I remember studying the flight map around hour 6 of the second flight on our way to Johannesburg, South Africa. We had already completed one international flight from Houston to London, but for some reason I was just now beginning to understand how large the Earth really is. At this moment, I remembered what Dr. Flint discussed during one of our pre-departure meetings. Essentially, it’s mathematically impossible to turn a 3 dimensional Earth into a 2 dimensional map without distorting the size and shape of specific global features. Even the Mercator projection, which is most commonly accepted, grossly misleads common users into believing Africa is smaller than it really is. For the first time in my life, 6 hours in, only halfway to our destination, and staring at the interactive map of Africa, I realized the world is so much larger than I thought. I remember thinking, “Wow. The world is big and I am small, but I want to see as much as I can before I die.”

Throughout the trip, places and moments like Kruger National Park, the Big Swing, Shewula, and Bulembu reinforced my love for adventure and passion for travel. However, I’d argue some of the smaller moments had the biggest impact on my life moving forward.

A collection of these “smaller moments” is summarized by the WaWa Wagon. WaWa was one of our two drivers who spent the whole trip with us transporting 30 crazy Aggies around small villages and capital cities, through border crossings, past checkpoints, and everything in between. Before the trip, I had no idea we’d spend hours of our days, and sometimes full days, traveling with WaWa. But by the end of our trip, the people in this van were like family. The inside jokes and subtle roasts were glimpses of how well we grew to know one another.

I used to think adventure was the secret to living an incredible life in an ordinary world. Now, I know the secret is people. People like WaWa and JB. People like grandmas in Shewula. People like Aunties in Bulembu. People like Aggies.

#WynnInAfrica

Categories: 2019 Trip

I woke up this morning expecting today to be a leisurely day filled with panoramic views. Instead, I found myself on a van heading to The Big Swing with very little mental preparation. Maybe it was best that I didn’t have time to think about it though so that I couldn’t think of every possible scenario of what could go wrong. Either way, I knew I wasn’t leaving Africa without doing The Big Swing. It was one of those things that I felt like I had to do so that I could say that I did it.

When we arrived to the sight of The Big Swing, I felt surprisingly calm as I took in my surroundings. I gazed at the canyon ahead of me filled with lush, green trees, a waterfall, and large boulders. However, when I got closer to the edge of the cliff we were standing on, and I was able to look all the way down though, my knees felt weak. Heights aren’t really my thing, so the fact that I was about to free fall into this canyon was terrifying to me.

After getting harnessed in (and making the workers double check my harness to ensure that it was tight enough), I waited my turn to swing. I stood near the platform watching my classmates fall until I somehow ended up at the front of the line. I think the waiting was the worst part because I had to watch what I would be doing over and over again, so by the time I got to platform, I was shaking.

I stepped up to the platform and let the worker clip me in. There was no turning back now. Slowly, I inched my way forward to a red line near the edge of the platform, where I was then instructed to turn around. “Not only do I have to fall into this canyon,” I thought, “but now I have to fall into this canyon backwards. Cool.” Carefully, I stepped back towards the edge until my heels were hanging off of the platform. At this point, I was breathing heavily. I might have even blacked out a little if we’re being completely honest. I heard someone tell me to smile for a picture, but I could not form my facial muscles into a smile, no matter how hard I tried. “3, 2, 1,” I heard. I bent my knees, squeezed my eyes shut, and let myself fall backwards into a three or four second free-fall while screaming the whole way down. Finally, I felt the rope catch and opened my eyes to see myself swinging right above the beautiful valley floor. The mist from the waterfall blew onto my face as I took in the whole experience. I could have swung there for hours.

When it was time for me to unharness, I was honestly a little sad that my time on The Big Swing was over, but I was also so grateful for this once in a lifetime experience. Overall, the stress and build-up of The Big Swing was so worth it, and I am so glad that I made myself face my fear of heights.

Categories: 2019 Trip

We had been told before the start of the trip that if we wanted to participate in this “big swing” that we would need to save some money for it. And that was all we were told really. I had a friend who went on the trip last year and had posted a video of the swing, so I knew what to expect. And I was EXCITED.

