Nothing is as we have believed it to be

My first opportunity to travel beyond the borders of South Africa came in 1968 when I was selected to be an AFS student. What an exciting moment it was when I received the letter of confirmation of selection. The date is permanently etched in my brain – 11 December 1967.

But all I learnt from this letter was that I had been selected to spend a year in the USA from July 1968 – July 1969 to fit in with the American school timetable. The fact that this meant that I had to spend another year in school did not matter. I was going to TRAVEL! A lot for a 17 year old who had just finished school in Durban, South Africa to take in.

Where would I be staying?

Now the planning started. At that time I had no clue what to start with having not travelled so far before and nor had anyone in my immediate family. In the 60s there was no Google to look at for ideas nor any e-mail to get answers quickly with regard to weather or what to wear. Not that it would have helped at first as I had no idea where in the USA I would actually be placed. Finally, at the end of January I was informed that my destination was Rockford, Illinois. WHERE?! Yes, that was the most common comment that I received when, in my excitement, I told any and every person I met. I was told that they were still matching me with a family but it was definitely Rockford. Out came the atlas and encyclopaedia to find out just where this place was and what were its characteristics. It was from the encyclopaedia that I learnt that it is 90 miles north-west of Chicago and gets extremely cold, sometimes too cold for snow, in Winter.

What should I pack?

This was why I made my first real travel ‘blooper’. I took a large, cumbersome mock fur coat. It did not fit into my luggage and so I had to carry it. Not only was I the laughing stock of my 97 fellow AFSers from South Africa but I did not use it once! It was totally unsuitable and my American family had plenty of anoraks etc which were far more useful. What did I do with it in the end? It went to the shelter for the homeless in Rockford.

What did I know of America?

We had learnt both US history and geography and,of course, seen American movies I had my generalisations about Americans. Through these and my experience of the very few whom I had met, mainly tourists, I believed Americans to be loud, pushy and wealthy. I found that to be true of very few and almost none who lived in Rockford, fitted that description. I made many friends with whom I still converse today using social media. I have returned to the US since my AFS year for a 25-year class reunion in 1994 and my AFS sister and her husband visited us here in Durban in 2012.

What did Americans know of us?

It is at this point that so many get carried away with the idea of such a wonderful opportunity that careful consideration to actual needs is not always given. The generalisation of a community or nation frequently starts here. ‘All Americans believe: a) we have lions roaming the streets, b) we do not have shopping centres and c) we live in rudimentary housing.’ Well, when I got there I learnt that it was only partially true. Most of those whom I met did not believe the bit about the lions or the housing but there were some. It was more common for the thought to be that our shops were small and rudimentary but, actually what most shocked them was the fact that we did not have TV. That only came to our homes in 1975.

That is part of the wonder of travel – our eyes are opened to see that most people are the same as ourselves but in different ways. Yet again, one of my best stories to relate is about when I was asked to do one of my many speeches on South Africa (an expected duty of an AFSer) to the ladies of the local Methodist Church. On arrival, with my American mother, it was first assumed that we had come to hear the speaker from South Africa and when I was introduced to her as that paricular person she promptly enquired as to whether my parents were missionaries. The assumption was that if you come from Africa and are pale skinned you can only be missionaries. Another assumption was made by the school I attended. They placed me, as they did the other AFSer from Spain, in the remedial English class. My knowledge of the English language positively floored them and after 2 weeks moved me to the Honours class, from one extreme to the other. Wow, what a generalisation that was and a real learning curve for the Guidance Teacher who places foreign students in their classes.

Was it worth it?

My year in the US was an incredible experience and still is a part of my life today, 45 years later. I was matched with a very loving and caring family and immediately bonded with my ‘sister’ who was just a year younger than I. They were not wealthy as we expect Americans to be nor were they not loud and brash as I had generalised. Not everything was perfect but then that is true of everyday life. This is not Utopia that I am talking about but using travel to learn and grow, even in our senior years. We need to go to new places with our eyes, ears and hearts open to whatever we see, hear and observe. Yes, learn as much about the place you will be travelling to but also go prepared for it to be quite different from what you had imagined. This is the joy of travelling beyond your borders, in every sense of the word.

About Me

I was born into the early part of the Baby Boomer generation, the 3rd of what came to be a family of 6 daughters. Although both our parents, who are now deceased, had been raised in rural Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal) and the 2 eldest daughters were born in a country town, the other 4 of us were all born at home in Durban. Read More

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