“Could we see when and where we are to meet again, we would be more tender when we bid our friends goodbye.”
DURBAN — There is something strikingly poignant about leaving a person or place for what is probably the last time.
Throughout our seven weeks in South Africa, this feeling has become routine.
In our first week here, we spent the day at a children’s orphanage. I met a bright 17-year-old boy who wanted some help analyzing poetry for class. He dreamt of college at Cambridge and of visiting the States someday. In our brief time together, he blew me away. I felt like we were fast friends, but practically as soon as I had introduced myself I was telling him goodbye … probably a permanent goodbye.
When we do the Y-Justice program (where we work with children from the streets), new kids show up every day, but still others quit coming back after one or several visits. Whether they have entered a shelter, gone home, been hurt somehow, or simply don’t want soccer and free lunch twice a week, I’ll never know. But these goodbyes seem most transient of all.
As for the students in our computer classes, the jury’s still out. There’s a good chance we have already seen them for the last time and didn’t even know it. It’s a rather complicated situation … Essentially, the 57 students are all part of a soccer academy that recruited them for their athletic talents. These are all children coming from low-income areas, and often from some rough situations at home. The soccer academy provides them with a better place to stay (the YMCA facilities) and zones them for a better school, plus they are able to focus on their athletic skills. Well, the soccer academy hasn’t paid the Y for the kids’ accommodations in over six months. For the sake of the students, the Y tried to give the academy the benefit of the doubt, but it can’t keep losing money on these facilities. After all, they are paying to have 60 rooms up and running but aren’t earning any money from the occupants (before the academy was there, the accommodation was offered to nearby university students and anyone stopping through in need of a place to stay). Unless the academy or the government has stepped up to reimburse the YMCA for its housing, though, the children will not be able to return next week (they are currently on summer break for a few weeks’ time). This is troubling for both Reis and myself. We found a great deal of purpose in our work with these kids. While some of the students only came to one or two computer lessons, there was a group of about 10 kids that couldn’t get enough. They would literally run through the doors of our classroom as soon as we unlocked the door, eager to learn more and play on the computers. It was both charming and rewarding for us. If we get more time with them, we are going to help them set up e-mail accounts and learn to browse the Internet. With a tool like that, so many more doors could open up for them — it would link them to a wealth of knowledge. So, fingers crossed we get the three extra weeks with them we had anticipated.
At the end of June, Reis and I spent a weekend backpacking through the Drakensberg Mountains, just hours outside of Pietermaritzburg, jutting into the tiny enclave country of Lesotho. For three days, we spent every moment with each other and the two other hikers on our trip — no technology, no artificial noise, no distractions, just the peace and quiet of the great outdoors. It was just the four of us hiking up mountains, climbing among boulders and trudging through the nastiest knock-you-over gusts of wind I’ve ever experienced — I mean, you can’t help but develop a certain inherent trust with the people you’re with when it’s a bit risky. The way I see it is, if we’re going to spend the night in the mountains of Lesotho with no human life in visible distance, I’ll probably call you my friend by the end of the day. Fortunately, we know we’ll be seeing our hiking guide Ian again before we leave (as we have already arranged another trip for our last weekend here :D), but I’m not so sure about the other hiker Tsara. And that’s strange to me.
In the three weeks we spent in Cape Town, Reis and I experienced another bout of this hello-goodbye scenario. Goodbye to Walter, our unplanned but fearless leader up the dangerous, unfrequented India Venster route to the top of Table Mountain. This seventy-something-year-old Austrian man carried us up the rock climbing route, where we scaled completely vertical boulders with the help of chains, drilled in handles and often each other’s tight grips. In addition to the thrilling hike, Walter imparted his final words of wisdom: “As we say in Austria, if you do happen to fall off the mountain, be sure to look left and open yours eyes … it’s a beautiful ride down.” Goodbye to Claudia, the British employee from our first hostel, who Reis and I quickly warmed up to after spending a day touring the city with her. Goodbye to one of our roommates Priscilla, who came here from Brazil three months ago not knowing a bit of English, aside from “dog” and “What street is this?” She shared some great stories, an authentic Brazilian dessert and not the least her magnetic personality. Goodbye to Reis’ makeshift French tutor, Adophie, who helped him with his online class in exchange for some of our cheese fondue.
In addition to getting attached to some very fascinating people, Reis and I have found it hard to say goodbye to some places as well. The Drakensberg, for one. Three days on the strenuous route through Giants Castle just about did me in, but like most challenging situations, it was well worth it. Every time we turned a corner or reached the top of a hill, the resulting view managed to leave me breathless (or was that just the exertion?). I had never seen a mountain range of that kind — from afar it looked almost like a mountain made of desert, lacking greenery now because of the South African winter. Cape Town alone offered a plethora of sights hard to leave. The view from Table Mountain after hours of grueling work to the top; an abundance of flowers and plants overflowing at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, with the mountains as a backdrop; the bluest sky I’ve ever seen above the Twelve Apostles (mountain range) on one side and the sun setting over the Atlantic on the other side at Camps Bay; the reflection of mountains over the harbor at both Hout Bay and the V&A Waterfront; the famous Chapman’s Peak Drive down the Cape Peninsula; the 360-degree view of Cape Town from the top of Lion’s Head Peak … have I convinced you to book your flight yet?
Over the last month-and-a-half, Reis and I have met some pretty impactful people and been to some pretty unforgettable places — that’s no question. And somehow, we have just over two weeks left in South Africa, during which we will have many more tough goodbyes. But while we may be leaving, we will be leaving with more than we came: may it be memories, friends, stories, wisdom, appreciation, what have you.