Never was there a greener or more naïve traveller.
I was the typical ‘babe in the woods’, and yet I had left the woods, or Australian bush, and had just touched down in Cape Town, South Africa.
My father was a long-serving Rotarian, and over the years, our family had hosted a veritable mini-United Nations of exchange students from Denmark, Finland, Germany, Canada, USA and New Zealand. This bag of human Liquorice All-sorts inspired me to apply for Rotary Youth Exchange when I ‘came of age’.
I had my heart set on France as I had been studying French at school for the previous five and a half years, and it was with this goal in mind that I entered the interview room.
To say the interview experience was a disaster, would be the understatement of the century. I trembled, I froze, I mumbled, I blubbered! I was usually a pretty self-assured kind of kid, but on this day, the stars aligned to create a tsunami of emotions that saw me cower in the bathroom in between each interview. And there were four interviews I had to survive! Thankfully one Rotarian knew me as the happy-go-lucky kid, careering around the paddock at Pony Club, and I believe it was his vote that got me over the line.
In hindsight, that disastrous interview experience set me up for life. From that day forward, I approached all interviews with the thought that it can’t possibly be as bad as that morning back in 1982, and I am a picture of cool, calm and collectedness.
Anyway, in due course I was informed that I had been selected as a Rotary Exchange Student to the Republic of South Africa. Not France, but still that is brilliant, fantastic, unreal, but hang on…where the bloody hell is South Africa? Yes, I know my ignorance was inexcusable, but I was a 17 year old bush kid studying for my final Higher School Certificate that did not include any geography subjects. I quickly did some research, got excited all over again and did my best to concentrate on my studies.
Exams over, pennies saved, bags packed and I was winging my way to South Africa. I was the typical first-time flyer/traveller – checking out all the bells and whistles on the plane, and marvelling at the food. In those days we were even invited up to the cockpit to chat to the pilots. I wanted to see everything, push every button, and absorb as much as I could, simply because it was all new and different. I wonder why we tend to lose that natural curiosity as we age?
Waiting for a connecting flight at Johannesburg airport, I studied the information board showing my flight was going to both Kaapstad AND Cape Town. It was only mid-flight that I realised that Kaapstad was the Afrikaans name for Cape Town! D’oh! Palm slap to the forehead.
Totally jetlagged and disoriented, I stepped off the plane at Cape Town and into the warmest, most welcoming embrace of half the membership of the Goodwood Rotary Club. I kept looking around for this girl called Mer-larnie until I realised that was me. How many learnings can I cram into one day?
Hellos and introductions over and bags collected, I walked across the carpark with my first host mother, Jean van Niekerk. I could not believe it when she stopped next to the largest, shiniest Mercedes Benz car I had ever seen. Without thinking, I blurted out in a voice of wonder, “is this your car?” before scrambling to recover my manners. What was I thinking? That she had hot-wired it on the way to the airport? Bush kid naivety strikes again!
That day was the start of the most wonderful, eye-opening and mind-expanding year of my life. Every day was a day to meet someone new, and to learn about a different culture.
I was enrolled at Fairmont High School at Durbanville, a northern suburb of Cape Town. While it didn’t thrill me to be back at school after just completing 13 years of the stuff, I adopted the approach of ‘all care, no responsibility’. I was there for a good time, not a long time. The saving grace was that I was enrolled across the entire school e.g. Year 7 Afrikaans, Year 8 Home Economics, Year 9 History etc. It made me feel like the whole school was my friend AND I didn’t need to take it too seriously. A lasting memory was when one day in a Home Economics class full of 14 year olds, a girl mentioned in passing that it was the first time in her life that she had done the washing up! What was I saying about learnings?
I revelled in the new language and enjoyed showing off my growing vocabulary at the dinner table each night. There is a saying that Afrikaans is not a language, it’s a throat disease! I gave it all the brain power and tonsil gymnastics I could, and picked up all the important things like how to swear, advise people where they can and should depart to, and the importance of not taking cheques from gnomes!
The world of food, another world away from traditional Aussie meat-and-three-vege, opened up before me. Being permanently hungry, I inhaled boerewors, mealie pap, Yogi Sip, vetkoek, guava fruit leather, buttermilk rusks and Top Deck chocolate. All delicacies not readily available in rural NSW.
Then there was the alcohol! While people in Australia commonly invite you over for a cuppa, in South Africa the invite is for a glass of wine, a whisky, witblits etc. I think I was permanently tipsy for the first three months!
The whole servant/maid set-up took some adjusting to, and I am not sure I got used to it entirely. There were a number of maids and ‘garden boys’, but this didn’t stop me from helping around the house, clearing the table or making my own bed. I could hear my mother’s voice in the back of my mind telling me to pull my weight! For my host families, it was just the way they lived their lives, who was I to judge?
Over the years, South Africa has received a bad wrap for its politics and human rights issues. While that may be justified, it is wrong to tar the whole country with the same brush. I could not fault the warmth and welcome I received.
In some ways I blame the South African media, and by default, the all-powerful, controlling government of the day. It was only on my return to Australia that I learned about Nelson Mandela incarcerated on Robben Island, just off-shore from Cape Town. I felt very guilty that I was not more politically aware. I was a standard 17 year old, full of happiness and energy, and oblivious to the larger issues playing out in the World.
May every person have one carefree year like this in their life!
How has travel opened your mind?
What: Rotary Young Exchange is available to young people across Australia and in many parts of the world.
Where: There are over 30 different countries – from Argentina to Turkey – who accept exchange students.
When: Applications open at the beginning of each year, for travel the next year.
Why: For the best, most interesting, eye-opening, amazing, and sometimes challenging, year of your life.
How: Expressions of interest can be made online by clicking this link. Or contact your local Rotary club as sometimes not every club sponsors or receives students.
Who: Many students participate in Rotary Exchange after they have finished their formal schooling in their home country. The programme is open to everyone, however most applicants are aged from 15-18 years old.
Related Posts: For more adventures (although a little more sedate) by this young traveller, have a look at: https://lifeonebigadventure.com/category/the-young-traveller.
Related Blogs: Hear it from the horse’s mouth! Blogs by current and past exchange students: http://www.ryea.org.au/blog.html