We were told that we would do the swing several days into the trip, and while talking to some of the other girls, I heard that they were glad to have some notice to mentally prepare themselves for it. But I was ready. If we had gotten off of the plane and they told us first thing that we were going straight to the swing, I would have been down. So, when we found out earlier than planned that we were going to the swing, I was up and ready. We drove for a while to get there, going up and up into the mountains. The plan was to go to the viewing area first, I guess to get a glimpse of what it would be like to fall, but everyone would have had to pay so we went straight to the swing area. We all got in line to pay for our choice of adrenaline, and I chose to do the zip line and the swing. You could see the anticipation and fear on everyone’s faces. I buddied up with Jacy for the swing and we decided we wanted to zip line first. I wanted the swing to be the last thing I did, and I didn’t want the zip line to be a letdown after the swing. We geared up in our straps, handed off our phones and cameras for pictures, and went for the zip line first. I tried to get as big of a running start as I could because I wanted to move fast on the line. I wish I had brought my phone or camera with me because the view straight down the valley was so beautiful. I though it was slow moving, but still fun to be so high up. After Jacy and I both finished on the zip line, we had to wait our turn for the big swing. We watched all of our friends go, taking pictures and videos for them, then got on the platform when our turn was approaching. Jacy was nervous but excited to get it over with, and I just wanted it to be our turn already because I wanted to feel the weightlessness of falling. When it was finally our turn, we were clipped to the platform then walked to the edge. The man instructed us on what to do and what not to do but I was barely listening because I just wanted to do it already. We backed out feet up to the edge with our heels hanging off, bent our knees, and fell.

 

 

And then I did it again.

 

Whitney

 

Categories: Uncategorized

So today my journey comes to an end. With sore muscles from the hike, I packed my bags into Sifiso’s van and set for Johannesburg. To commemorate our stay at Bulembu, several people decided to have an impromptu ring dunk with milkshakes before getting into the vans. This was fitting because it ended our stay at Bulembu with a sort of high-note. Morale was legitimately high and we soon hit the road. Halfway through we stopped at the shopping mall where I had bought my uno deck for our more primitive times in Shewula. I was happy to revisit the mall because it not only let me have Nando’s one last time, but it brought our trip full circle. If I remember correctly, we visited the mall closer to the beginning of our trip after leaving the Rivonia. Nonetheless, I’m going to miss the extravagant colors and character of South Africa.

When we arrived at the Johannesburg airport we said our goodbyes to Sifiso and Wawa and the mood became incredibly sad. I loved every aspect of our time here and it pushed all of our comfort zones and brought a greater appreciation to things that are unfamiliar to us. I am now on the flight returning to Houston. Although I am ready to return, I can’t help but wish there was more time and I hope that I’m not the same person as when I left. I will miss it here.

Categories: Uncategorized

Never in my have I tried so many new things and experienced so many adventures. The trip was transformational for me and if I had the opportunity to go again, I would. In reflecting the experiences I had, I most miss the vibrant colors, cool sunrises, and profound cultures that are so different from my own. Everywhere I went there was life.  I remember that when we first arrived in Johannesburg, I was shocked because the landscape was all a bright green color and the city seemed to house a lush forest inside of it. Everywhere music was playing and I got the feeling that authenticity and self expression were very important. South Africa is a country that was plagued by apartheid, and it felt that after so many years of political suppression, people finally felt free.

Right now I’m looking back at over 1000 pictures that I took on my phone, and I wish I could’ve spent more time there. There was a moment where we had traveled all day and had arrived in our new home for the next 3 days. The place we had ended up as was called Shewula, and I distinctly remember that when we arrived everyone went to the edge of a nearby cliff and watched the sunset in the distance. The sunset reached every portion of the surrounding valley and our group of 32 people was finally still and calm. The trip was full of excitement, but moments like that made it worthwhile.

Now that I’ve started a new semester, I find myself thinking about the little moments and missing our trip severely. The friends I made on that short time was well worth it and I will continue to think about my first trip out of the country. What an adventure.

Categories: Uncategorized

While in Africa, I got the opportunity to do something that I have wanted to do since I was a three year old at the circus for the first time. I got to ride an Elephant! Going into the encounter, my expectations weren’t nearly as high as they should have been. We walked over to the stable area and already, there were six enormous and gorgeous elephants lined up. They performed all these movements, listening to the few simple words of the trainer, and it was amazing to see how smart and gentle they were.

It got real, when the trainer brought over one of the larger elephants, and we got the chance to interact with him. We fed him, and hugged his leg, and then the trainer had him lay down so we could see, up close, how powerful the animals were. After that, they brought over the largest elephant they have on site, Timbo. Even though he was massive, he moved so smoothly and almost had a royalty about him. I’m pretty sure my jaw was on the floor the entire time we were interacting with him.

