Today was unreal. UNREAL. Up till now cage diving with sharks was something I always said I wanted to do, a future bucket list thing that I swore would happen one day. And today it did. After a two hour bus drive and a nice breakfast they slapped some life jackets on us and off we went. I kept waiting for the big safety tutorial, or some formal presentation about what was about to happen. Nothing. It was a group of about twenty; mostly girls, with only about 6 guys. The boat wasn’t that big and we were speeding along the water for about 15 minutes before we stopped and anchored. When we got to the dive site the guy in charge finally said he was gunna tell us a bit about how the dive would work. Except…we were already at the dive site…. and there were already sharks swimming around…..that’s like asking a bunch of five year olds to please sit still and pay attention even though Barney is in the background waving. And I was by far the squirmiest one.
Finally he says “Alright, who wants to go first?” My hand along with four other boys shoots up. Typical. “Get suited up” he tells us. So me and these boys I’ve never met quickly go put on wet suits. The cage is already lowered into the water, tied on to the side of the boat. The first boy gets in. I’m next. “Okay so put your feet on the side of the cage right there and climb in” they tell me. I look at the guy, incredulous, “Uh, really?” I say. Everyone starts laughing. Now, in my defense, the man JUST got through telling us to keep our hands and feet away from the cage bars, and now I’m supposed to put my poor little toes an inch into open water? “Yes, really” he says. Alright, here goes nothing. I climb down the cage and hold on to the top and monkey bar my way over to the side to make room for the next guys. The water was cold but the wet suit did its job nicely. Once the five of us were in we tried to get in comfortable positions, half floating half holding on to what we could. Then we heard a crew member shout “GO DOWN GO DOWN GO DOWN!” We all took deep breaths, grabbed the bar in the cage and pull ourselves down, submerging completely and hooking our feet on the floor bar to stay down.
And there was a great white shark, in all its glory, casually swimming by.
Like I said, UNREAL.
The rest of the time went the same way, we would chat a little bit in the cage, the guys took pictures with an underwater camera and then we would hear the shout and go down to watch. Once I even spotted the shark before anyone on the boat did, I yelled at my dive buddies “GO DOWN!” And we all got to watch as a great white came up completely vertical from the deep, attacking the bait. The boy next to me, Paul, looked at me underwater and starting shaking his hands, as if to say “Can you believe this?” And I laughed, the air escaping from my mouth and bubbling up to the surface, as I gestured back. No, I couldn’t believe it.
Needless to say, there is something about cage diving to see great whites with someone that makes you instantly good friends. Paul, Jamie and Chris are all studying together in Australia. Paul is a native of South Africa, Jamie is from New Zealand, and Chris is from Australia. We got to know them a bit once we were out of the water, watching the sharks and cage divers from above.
Today reminded me that there comes a breaking point where you have to stop saying you are going to do something, and just DO IT. When you do, your heart will feel as if it might explode and your cheeks will hurt from smiling. I feel so blessed to be here, having these adventures. Unreal.
So even after only one week there are far too many stories to possibly tell, but here is one of my favorites:
Everyday consist of lots of walking and exploring and my roommates and I are usually wiped out by the time we get back to the room. So one of these days (I can’t remember which, everything’s a blur) we were all taking naps in our rooms. There is no air conditioning in our dorms so I leave my window open for a breeze and it looks out over our courtyard. During this lovely nap, (if you know me you know I love a good nap) I was jolted awake by some very loud shouting. It sounded like a horde of boys cheering. Well grumpy little me went over to the window to figure out what the heck was going on. I leaned out and yelled at the first person I saw in the courtyard, “What are you yelling about!?” Immediately after I realize that I’ve just yelled at a lone boy sitting in the courtyard….reading. “Um I think they are yelling about soccer?” he says. And I have the decency to blush, “Oh sorry” I say, and then, “What are you reading?” “Jack London’s White Fang,” he answers. I didn’t know what to say to that and as the sleepiness from my nap wore off I realized this was a strange conversation, one that I started by interrupting his reading and yelling at him from a window. I left the window but told the story to my roommates later and we started joking about the mysterious cute Jack London boy and if he would ever come to read there again.
He didn’t come to read there again, but he DID show up on our doorstep, asking about the girl who yelled at him from the window. It’s too funny how things happen sometimes. Jack London (or Tanner as we now know his real name) has become, in a week, one of our very good friends. He came over for dinner (which I cooked by the way- shocking, I know) played the guitar and talked with us for hours about books and music. And it all happened because he decided, unknowingly and unsuspectingly, to read right outside my window.
