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This year I visited South Africa for the first time. I was apprehensive about the trip after speaking to friends and reading the government travel website, which refers to South Africa as a place of violent crime. I then met a South African who told me several horror stories. Despite all of this, I expected I’d experience a new culture, and hopefully see some animals in the wild. In fact, I ended up with unforgettable experiences, new friends, and memories that have made me obsessed with returning.

The first impact of my trip was to feel, for the very first time in my life, white. I have never been anywhere in my life where the color of my skin made me feel obviously different and labeled me an outsider.

This deeply humbled me. I’ve never given any conscious thought to how any minority might feel in a room of white people. Everyone should have this experience to become more compassionate.

A bench at the District 6 museum.
Heather Markel

My next unexpected experience was to learn about slavery and apartheid. In America, racial tension feels at an all-time high, but nobody sits at a table and talks about it. There’s just anger and awful news stories. In Cape Town, I visited a slave lodge and cried. I had no idea, before this visit, that the horror of slavery, aside from the obvious, is about destroying identities and the possibility of understanding who a person is and where they came from.

I took a free walking tour and visited the District 6 museum and saw the benches “for whites” and “for non-whites”. I still don’t understand how apartheid was possible. What seems more impossible is that I found myself in deep conversations with complete strangers from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, and South Africa about the past and future of South Africa. In Africa, people refer to each other as black, white, or colored. The latter is unacceptable in many places but is commonly used in South Africa, which shocked me. We spoke openly about race, poor behavior, government politics, and what people want for the future. I can’t imagine having these discussions with strangers in America, though I hope one day I can.

Planting spinach in a resident's backyard.
Heather Markel

I wanted to learn more, so I spent a day in a township, meeting residents, greeting children, and even planting spinach in a resident’s backyard. I can’t believe how some of the people are forced to live, and how apartheid led to it. Despite this, they have happiness, and they hope to one day have a home with a bathroom instead of an outhouse. I felt embarrassed that I’m lucky enough to want a bigger home, or a second home, in comparison.

I went to church three times. I’m Jewish but found myself loving the music and how the congregation of two different churches welcomed me as a new friend. I’ve always felt like an outsider when I tried to worship back home, so it was a joyful experience to feel so accepted so fast. I decided to volunteer with one of the church groups to feed people in a nearby squatter camp.

A squatter camp in South Africa.
Heather Markel

If I thought a township was humbling, this brought me to my knees. The cycle of the happy child who is abused in early childhood, becomes an angry teenager, and then an inebriated adult angers me. I’m overjoyed to know that others out there feel the same and are doing something to make a difference instead of waiting for the church or the government to take action.

Acacia trees in Namibia.
Heather Markel

The other part of Africa that changed me is the land. From South Africa, I traveled to Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe by safari truck. I have never seen so much uninhabited land that goes in every direction, as far as the eye can see. Nor have I seen a place that has so many wild animals who are granted as much entitlement to the land as humans. I was struck by the contrast with the overpopulated cities I have spent most of my life in.

A wild rhino in South Africa.
Heather Markel

On this extensive land are animals I’ve only seen behind a fence or enclosure. There are mammals I’ve never heard of with impossibly ornate patterns that look like someone carefully painted each one. Making eye contact with a rhino who was close enough to charge and sensing both his power and his presence took my breath away. Standing mere feet from a giant elephant and not being stampeded was exhilarating. Seeing leopards stalk their prey at Kruger Park, I admired the stealth and beauty of this beast. I’ll never be able to go to a zoo again.

A wild leopard in South Africa.
Heather Markel

As a result of this first trip to Africa, my eyes have been opened to levels of poverty I’ve never gotten so close to. It makes me angry and sad, and it was also one of the first times I felt like I was making a real difference in a community. I also learned about the complexity of the animal poaching issue, which is sickening. My mind races with thoughts about how to further protect the animals and how I might become more involved with this, too.

Getting so many different opinions on apartheid and the current state of affairs, I’ve become more aware that many perceptions are fabricated by false information and misunderstanding. It’s one thing to read fake news, it’s another to speak to different people in the same place on the same issue and hear so many different perspectives about it.

A wild rhino in South Africa.
Heather Markel

South Africa, perhaps more than any other place I’ve yet been, reinforced my belief that it’s important to travel to faraway places. It’s the only way to learn that the news stories you read aren’t always true, and to develop a true sense of compassion and understanding for the world we live in and the people we share the planet with.

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