A secret:  This time last year, I was not excited about South Africa.  Greece – super excited; Eastern Europe – super, super excited; and South Africa: umm..cool, but it’s going to be winter (I’m a huge fan of the summertime).

Let me tell you though, I fell in love with South Africa almost immediately.  Yes, there are places that are dangerous in South Africa – I didn’t go there and neither do any of the global Travel for Teens trips.  Again, let’s be straight here: racial issues in South Africa are still a little hostile, but it’s the choice of every individual in this world to fall into that stupid game, or to see the world as it should be.  This is a long wind up, but please bear with me here.  I didn’t make any of the plans or do any of the research for the SA trip in 2009 – that was done by other Travel for Teens staffers, particularly Vice President, Ned Clark.  Ned did a tremendous job as all of the group had an amazing adventure, visiting beautiful natural attractions (The Cape of Good Hope, The Wild Coast, Kruger National Park); poignant and thought-provoking historical attractions (Robben Island*, District 9 Museum); and then there is the incredible heart of this trip – the community service project.  I can only think that instead of compounding the problem of racism – because of the people and places we visited due to the itinerary, we made some small but decent progress into neutralizing the racism curse.

Teen encounters an ostrich during summer service and adventure program in South Africa.

I won’t put a photo or video in here, but picture this:

Waking up in a bungalow, the warm colors of early morning light streaming across your face, you grab some tasty, healthy breakfast (the freshest of fruits simply prepared) and you sit outside in the mild sea-side air, overlooking an endless, beautiful ocean.

We drive for not even an hour to a rural village, the ocean still in the distance.  The creche backyard is amass with long, dying grass and weeds, trash, some rocks – there are burnt patches of ground, and the playground equipment is rusty and broken.

No-one realized that our new friends, the beautiful people and children of that village, who worked alongside us as we cleaned the place up and constructed a sturdy wooden jungle gym…no-one thought that they were giving so much to us.  We had fun, we told jokes, we all smiled together, we learned some of the ‘clicking’ sounding words of Xhosa.  We gave them a playground, some t-shirts, some soccer balls.  Not much really.  I honestly can’t describe the extent of what they gave us: “an incredible experience” falls short; “their hearts and their love” sounds tacky; “a different view” is too intellectual and stale…and yet all of these statements combined can give you some sort of murky idea of how blessed we all felt at having spent 5 or 6 days working alongside incredible people.

Group of teens meet a giraffe on summer service and safari program in South Africa.

Sure, we saw baboons up-close in the wild.  We saw giraffe, lions, beautiful zebra, crocodiles, buffalo and elephants to name just a few (i doubt I’ll ever have a more amazing animal experience in my life than one particular ten-minute session of elephant observation).  We ate incredible and colorful food, we went surfing (the ocean, indeed the winter, wasn’t too cold at all), we went horse-back riding, we climbed sand dunes with no-one else around, we saw numerous amazing sunsets.


As incredible as all of the ‘extras’ were, meeting and working with the Xhosa people filled my heart.  And this summer, I’m more than excited to go back to South Africa.  It might even look like I’m giving: working hard, building another playground, assisting people in-need…but I know what they give to me.

Students participate in community service projects on summer teen travel program in South Africa.

PS – The other BONUS about going to South Africa in the winter time is that it’s not “super-amazingly-this-stinks-hot”…type hot…and the milder temperatures also mean that mosquitoes aren’t out to get you.  I didn’t take any malaria pills last year at all (and personally, had no problems), but if you choose to go to South Africa, this is something for you to consult a GP with and make your own decision about.

PPS – Awesome recent films to check out on South Africa if you haven’t seen already: Invictus (directed by Clint Eastwood) & District 9 (a fairly intelligent allegory in the form of an action/sci-fi film)

*We didn’t get to go to Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for around 25 years) due to rough seas whilst we were in Cape Town, so I’m SUPER looking forward to getting there this year in 2010.

Students learn a traditional Xhosa dance in South Africa on service and safari summer program for teens.