I was sitting in the warm sunshine of a secluded field, surrounded by unfamiliar trees and bushes when it hit me. I’d done it. I had conquered my fears and mastered my trepidations, which lead me to have the most powerful moment of my life. I was proud of myself and in such a state of awe at the world around me that I couldn’t stop the tears that sprang to my eyes. I simply sat and absorbed the time and space around me while making a mental note to remember that moment for as long as I could.
I was a college senior when a graduate student came into one of my anthropology classes to tell us about a study abroad trip in South Africa. It was a one month observation course of two types of primates and as someone who had always loved monkeys and also loved to travel, it sounded like the ultimate adventure. I knew I shouldn’t go on such a trip because it would mean taking out another loan and pushing my graduation date back an extra semester, but the more I thought about it the more I decided that those reasons weren’t enough to stop me. The “real world” was looming larger and closer than ever and the thought of one last jaunt of studying on a faraway continent before finding a job and facing my student loans was enticing indeed. Not wanting to live with the “what-ifs”, I took a deep breath, added my name to the list and started planning.
While I was truly excited for the trip, the thought of spending four weeks in the bush of Africa with a group of people I barely knew was pretty daunting. I convinced myself I’d be mauled to death in my sleep by hungry lions or that a microscopic parasite would somehow find its way up my urethra. However, other than one panic attack on the way to the airport, I managed those fears quite well. The whole experience felt surreal, even after the doors to the plane slammed shut and we were strapped in for our twenty-odd hour flight.
The dreamlike feeling didn’t stop when we landed and it was hard to believe I was really in Africa. We camped in a few different areas and while it was still an intimidating and sometimes scary experience, I gained courage and strength as the month wore on. I learned how to tracks elephants by their dung and studied the differences in grooming habits of captive vs. non-captive vervet monkeys. I followed prides of lions and flew an ultralight aircraft. The entire time I still couldn’t believe what I was doing and sometimes it felt as though I was watching myself star in a documentary. Towards the end of our trip we camped at a little farm in a place called Tzaneen, about 260 miles north of Johannesburg. By this point the close quarters of our group wore on us all and I jumped at an opportunity to take a hike by myself one afternoon during some free time. I didn’t go far but it was far enough to feel isolated and that is where I found “my” field. There was no one around and I sat on a fallen tree to savor the moment. The sunlight streamed through the trees in a warm golden haze that appeared to swirl around with a mind of its own. Insects and birds made the only sounds I heard and my breathing slowed as I settled myself in to the nature around me.
I had really done it. I was living my dream and I was in awe of my own life. The trip was nothing like what I had expected and I experienced more culture shock and homesickness than I had thought possible. But in the end, I had accomplished what I had set out to do and I had proven to myself that I could make big things happen. I also knew that I wouldn’t have been able to do any of that if I hadn’t lived a certain type of life up to that point. I was experiencing an opportunity that some people just never have. For the rest of the trip and even through today I remember and reflect on the time in my field and call upon the wonder I experienced then to help me keep everything else in perspective. I needn’t have worried about making a mental note to remember that moment though because I don’t think I could ever forget it. It was a moment I had been waiting for my entire life.
About the Author: Paige is a Chicago transplant who loves to write. She also loves to travel and returning to Africa is a top priority.