Finally, came the best news I had heard all day… we got to ride them. The four biggest guys decided they would hop on Timbo (I saw hop, but it was more like climbing and crawling than anything), and Gracie and I got to ride on named Zizifas. It wasn’t the most comfortable of positions, or the smoothest of rides, but my mind didn’t dwell on either of those things for long. I was expecting us to walk in a circle a few times, maybe take a lap around the stables, but instead, we started down a hill and onto a trail I hadn’t even noticed before. We rode for about 20 minutes around the beautiful property. As we came down by a river, we realized that Hippo Hollow, where we were staying, was just on the other side of it. We asked our guide if the elephants and hippos ever bothered each other being so close together, but he said no because the hippos were too afraid to come anywhere near the elephants. as we climbed hills and swerved around trees, our ride finally came full circle and we made it back to the stables. Gracie and I got to feed our elephant and thank our guide for such an amazing time before having to leave. I walked away from this experience with such a deep love for these creatures, and the animals in Africa in general. They are so elegant, but also so resilient and strong and they deserve to be respected and protected by us. There was something special about getting to interact with them in Africa, even if they are in a sanctuary and not running wild. The thought of seeing them in an auditorium in America where they have been defiled and decorated and made to do stupid things like paint a picture and do handstands, makes me sick after getting to see them and interact with them here in their home.

Categories: 2019 Trip

On one of our first days in Africa, we visited the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. The site is home to the earliest known fossils of humans, and is believed to be the site where all of humanity originated. I had a little bit of background going in, but not much, and it was an incredible experience to be able to be in the physical location where humanity began.  It was particularly powerful to reflect on how each and every one of us shares a common origin, and to see that origin firsthand.

The very next day, we visited the Apartheid Museum. The whole museum was very solemn and profound. One thing that really struck me was how recent this was- many similar oppressions that I am familiar with, such as American slavery or the Holocaust, are less recent, so I think it’s almost easier to distance myself from those as being in the “past.” I was very moved by individuals’ personal stories and found myself reflecting quite a bit on the human condition and the nature of humanity as a whole. Looking at history, the human timeline is filled with many unique events yet similar themes that repeat again and again. Superiority, oppression, resistance, conflict, freedom, values- we say things like ‘we’ve learned from the past’ and ‘never again,’ but have we truly if history continues to repeat itself?

The disunity illustrated at the Apartheid Museum was a stark contrast from the sense of unity present the day before at the Cradle of Humankind. We all came from the same place, and yet humanity seems to try to forget that at every opportunity it gets. I also thought quite a bit about the value of every single individual- more famous individuals like Nelson Mandela- but also all of the lesser known individuals who stood for what they believed to be right in small ways. It reminds me a bit of one of my favorite quotes- “do small things with great love.” I don’t know what the solution is- how we can truly break the cycle of oppression- but I do believe we each have an opportunity to live in a spirit of peace and acceptance and unity, in whatever ways (big or small) are possible for us.

Categories: Uncategorized

While writing notes throughout the day each day, I made a list of observations and things that I learned from the people we met. These are a few of the things I noticed that were similar or different between South Africa and America.

Johannesburg felt a lot like America. While driving through the city, almost all of the billboards were in English. And they had the billboards up everywhere. For a while it seemed that any available space had an advertisement on it. There were many western establishments, most notably, KFC. And the rhino rest stop we stopped at twice was like the South African equivalent of a Buc-ee’s: gas, food, and shopping. I noticed that some of the homeless people carried around a cardboard sign that said “God bless you. Need money for ____” and would walk between the cars at the stoplight, just like they do in San Antonio, where I’m from.

But, there were also things that we saw that were definitely different. While they did have cows in more rural areas, they also had cows wandering around in towns around areas with housing. There were also more goats around, especially when we passed large piles of trash along the road. Women walking on the side of the road really did carry items on their heads. I had only ever seen pictures of women carrying jugs of water on their heads in very traditional villages, but the women in South Africa, even in cities, would carry their bags or boxes on top of their heads. Also, people walked everywhere. Even when we were driving down long stretches of road with nothing on either side, there were people walking on the side of the road. I know it’s because they probably don’t have another means of transportation and they have to do what they must to feed their families and get to work, but they must walk miles and miles every day, and that’s baffling to me. And in other terms of transportation, it was interesting that instead of buses (with the exception of bigger cities) they rode around in shared vans. Each van was packed with people, all carrying their belongings in their laps. And another thing I noticed was the driving. The quality of the roads weren’t always great, but the drivers were accommodating to others around them. If the car in front of us was going slower, they would simply move aside to let us pass. And if there was a pothole in the road, drivers on the other side of the road would move aside to allow us to enter their lane to avoid the potholes. In America, people generally stay in their lanes and are too stubborn to let people pass them on a single-lane road.

