Travel Brings Out the Student in All of Us

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What Travel can Teach

For those who are contemplating pulling the kids out of school for travel abroad….

Yes, there was the last minute rush trip to Stamford for flu, typhoid and HepA shots.  Our tween/teens were anxious about missing so much school (while contracting a deadly disease), but also about heading into the unknown: AFRICA.

 

Carry-on bags were crammed with textbooks and laptops. And the “I’m gonna fail all my classes” theme song was sung. Parental retort was “this is a once in a lifetime trip kids, it’s gonna be great” But yes, unspoken worries of  “are we totally insane to pull them out of school like this?” did dance like sugarplums in our heads.

 

Laden with bug spray, malaria pills, sore typhoid arms, safari worthy get-ups (and in my case a much needed cortisone shot to the knee) and we were off.

 

One of the many beauties of Cape Town, South Africa is the mere 6 hour time difference, but with 19 hours of flight time to sleep (and get homework done). Jet lag was a non-event.

 

But naturally, there were still a few speedbumps, like our 10 year old being searched by London airport security. Come on does she really look that dangerous? Then there was the Luggage “Porter Poser” incident in Johannesberg when the gentleman helping us with our bags was suddenly whisked away by airport police. OK kids, Life lesson#1: Beware of who to trust.

 

Then once we navigated our “legitimate taxi dilemma” at the airport , we found Cape Town visually stunning and a bit overwhelming in terms of what to do first.  Our hotel offered a dizzying array of options: Shark cage dives, walk with beach with a Cheetah, ride an ostrich, hike table mountain, hot air ballooning, helicopter rides, African drumming, San bushmen centre tour, paragliding, whale watching…and that was just for starters.

 

We chose to emphasize the educational, after all, our kids should be in school right now! So we headed to the world heritage site of Robben Island to underscore South Africa’s long struggle under Apartheid rule. And to understand more clearly why Freedom is so celebrated and appreciated. So kids, Life lesson #2: Freedom is priceless. Never take it for granted.

 

There was a stillness and a reverancy felt by all as we passed by Nelson Mandela’s 18 year long prison cell. No one posed for a picture there… it felt wrong. Like taking a picture in church. Life Lesson#3: Great leaders who fight for freedom deserve our respect.

 

Against the backdrop of mountains that soar into the sky, we can easily see the current day divide of South Africa. It is not driven by color nowadays but by wealth. Single individuals in Cape Town own whole mountain ranges. Celebreties flock here to enjoy the Dutch civility and exotic landscape. And it seems movies are filmed here round the clock.

 

Yet the prime real estate section of District 6 smack in the middle of Cape Town remains an empty field. It is a constant reminder to all of what the government took away during Apartheid.

 

The shanty towns known as “townships” were like enormous patchwork blankets made of tin covering the foothills. They are so extensive and upsetting to see. I deeply regret not going on a township tour to show our kids this harsh reality firsthand. Africa is a place of extremes, especially in quality of life. We have known this, but to see it firsthand is different. It brings it home. So Kids, Life lesson #4: Life is unfair and a struggle. Poverty is everywhere.

 

All that being said, we were hard-pressed to witness post-Apartheid resentment. But as our guide, Darrol, reminded us: “Nelson Mandela taught us that to be truly free we need to let go of resentment.” Truly inspired. So there it is kids, Life Lesson #5: Harboring resentment will prevent you from true freedom and happiness.”

 

Darrol gave us first hand lessons on what it was like being a black man growing up in the Apartheid years.  Seeing the entire Cape Peninsula with his invaluable help was our way of making our youngest daughter’s 11th birthday unforgettable. We filled it with baboon, penguin, and ostrich sightings as well as stunning Cliffside vistas, shark spotters and surfers at the famous Muizenberg beach, and topped it all off with hitting the bottom of Africa (Cape of Good Hope) and Cape Point’s breathtaking aerial view of the “meeting of 2 oceans”.  But no birthday celebration would be complete of course, without an ascent of one of the new 7 wonders of nature—so up to the top of Table Mountain we all went, game grandparents included.

 

Darrol had given the birthday girl a rock he picked up as a birthday present: “it is a rock from the bottom of Africa for you to remember this day by”.  Wow.  So that’s it. Our guides are like teachers. And this amazing continent is the classroom! I think I get it now. Those sugarplums of worry about this trip being a “bad parental decision” were starting to fade away…

 

Wine country touring was expected to be a bomb, but surprisingly it was a huge hit for both the tween/teen and septuagenarian sets…who knew? Grandparents, parents and children all bonding and relaxing in a spectacular setting. Wow again.

 

Cedric, our wine country tour guide, was a wealth of knowledge. Whether it was wine or politics or anything in between, he educated us on South African life, and gave us his perspective growing up white during Apartheid rule.

 

In spite of the lack of wine lovers in our group, this experience is not to be missed. The beauty and tranquility of the Stellenbosch and Franschhoek region alone are worth the trip…it even had a mellowing affect on our 14 year-old son. Hmm…perhaps he had been doing more wine tasting then we thought?

 

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Part 2

What Travel can Teach (The Safari edition)

Our educational adventure continued with a Safari in Kruger National Park, SA. Getting there was thrilling…on small planes with fixed wheels and a handful of passengers who were wondering just like me about why the guy in the pilot’s seat looked 12 and why there was so much rust on the wings…

 

But never mind, we are all hearty adventurers who are living life to the fullest and exploring the far reaches of this crazy wonderful world–and hoping this plane stays in the air.

