Thursday, March 28, 2013

And Then I Come Home: Dealing With Reverse Culture Shock

It has been nearly four weeks since I left South Africa; I've been home almost as long as I was there, but I've had the hardest time writing about it or even talking about it since I arrived home.

One of the things you are rarely prepared for after traveling is reverse culture shock. I expected it after Japan - I'd been there for three years after all. I expect it when I go home to England where, after more than 15 years away, I feel equal parts English and foreigner. I hadn't expected to feel it after just one month in South Africa.

It was only a month!

I didn't suffer any jet lag when I came home. In fact I was so energized by the trip, I think my husband was exhausted by my constant bounciness. I wanted to tell him everything. I wanted him to understand how cute Chino was when he played with my hair; how important it was to keep obs on the macaques as they had their bizarre arguments; how the marmosets would look at you during pellet time.

The first morning I was home, I had no idea what to wear. After a month of vest, shorts, and flip-flops, clothing seemed so...unimportant. Over the next week, so many things that had previously seemed important now seemed overwhelming. What to wear, what to buy for dinner, what movie to see. I told my husband that none of it mattered. He thought I was falling into depression, but it wasn't that. I just no longer felt that it mattered. After a month of few worries other than basic needs and caring for my monkeys, anything else seemed so petty. Every morning, my first though when I awoke was whether someone had remembered the 4.30 am feed and how everyone was doing.

Equally frustrating was the realization that while I had been away for an incredible month, everyone else's lives had just ticked on. I wanted to show them pictures and tell them stories while they wanted to tell me about their problems at work or with the neighbors. I grew worried that I would be that person who drones on and on about their trip so I did the opposite. I barely mentioned it to anyone.

So how do you deal with reverse culture shock?

Here are my tips:

  • Keep in touch with friends you made during your trip. Facebook has been great because it lets me share pictures and experiences with others who were there and who understand. This is especially important when you realize that many of your home friends will soon tire of the pictures and the stories.
  • Find those few people who do want to hear everything. My husband has seen how energized the trip made me and, although he doesn't necessarily understand everything, he wants to hear about it.
  • Don't feel as if you have to throw yourself back into life as it was before you left. I know some people will say that's exactly what you should do, but bottom line is you've changed. Ease yourself in. I wore flip flops for a week and to hell with the snow. I still don't feel the need to bother with make up or earrings, and the only pieces of jewelry I now wear are a cheap wedding ring I bought for travel and an African bracelet. They're important to me because they represent my time in Africa. 
  • It's ok to not be the same person you were before you left. You found new passions while you were gone. You lived your dreams. Don't lose that hope and energy. 
  • Try to view your home as "another foreign location". You've been away for a while so take some time to explore it again. Visit that local haunt you've always been meaning to go to. View things with a set of fresh eyes.

Ultimately, travel changes you and that's ok. Keep that energy going and use it to drive you to your next trip.

As for me, I'm soon hitting the road again, but in a very different way and to a very different location. My parents and two of my nieces are arriving from England tomorrow so I will be spending next week in Gatlinburg on a family vacation, exploring a more familiar location but through multiple sets of eyes.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Final Day in South Africa: Subterranean at Sudwala and a Fishy Nibble

Maybe it's my hermit nature but I love caves. There is something so refreshing about being underground, in the darkness, constant temperatures, away from the hustle and bustle of the outside world. So when I first heard about the caves at Sudwala, I knew they would probably be on my itinerary at some point. With one day left to explore, I set out to see a little of underground South Africa.

Deciding against the all day caving expedition that is available once a month - after all, my clothes would get muddy and I had little left that was fit to wear on my flight home as it was - I settled for the regular hour long tour. As luck would have it, I arrived just as one was beginning.

Our excellent guide Owen explained the history of the caves to us. During the 19th century, they were a hide out for Samcuba, related to the king of the Swazi people. A giant flow stone near the cave entrance was used as an alarm bell to warn his people of possible attackers. One whack on the stone could be heard throughout the cave and on the land above. A variety of tools used by the Swazi people remain on display in the cave.

Later explorers suspected the cave of being the hiding place of the Kruger millions, a massive amount of gold bullion that went missing during the Boer War. Despite excavations, the gold has never been found, here or anywhere else.

In the 1960s, Philippus Rudolf Owen bought the land above the caves and decided to develop the underground caverns as a tourist attraction. He even built an underground amphitheater, taking advantage of the cool temperatures and excellent acoustics. Stars such as Miriam Makeba  have performed concerts in the amphitheater.

