I pour out the contents of the folder that perched in my cabinet for the duration of my year in Stellenbosch. Not once sifted through. I cast my memories into this folder- ticket stubs, notes from friends and roommates, pictures, and brochures. On day one, I started with my plane tickets; this being my longest journey to a new country. However past that, it’s blurry where this odd assortment can be placed in the space and time of my year. Concert wrist bands from that Afrikaans festival where we dogpiled in public and danced to music not even on-par with the worst of wedding bands. One labeled “Balkan dance rave” where, unsurprisingly, I lost my phone and from what I can remember, there was a dead pig hanging from the ceiling. A receipt from the Cape Town city tour bus, where in the pouring rain, alone, I spent an entire day seeing everything I’d put off the previous semester. Stormers tickets. A recipe for Fettkook. Knicknacks from an off-season Karnival hosted by the German Society. A secret note passed to me in class by my best friend in Stellies during the first week we met, “Hoe gaan dit mit jou Afrikaans?” Each item turning my brain a new direction, making me think of different people, making me remember how I felt at that moment.
I’m aware that most of the reason that I kept these things, mostly pieces of paper, is to remind myself that this year happened. As much as I now have moments which so influenced me in how free, or happy, or moved I was that I have a clear, still-frame image in my mind of that moment…I fear that given enough time that image will fade, or be forgotten. And scarier still, I fear that I’ll forget the feeling I had along with its image. These items consequently help me physically and mentally piece together where I was and where I am now.
To be perfectly honest, I was waiting to write this last entry until some morning that I woke up after coming home, when the lessons I learned in South Africa would suddenly be made clear and I would write my feelings down and feel satisfied for an easy summarization of my time. And yet, 3 weeks in, and I’m yet to have that moment. South African culture was much harder to pin down or understand than other countries I’ve visited. Each family I stayed with, each town I visited, was so starkly different that each time I walked away with even the basic facts I thought I’d learned about the country shattered. So often did this happen that eventually I gave up on trying to draw any generalizations across people. In many ways this was part of the excitement- always questioning, always confused, always open. But in other ways it made living in Stellenbosch frustrating, as a town relatively monochromatic and privileged, as I had to make a concerted effort to put myself into the unfamiliar.
This being said, I left my year as exactly who I wanted to be. I saw Johannesburg, jumped off the highest bridge in Africa, did two homestays in local townships, traveled to Namibia and along the Garden Route, met my South African relatives, and hiked my fair share of mountains. But at the moment, to be frank, I hardly need to factor those bits into my year. I walked away from South Africa a much better, and purer version of myself, than who had left. I learned to stand up for myself, to focus on others, to live in the moment, and how to verbalize my feelings to those who made me feel used or hurt. I found that life is as simple or complicated as you make it. And I learned to address, via the behaviors of others and myself, the person I want to be and how to honor that via my actions and inactions. And that, is what I’m most proud of from my year.
I am of the opinion that a year abroad is in the end just another 12 months in your life, which is made spectacular and life-changing by the fact that there is a clear start and end date, as opposed to other years in which that blurs. Though I continue to struggle to figure out what this year meant to me, while simultaneously having to evaluate where my life goes in 6 months when I graduate, I am thankful for having had a year to gear all my energy towards shamelessly questioning, exploring, laughing, and wondering - things I often lose sight of in the bustle of the city.
Thank you to everyone who read my blog, to the friends from home who kept me consistently motivated and giggling, to my grandma for always being my most avid and engaged reader and my always inspiration for traveling, to the families who let me into their homes, and most importantly, to my parents for dealing with my visa problems and tendency to wander.
“For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.”
~Leonardo di Vinci