After reading a few stories from other volunteers who did projects in South Africa, I struggled to determine how I would go about capturing my experience without sounding like and resembling all these fantastic chronicles. I would have to agree with most volunteers that Cape Town is full of beauty, honesty, strength and kindness.
In truth however, there is also an element of inescapable harshness. I had prepared myself for this, but there’s only so much expectation you can have about a place that still holds such mystery. The reason I am highlighting this is very important. I felt a lot safer thanks to the staff at Projects Abroad and also my wide open mind.
Travelling to South Africa
I am Canadian by blood, but a true Australian at heart. I finished my Masters Degree in Sociology at the University of Sydney in Australia and a year later I found myself using my sociology degree and my degree in surfing the best way I knew how. I came across Projects Abroad in Toronto, walked into the office and immediately got a positive sense of both the organisation as a whole, and the people working and involved in it.
I then decided that I would go to South Africa and partake in the Surfing Project in Cape Town. From the second I signed up to the day I arrived in Cape Town, I was never, not for one second, ever misinformed, misguided or felt unsure about the logistics of my project, and what I had decided to do. This was in direct relation to the consistent, reliable, and efficient way that Projects Abroad had ensured my understanding of how my life would be for the next two months.
My first day
It’s all well and good to highlight how wonderful a place South Africa is - how beautiful, how magical, and how friendly the locals are - but there needs be a decent dose of reality here and there. Reality did not technically set in until I was woken up by a rooster that sounded like it was dying, looked around and found myself in a little unfamiliar room. The air smelled like rotten eggs and gasoline, and a headache greater than Mandela’s passion for social justice had just set in. Not to mention an enormous yearning to quench this unusual desperation for water I had. Welcome to Cape Town.
What day was it? What time was it? How do I know where to go? More importantly where is the beach, and when can I surf? All the questions that I had - where I needed to be, how to navigate the confusing and untimely train system, how to call home and other volunteers, how to get around, what to eat or not to eat, where to buy food - were all answered that first day by the overly friendly and helpful Projects Abroad staff.
What hard working and dedicated people. I was blown away by the response, speed and timeliness of these people. I felt at home right away and I hadn’t even met my host family yet. Projects Abroad was my family, and I didn’t even know my address yet! I was taken to Muizenburg Beach where I was going to spend most of my days on the Surfing Project. I was so excited to meet the kids and to teach them to surf I could barely keep from bouncing out of my board shorts. The second I saw the beach, saw where my placement was, and then realised how close I lived to the beach, my excitement skyrocketed to a place words cannot describe.
My host family
Eleanor Thomas was my host Mum and if there were any other person on the planet who I could to choose to be my mother, this would be the woman. Eleanor immediately created a home for me in the warmest, and most comforting and accepting way. This woman is the definition of caring, kindness and respect. She is extremely hard working and I admire her strength, courage, and, above all, her determination to travel the world someday.
Every day I spent in that house in Heathfield with Eleanor and the other two volunteers was truly beyond wonderful.
I never imagined the impact that Eleanor and her family would have on me. It’s an interesting dynamic because on the one hand I was helping disadvantaged kids to learn how to appreciate the ocean and surf culture, all the while knowing that one day I am going to have to leave this wonderful place, these wonderful children and the wonderful people that have made me a part of their family. This was a bittersweet sensation that I could not shake.
My Surfing Project
My placement was extraordinary. For starters, understanding surf culture and being an active participant in it for years made a big difference to me. I began to see surfing in a slightly new light. Never before had I had the opportunity to show someone, let alone, a child with very little, both the physical and mental affect which surfing can have.
For me, surfing is like a drug. It has a way of creating this tremendous addictive sense of pleasure, laced with a feeling of intense adrenaline and freedom that not many activities and sports in this world can provide. Getting up on a surfboard and riding a wave for the first time is something I wish I could prescribe for everyone, young and old.
There was one child in particular who I taught in three hours to paddle properly, turn in for a wave, and actually stand up and ride a wave. This brought tears to my eyes for two reasons; the joy and sense of accomplishment on this boy’s face was beautiful, and I felt like I had already made a positive difference in his life. As a result, he stuck to me like glue for the rest of my days at the surf school.
I was so touched by so many of the children in the surf programme that saying goodbye was something I did not prepare myself enough for. I decided that on my last day at the placement, instead of giving the children their usual peanut butter sandwiches and a piece of fruit for snack, I would take them all out to a pizza restaurant at the beach!
To see the excitement combined with pizza sauce and cheese all over their faces was one of the greatest sights I had seen in all of my time in Cape Town (and I had seen and done some pretty spectacular things). Some children had never been to a restaurant before or had pizza. My life was changing every day, every hour, every second here in Cape Town and I knew it.
I travelled to South Africa with very little expectation. I was overwhelmed with my experience to the point where I could hardly explain what had happened to me when I arrived back home in Toronto. I’ve realised there is no way to explain what happens to you after doing something like this.
South Africa is sometimes a difficult and violent place with many social issues. Amidst this environment there are people that truly are making a difference. There are places you can go that remind you what it is to be alive. And there are experiences that you can have that will be the best of your life.
This placement changed my life because I allowed it to. If you decide to take on any project with Projects Abroad, begin your journey with a positive and optimistic attitude; with a very open mind it is impossible to have a negative experience anywhere, doing anything with Projects Abroad. That I can say with complete confidence.