 

We arrived pleasantly disoriented. Our safari lodge was an oasis in the middle of the brutal African bush, just near the Mozambique border. There we were being treated like royalty with amazing food, wine, and comforts from home. Meanwhile famine rages in the Sudan so very nearby… Kids, Life Lesson # 6: Africa is a place of injustices and extremes.

 

Some extremes were actually tangible for our kids. Take the 50-degree temperature change for example.  We all felt the 107-degree heat on day 3 as if we were standing behind a bus exhaust on a hot August afternoon, only to wake up to 57 degrees on day 4 grabbing up coats and hats.

 

We saw so many animals on our “Game Drives” that I began to hallucinate them. We loved the plethora of impala which our guide Jani told us are nicknamed “Bush burgers”—because they are the McDonald’s/fast food of the bush. We felt towards the end that they were like pets, leaping around us.

 

The whole experience of being out on Game Drives in the bush is really so very Lion King.  In fact, all the animals of the African bush are the real majesty. Yes we were getting the royal treatment in our comfy secluded lodge, but the true royalty are out there in the bush, fighting for survival in their natural habitat. Life lesson #8 kids: As Darwin put it: “it’s Survival of the fittest”. The good genes go on. They are the real deal. They ARE the kings and queens. We were mere subjects grateful to share their space for a while.

 

And share we did: 3 generations of our family, in awe of  the majesty. And best of all we had the best tracker (Daniel) and best guide (Jani) in all of South Africa. As our teachers, they kept the lesson plans flowing and kept us on the edge of our seats each day we went out into the bush.

 

Darrol, Cedric then Jani and Daniel–they were our guides, but more than that they were our teachers and temporary ambassadors of South Africa. They were our link to our new surroundings and our personal connection. That feeling is what lingers, lasts and matters. The connectedness is what we bring home with us (along with a rock from the bottom of Africa and about 3000 photos).  

 

They made us feel connected and informed (and in the case of Jani & Daniel–safe and protected too) while they shared their love and enthusiasm with us.  They brought South Africa to life.

 

Jani imparted her wisdom and excitement, speaking Afrikaan and Shangaan and telling us tales of growing up in South Africa. She taught the kids Afrikaan sayings and handshakes and joined us for dinners and bonded with the kids over memories of Pokeman. Spitfire that she was, she even led us briefly into Mozambique!

 

Her love of the outdoors and for the animals was contagious. Definitely a free spirit, but also a walking encyclopedia of wildlife knowledge, she made me think of a yogi bear episode. She was both the park ranger and yogi bear all wrapped up into one.  

 

Her graphic description of what she would do if she got her hands on a rhino poacher had us all riveted. She described a “shooting in the shin, then stringing up from a tree and a cheese grater to the nose”…to re-create the exact injustice done to rhinos by poachers. In that moment, she won all of our hearts forever. Here was a true animal lover and protector.  

 

She had all of us transfixed and wanting to learn–we were ALL students of hers, willing and eager to learn together in this open-air classroom. What family bonding to experience this big learning curve together. How lovely to all be Freshman again, in spite of an age range of 11-74.

 

Travel tends to do that–to level the playing field and make us more open to adventure and exhilaration. What an amazing gift to share this with my husband, my parents and my kids.

 

So, yes our kids were missing school, but they were learning about the world in meaningful ways that will never be replicated. Those pre-trip sugarplum fears nearly evaporated by now…

 

The Life lessons learned were worth way more than a few missed math classes. So our 6th grader was struggling and fretting over her Greatest Common Factor homework on safari day#2….saying “if I was in school right now I’d know how to do this.” But then on day #3 she witnessed the REAL greatest common factor as we drove across a river bed in our off-road safari vehicle to watch the Circle of Life unfold before us: vultures were tearing into the carcass of an impala.

 

A young male lion then came upon the scene, only to have a full knock down drag out fight with another young male over a bone. The fight was mesmerizing for us all as we sat just a few feet away. The wind picked up suddenly and the lion got a whiff of the carcass and quickly ran over to attack it. Jani said “kids you are watching real wildlife in action”.  Meanwhile I was having my Meryl Streep in Out of Africa moment.

 

This impala, which Daniel said died of natural causes, was now nourishment for many and not a bit was going to waste thanks to the lions, the vultures and the bone eating hyenas who would come by later on. Oh dear…so kids Life Lesson #7 is: Nothing is wasted in the wild.

 

Watching this scene without knowing what on earth would come next was like being in a real life, real time classroom. And it was such a rush. OK so life lesson #9 is: Respect the animals and be open to what they can teach us. Fearing or harming them is wrong.

 

Daniel’s piercing perception astounded us. He learned all his animal tracking skills from his grandfather who was a hunter with a bow and arrow.  And as he sat in the jump seat on the hood of the truck, he appeared to hover in front of us as he spied tracks and led us fearlessly to find the lions, rhinos, elephants, leopards, cheetahs, hippos and even baby hyenas! He also had the sweetest disposition- so grateful and genuine. We knew we were in good hands.

 

The kids definitely grew up on this trip (and as Emily pointed out, never slept in once). They were more aware, informed and way less fearful of the animals and of Africa in general. I could actually feel all our horizons widening.

 

Yes, it was a crazy decision to take the kids out of school to go to Africa, but sometimes the craziest decisions turn out to be the best ones—the ones you don’t regret and can’t believe you ever questioned at all.

The end.

 

Addendum: forget what I said about jet lag….all 5 of us were wide-eyed and bushy-tailed at 3am and re-watching Out of Africa. The beauty that was captured in that film is exactly how it still is today….minus the 1930’s cars and bi-planes. But hey, that plane we flew in was almost as cool–if only Robert Redford had been our pilot instead of that 12 year old we had. Oh, well, maybe next time. 🙂

 

 

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