How South Africa Changed my Life and Why I’m Returning

I remember my first day in South Africa like it was yesterday. We pulled into the driveway of our Pretoria bed and breakfast (which would be home for two months), waiting for someone inside to open the gate attached to a barbed wire fence surrounding the property. There were no lights on inside or outside, save for a number of lanterns and candles, since the power in the neighborhood had long been out and wasn’t expected to come back on again anytime soon.

I was no longer in America. I arrived on that initial South Africa trip as a 21-year-old educated southerner who considered himself well cultured and traveled, growing up around a history professor as a father and a flight attendant as a sister. Having traveled to more than half of the states in the U.S. and a few other countries, I approached that trip with what I thought was a sense of pride at my travel experience, but was really more arrogance.


I had really come to take my life and travel experiences up to that point for granted, as the first 21 years of my life had been a relatively safe, comfortable, and well-traveled couple of decades. That had been a norm for me, and traveling and living in South Africa had revealed that I had been living in a bubble. I saw a contentment and satisfaction from the Africans I met that exceeded my own, yet a contentment and satisfaction from people who largely had never traveled and had far less material possessions. This was the first of what would be many lessons.

What would unfold the following 60 days would be a collection of experiences and feelings that converged like no other period of my life. I discovered feelings and attitudes like I had never had before. One day of sheer exhilaration on a safari through Kruger National Park seeing the Big Five would be followed by fear the following day when our place would be broken into (which happened numerous times). Feelings of joy and acceptance from being taught a foreign sport, rugby, by local college students would soon be replaced with feelings of bewilderment and sadness at the sight of an AIDS orphanage.

What stood out about South Africa, however, was something that every destination strives for but few attain. South Africa in my mind came to be the destination that took all of my favorite things about my favorite places I’ve traveled to and put them in one place. From the most hospitable and nicest people I’ve met to stunning landscapes to stand-out drinks to great food to a storied past to exotic wildlife. But not in a utopian way. South Africa has seen and continues to see its struggles (as evident by the recent xenophobia crimes that I’d be remiss not to mention). Yet the country is resilient, and has a zeal for life amidst a storied past that I experienced first-hand that was unlike other places I had visited.

But I think that initial trip can be summed up in something I experienced on our last day there. My friends and I were sitting outside enjoying our last lunch together in South Africa, everyone talking about what they had missed and what they were looking forward to about going home. And I didn’t say it then, but I remember uttering under my breath, “I don’t miss any of those things and I don’t want to go home.” It was clear in that moment that South Africa had shattered my worldview and that the person I was leaving South Africa as was not the person I had arrived as. That arrogant traveler who had taken life for granted upon arriving, wasn’t the person who was going home. A paradigm shift had occurred, as there was a gratitude toward South Africa, and more generally toward travel and the greater world, that I hadn’t felt before.

Miriam Beard is quoted as saying, “Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living." That couldn’t be any truer than for that trip. For an entire year after South Africa, I didn’t buy any clothes or pieces of technology after seeing how content so many Africans were with what they had. A year later in my ballroom dance class (yes, this kid likes to cut a rug), I taught our class a South African song and dance as part of our final exam. And to this day, one of the only poems I’ve committed to memory is the one that was so inspirational to Nelson Mandela, “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, which he would often recite to his cellmates in prison.

That initial trip was 11 years ago. Tomorrow I get on a plane to return to South Africa, my third trip, and the only destination I’ve visited that many times. Is there more that I can wring out of South Africa? I've never really conceded to the belief that I should only travel to new destinations. I'm of the belief that I'd rather visit destinations that have left an impact on me previously, then just visiting new destinations to check them off a list. Marcel Proust is quoted as saying, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

This trip will be a broader Southern Africa trip, with the South Africa portion focusing on the Western Cape, which I've spent a total of about 48 hours in. Naturally, it'll be food and drink themed, with me sharing my content across Twitter and Instagram in real-time the next couple weeks. I've sat here for several minutes thinking about what my expectations may be for a destination I've been to so many times, and I can't really bring myself to writing any words down. I've changed, and more importantly, South Africa has changed. I arrived in Africa 11 years ago with a lot of expectations and predispositions and South Africa completely wrecked them, changing my life and setting me on a course that I've continued on to this day. With a passport, a more open mind, a couple weeks in South Africa, and a couple weeks in the rest of Southern Africa, I only hope that I'll embrace it, and like a decade ago, depart Africa differently then I arrived.