, the feeling of welcoming and rightness, but twisted on itself, because this time I was going in the wrong direction. Glancing back from the waiting area I could still see the crowd on the other side of the security check, my huge extended family that had come to wave and cry and say goodbye. Why was I leaving again? And then I had to breath my last breath of East London and step onto the plane. I don't know where those three months went, but they weren't nearly long enough.
holga + south africa =love.
5 years ago