Believe it or not, today marks 10 years since my first time abroad.
As a kid, my parents took my brother and I on holidays each year, to different spots within the UK. We had a caravan until my early teens and would take it for a week to caravan parks like ‘Trencreek Farm’ in Cornwall, and ‘The Inside Park’ in Blandford. I have great memories of both of those places, as we went multiple times over the years. Both of them were set on farms, so they had lots of animals roaming around the grounds that you could pet – potbelly pigs, chicks/chickens, goats, sheep, as well as the owner’s personal cats, dogs, rabbits and even peacocks. This certainly created the foundation for my love of animals, and I’d always be so excited to return each year.
When we weren’t visiting the farms, we’d visit friends and family, take trips to London, and do house swaps with random people as far as Newcastle (Dad hated that drive). At the time, most of my friends were going to places like Spain, France, Portugal and everyone had been to Disneyland/world (I’ve still never been) and would come back with a tan, telling me how cool their resort was. I didn’t even know what the resort looked like, because this was the before we had mobile phones, Facebook and WiFi. I’d come back with a farmers tan, dirt under my nails and scratches all over my hands, arms and legs.
My parents never mentioned going abroad, and I never asked. I didn’t want to seem rude or come across as ungrateful, but the idea of visiting a different country became more intriguing as I got older.
On 16th August 2008, this all changed. My Dad and I were asked if we wanted to go as part of a team, to Durban, South Africa, and work for a charity, called Project O. Project O worked with orphans affected by AIDS/HIV living in the Valley of a Thousand Hills, and helped provide them with food, clothing, education and medical care.
I jumped at the chance – this was not just going to be my first international travel experience, it was going to be an opportunity to do something good for someone else, someone that I’d never met before, who was on the other side of the world, in need of help. I was so excited, but then got the bad news…the cost. I’d never taken a flight before, and had no idea how expensive the trip was going to be, but I’d decided that I’d figure out a way, whatever it cost me.
I was in school at the time, and on my summer holiday break, with a part-time job working at Subway, and next to nothing in my bank account. Some friends of mine had also put their names down for the trip, and so we came up with some ideas to raise money. Back then, websites like ‘gofundme’ didn’t exist, so we were left to raise the money ourselves – we did various fundraisers at a local church, which also involved shaving our heads. I finally reached the goal amount, with help from my parents, and it was suddenly becoming real.
After lots of planning, buying equipment, getting vaccinated, etc., we were ready to go. A total of 19 people went as a group; I was amongst the youngest, with the eldest in their 70’s. Our initial flight was out of Heathrow Airport to Frankfurt, for the first of our two stopovers. I could lie and say I remember the feeling of the very first takeoff, but I don’t. I’ve done so many flights over the last 10 years, that they all become a bit of a blur. I do, however, remember the landing, because I wasn’t pre-warned of the pressure pain from not equalising while descending, and it felt horrible. The first connection were only 2 hours, but it felt like a lifetime, with my head ready to implode. I didn’t even eat my steak sandwich (which looked so appealing) on the second flight to Johannesburg because I felt sick from the pain. The last flight was relatively short, and the adrenaline started to kick in as we got closer to my first step on foreign soil. I remember walking out of the airport and being hit by a blanket of warmth. Coming from England, I’d never felt this kind of heat before, and it was amazing.
We were picked up from the airport by the couple who ran the charity, Martin and Vashti, and their two dogs. They brought a 4×4 each, and I tried doing the math, but couldn’t figure out how all 19 of us would fit. Martin explained the rules were a bit different in South Africa, and you could get away with pretty much anything on the road. Vashti’s jeep was the smaller of the two, with only 7 seats, so 6 of the group joined her. With 13 of us left, I was still trying to figure out how we were all going to fit. The older couple travelling with us sat up front with Martin, 4 more people went in the row behind them, then Martin lowered the tailgate and signalled for the rest of us to jump in. There were no seats, so more room for the 7 of us and 2 dogs to cram in. We all rummaged around for seat belts, but already knew they were a lost cause. Martin slammed the tailgate and said “Welcome to Africa, you’re going to want to hold on to something”.