Swaziland was more like how I expected Africa to be, and had less in common with America than South Africa did. I didn’t write down as many notes for the differences, although many of the differences I noticed for South Africa also apply to Swaziland. But, something I did want to note was how happy the people were. They seem to be so content with their lives, and are happy with what we consider to be so little. The children we passed in Shewula, as well as the kids in Bulembu, were filled with so much joy. Any time we passed a child in Shewula, they would jump up and down and smile and wave at us. And the Bulembu kids were so grateful for the smallest things. When we ate dinner with some of the kids, and they were given donuts, the two boys I sat with didn’t eat their donuts immediately, which surprised me. I would have expected boys their age to gobble them down immediately, but they waited, almost as if they were saving them to enjoy them longer.

There were many more things in common and different between America and Southern Africa, but these were just a few things that stood out to me.

 

Whitney

Categories: Uncategorized

Little did I know how much of a catch-all this phrase would become during our time in Africa. Whether it be something going not quite according to plan, seeing something incredible (hello hippo ten feet from our dinner table), or motivation to try something new, I found myself uttering this phrase quite often.

 

This was truly a once in a lifetime trip and I wanted to be sure to take full advantage of every opportunity I had while on it, so I made it my personal goal to say “yes” to everything. My mindset was very much one of “better an oops than a what if.”

 

The first time this really challenged me was on our way to Hippo Hollow, at the Sudwala Caves. After touring the caves, we had about an hour to check out the gift shop, lookouts, and spa there. A group of us decided to get fish pedicures (!). I was definitely a little freaked out by the prospect of this and was hesitant to agree at first, but like I promised myself, “it’s Africa.” We bought our tickets and walked up to the spa. It was an open-air pool on top of the mountain, overlooking the entire valley below- the view was breathtaking. I cautiously put my feet in and the fish began approaching me. I am very ticklish and it felt SO weird, so I spent much of the time laughing. I don’t know if it’s something I’d ever say yes to normally or do again, but I’m so glad I said yes to that.

 

Another “it’s Africa” moment for me was The Big Swing. It was definitely hyped up in all of the pre-trip meetings and by everyone I’d talked to. I’m terrified of heights, but I told myself from the very beginning that I would for sure do The Big Swing. On the day of The Big Swing, the tension in the van on the way was palpable. I was nervous, but committed. I partnered up with Ethan, who was more anxious than me- until we were next up and got on the platform and I was freaking out. Standing with my heels hanging over the edge was one of the more terrifying things I think I’ve ever done. In what was probably just a couple of seconds but felt like eternity, we slowly squatted and leaned back. Then we fell. I tried to keep my eyes open for the fall, but was only able to open them after the initial swing. The fall literally took my breath away and my heart was pounding, but the adrenaline gave me such a rush. After we reached the bottom, I remarked that I was so glad I did it, but it was definitely a once in a lifetime experience, because I’ll never do it again.

 

There were many opportunities to say “yes” to new experiences throughout this trip, and many times that “yes” pushed me well beyond my comfort zone. But saying “yes” allowed me to have many once in a lifetime experiences, and I’m so glad I did. After all, “it’s Africa.”

Categories: Uncategorized

One of the funniest moments on the trip for me occurred when we went to ride the elephants. We drove right down the road from where we were staying at Hippo Hollow to a place called Elephant Whispers. When we first got there, we had to sign our names on a waiver-type sheet at the front. There was a woman who worked for the organization standing behind the table telling us where to sign and what to do. Right to the right was an office type hallway. In this hallway, there was a dog laying on the ground next to the entrance. It was a cute dog, but it was also really strange looking. It was large, similar to a large labrador. However, its neck resembled something like a bulldog and had lots of fat rolls. The color was a dark yellow color, almost like a dirty blonde. I had never seen a dog like this in my life. I really wanted to know what breed it was, so I asked the woman what type of dog it was. To which she replied, “it’s a poodle”. “A poodle?”, I asked back, assuming she must have been mistaken. “Yes, a poodle,” she said. I have seen a poodle, and I know that a poodle looks like, and I can assure you that this dog was not a poodle (see photo below). I ended up telling the other people who were at Elephant Whispers with me what the woman had told me about the dog and we got to laugh about it a lot. We told the group going the next day to look out for the dog and ask the same question, but unfortunately the dog wasn’t there. As the trip went along, the poodle dog became a big joke, leading us to jokingly wonder if they had a dog breed called an “African Poodle” that the dog actually was. If the group from next year is reading this, please ask the staff at Elephant Whispers what breed the dog is if you see it. I’m still curious.

African Poodle

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