I love the people I am meeting here. I love the way I am meeting them.
So it’s been a little “hectic” (a very popular adjective here in S.A., used to describe anything and everything). After being moved into the dorms I had absolutely no internet or phone for the past seven days. Yeesh, talk about being unplugged. It was nice though, really gave me some time to get acclimated here. When I first got to the hotel I was honestly a mess. But it was to be expected. I had been traveling for 24 hours and was quite literally, all alone and a world away from my home. I couldn’t remember why I had chosen to do this. Wait a minute, why did I leave that safe place with all the people I love again? Someone please explain. But then I took a shower, made a friend and went for a walk. And I was reminded how a little sunshine can do a lot of good. One step at a time.
Janien is the program student advisor that has been contacting us and making arrangements for our stay. She is a native of Stellenbosch and she picked up me and a couple other students in the program. When I introduced myself she laughed and said “Yeah I know, we’ve been laughing about your name. Not to be rude or anything.” My face got confused and she explained “Well “Savanna” is the name of a very popular alcoholic drink around here, and well Champagne……” ah yes. The hotel clerk starts laughing too and says “Oh you are gunna hear that a lot I bet”.
Later that day she took us to a local pub where her boyfriend works. I ordered a savanna. It was delicious if I do say so myself. Welcome to South Africa, cheers!
So after 24 hours and 3 planes I made it. In each airport and on every plane, I had one rule: Don’t Panic. Have no idea where South African Airlines is located in JFK? Don’t panic. Ask that nice man there. Go the wrong way in Johannesburg airport? Can’t find customs? Don’t panic. Backtrack and follow the crowd. 6 hours left on this plane ride? Don’t panic. Watch one more movie. Or three.
My favorite moment was when I was on my way to my gate in the Johannesburg Airport, I had finally got my baggage, went through customs, rechecked my baggage, and got my last boarding ticket. I am just stepping through the door to where the sign says All Terminals when suddenly I am accosted by some man in some type of uniform. In 5 seconds flat he had taken my boarding pass out of my hand and was saying “I know the way! Quickly follow me, they are boarding! Hurry!” And starts running away with my boarding pass. Um? I had no time to process so I just ran after him. We keep going and as I’m running I realize what is happening, he wants money from me. As soon as I think this he turns back and says “It is very nice of me to show you the way, twenty dollars will do.” Oh god, I think, they are targeting me as the stupid American girl, and I am totally about to cave and give him twenty dollars. We keep running. I take out my wallet. I am hot and sweaty and tired and am not sure if I really am about to miss my plane. He sees me looking in my wallet, a torn look on my face. “Twenty dollars will do” he says again. Fuck. I didn’t want to be scammed. I didn’t want to cave. So finally I said, “Look I don’t have twenty dollars, here is 20 rand”. “It’s too little!” he exclaimed. I snatched my boarding ticket from his hand and said “Sorry bro”. I make it the rest of the way to my gate on my own.
It wasn’t even close to boarding.
The first question most people asked when I told them my study abroad choice was “Why South Africa?”. I stumbled over my answer, was vague or generic and couldn’t really articulate why. I had to I think about it on my own time so that I could respond appropriately, and to be able remind myself of the reasons as well. Now when people ask, I’m ready. And because you’re reading this blog, you might like an answer too.
I chose South Africa because it was different. Because it was the bolder, more challenging choice. Because of the volunteer opportunties, because of the wildlife, the culture. And because my heart was set on it. For those of you who don’t know, the study abroad application is a bitch. It felt like taking an extra class this past semester, the amount of paperwork and preparation. It was stressful. It was scary. You only have to ask my parents to know I had a total meltdown when I was applying for the program. And also one when I was accepted. Oh and maybe even another one after that. Reflecting back I realize the process is almost an unintentional way of weeding out the people whose hearts aren’t really into it. it would’ve been easy to back out, plenty of excuses to explain why not, and I can’t say I didn’t consider it. Through the support of my family and friends and through my own determination, I pushed myself to get it done, to not be scared, and to not back out. And here we are. A little over two weeks away until I am boarding a plane and living in South Africa for five months.
I’m excited about this blog. I’m excited to share my adventures with whoever so chooses to read them. They say a journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. I’ve taken the step. Shenanigans will ensue.