Of course, one habit I have once I get into a cave is taking tons of photos of random patterns and designs within the cave walls, hence:

Impressionist Art or Cave Ceiling?

Once the tour was over, I decided to skip the neighboring Dinosaur Park and make the most of the onsite fish spa. Having enjoyed a garra rufa pedicure during my last visit to England, I wasn't about the pass up the chance to let fish nibble on my feet again. And what a nibble. Apparently four weeks of flip flops and sunburn had taken their toll, and for the next hour, dozens of fish happily ate all the dead skin, much to the amusement and chagrin of everyone else in the spa. (One woman joked that all the fish were so busy feeding on me, they had none left for everyone else!)

If you've never tried one of these pedicures, I highly recommend them. It is wonderfully relaxing and my feet felt fabulous after.

Feeding all those fish did make me hungry though, so before I left, I made sure to visit the restaurant for a smoked trout salad and an opportunity to admire the view.

This was certainly a relaxing end to a memorable trip.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Kruger National Park

The watch alarm gave a timid beep. 4:30 am. I leaped out of bed and grabbed my clothes.

That alone should give pause to those of you who know me. An early bird I am not. Yet during my month-long stay in South Africa, my alarm beeped at 4:30 am four times, and each time, I hopped out of bed. Three of those times were so that I could do the early morning feed with the marmosets. This time was different. This time was Kruger.

And so at 5 am, I left the hostel and hit the road for Numbi, the nearest gate to where I was staying in Nelspruit. Funnily enough, several people had tried to explain that I should not go via Numbi but instead drive further north to the next gate, since the drive would be prettier and through fewer townships. Since I had no concerns about driving through the townships, however, and I preferred to spend as much time as possible in Kruger, I stuck with my original plan, arriving at the gate shortly after 6 o'clock. Following a quick registration process and armed with my trusty R35 Visitor's Guide, I was off again, ready for a day of whatever wildlife I might see. (The Visitor's Guide is well worth the miniscule price - full of maps, approximate driving times, and info about the animals you may see). With only one day to spend at the park, I knew that I would cover just a fraction of the park's 20 000 sq km so I wanted to make the most of my time.

I quickly left the main road, taking one of the gravel roads which would lead me from Numbi up to the Dolspane Road. I drove slowly in the early morning light, carefully taking in as much as I could. I paused at several watering holes, hoping that the early hour might let me see signs of life, but nothing. Undeterred, I kept going.

My first glimpse of Kruger's animal life came just as I turned onto the Dolspane Road. Standing in the road ahead of me were three zebra, their tails swinging in perfect synchronization. My camera was at the ready so I slowed and started clicking. Satisfied that the day was off to a good start, I kept going. Only twenty minutes later or so, my path was blocked again, this time by an elephant.

This would be the first of many elephants that would cross my path during the day, and each time I marveled at the silence. I'm not sure what I expected, perhaps a crashing of undergrowth as these magnificent beasts tromped their way through the bush. Instead, each one caught me completely by surprise, appearing as if from nowhere to cross the road in search of more tasty greenery. They were a photographer's dream.

So there you have a description of how I spent most of the next eleven hours - driving through parts of the park, stopping at the lodge areas only long enough to buy gas, some jerky, and a present for Nic.

I loved the peace and solitude of being out in the park on my own, just me and nature, and the anticipation of what I might encounter next.

I followed the road from Skukuza Camp along the Sabie River down to Lower Sabie, past Ntandanyathi towards Crocodile Bridge, then up the Burne Road to meet with Napi Road, which would lead me back to Numbi Gate.

Occasionally I would pass another car but more often than not, especially in the afternoon, I could drive for quite some time without seeing another person.

In addition to elephants and zebra, I saw wildebeest, hippos, a wide variety of deer and antelope, warthogs, monkeys, giraffes, tortoises (I feel compelled to include them since I saw so many) and birds in an array of colors.

Some tourists might have considered the day disappointing since I didn't see rhino, lions, or leopards, but for me, the day was as close to perfect as it could get.

And as I neared the gate late that afternoon, ready to make my way back to Nelspruit, it seemed wholly appropriate that the last animals I should see at Kruger were a troop of vervet monkeys, making their way down the road. It was monkeys that had brought me to South Africa; it was only fitting that they should wave me goodbye.