When I found out my first country at THINK Global School was Botswana, I was slightly disappointed. You see, Gaborone is only a five-hour drive away from Johannesburg, South Africa, my city. Every other country on our list for the next three years seems exciting and exotic – Botswana, however, was just a few game drives across the border.
I wasn’t looking forward to game drives. I go on multiple drives with my family every year, and so the thought of 7 weeks of it was incredibly dull.
Arriving at initiation that would kick off our first term with the Changemaker Curriculum and loading onto the game drive vehicle, animals were the last thing on my mind. My attention was on the concept of a tech-free Rite of Passage, and the people around me (who I had miraculously become friends with in the span of four days).
Our first sighting of an impala was slightly hilarious to me, the jaded South African that I was. You see, impala are like the weeds of the bush – they’re everywhere. My classmates, people from all around the world with little to no experience with safaris, were acting like they had seen a lion, or something actually interesting.
And then we saw our first herd of elephants.
If there’s one thing you need to know about elephants, it’s that they’re almost as common as impala in the bush – a usual Southern African Safari is not complete without seeing multiple elephants.
So, in a jaded, couldn’t-care-less voice, I said, “Look, elephants.”
Elephants at GO Camp. Photo by Jess P.
The reactions of the others in the open Land Rover took me by surprise.
To my left, an excitable Bosnian soccer player stood up and yelled in the loudest voice possible, “OH MY GOD. THAT’S AN ELEPHANT!!!!” (She was promptly forced down and aggressively shushed by the other students in the truck.)
I felt something gripping my right hand, and turned to see the Wisconsin-born girl sitting next to me, with a face strongly resembling Edvard Munch’s Scream, squeezing my hand as tightly as she could.
Two others cried.
In an instant, my perspective changed. All it took was a couple of tears, a few screams, and seeing the pure wonder in my friends’ eyes to make me realize multiple things about travel.
Elephants are beautiful, dangerous, magical and a hundred other contradicting adjectives. I had a conversation with one of the girls who cried – a delightful Mexican girl who had never seen elephants before that first sighting – and she described with passion in her voice how seeing the beauty and elegance of them made her realize how important they are to her.
Seeing wildlife through my classmates’ eyes opened my own. Looking at an elephant as if it were the first time I was seeing one made me understand the importance of wildlife on both a personal and global level. Experiencing wildlife the way I do is a privilege that should never be taken for granted by those that have the chance to do it. If I could give every person in the world the opportunity to see Botswana the way we have, I would in a heartbeat.
Jess at initiation. Photo by Charlotte S.
Botswana is a gorgeous country, and unlike South Africa in a lot of ways. We may be neighbors, but we are not the same. It is ironic that I, an African person, adopted a “western” view of my own continent, expecting it all to be the same. At the start of the term, I viewed the whole of southern Africa as one single unit, rather than as separate countries with vastly different cultures and ways of life.
This realization has made me appreciate my home country. At the time of writing this, I have not been home or seen my family in over a month. It has seemed like no time at all and like it has been years. Being away from familiarity for so long has made me realize how important it is to appreciate the country in which one was born and raised. Whether you’re from Botswana, South Africa, or anywhere else in the world, appreciate that place when you’re there. Be aware of how special it is and never take it for granted.
Familiarity might leave you jaded, or feeling like you’ve seen everything you need to see. But you haven’t, and you never will. Appreciating the beauty of the place you’re visiting is infinitely more important than the stamps in your passport. Botswana is only the first of my destinations with TGS, and at the beginning of it all I was already feeling jaded. Whether you’re a student at the school, a student’s relative (hi mom and dad!), or someone with no affiliation to me whatsoever, remember that every city, country, and tourist attraction you see has something to teach you.
It can be difficult to stay grounded. Towards the end of initiation, most students were growing bored of getting up early for game drives and seeing the same animals every day. Admittedly, a school like this can leave you feeling jaded, or with a false sense of having seen it all. But this experience has made me realize how important it is to not let that mindset take you over. We saw elephants on every game drive and somehow, to me, each time seemed special (even seeing impala eventually became exciting to me).
Whether you are a traveler or someone who has no plans of leaving where you are, take a moment to see the importance of every destination and the special parts of it, no matter how dull somewhere may seem.
It’ll be worth it in the long run if you do, I promise.