I have had the travel itch for some time now and I don't think it's going anywhere! I actually have created a bucket list for myself of things I want to do in my life, and it mostly consists of travel and the various places and things I want to see around the world. I see travel as a unique and powerful way to broaden your horizons and your perspective, to grow and learn from others, to understand just how much difference and diversity exists in the world, and to celebrate that fact--something I feel is especially important these days.
Why did you choose Discover Corps?
This is my second trip with Discover Corps and I had such a positive experience with the first one that as soon as I got home I was researching my next trip with them! Everything runs smoothly and is organized; they are very responsive to questions/concerns leading up to the trip, and they put together a schedule that I feel is a good balance of volunteerism and tourism.
What was your favorite part about South Africa?
I must say the breathtaking beauty of South Africa; it truly overwhelms you to stand and look into one of their largest canyons from a spot they call "God's Eye" (for a reason!). I also appreciated the unique beauty of the bush. I had no idea what to expect, but we spent quite a bit of time in it on our game drives. There is a haunting, ethereal quality to it, with these incredible twisted and tortured looking trees (I was probably the only one in our group taking so many photos of trees--they fascinated me!) and it feels wild, like this is animals' territory and we are merely guests. That was a pretty amazing feeling.
What made your experience abroad unique?
I noticed that in the area we were in there were a lot of more commercial lodges that provided much larger game drives. Our lodge was small and very intimate feeling, and our guide, Conrad, was incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about his work. We got the unique opportunity to continue a conversation about conservation that perhaps came up on the game drive over dinner that evening, which was pretty awesome and not something I imagine happens at the larger lodges. Our game drives consisted of him, the five of us, and sometimes a family of Danes that were also staying at Rukiya for part of the time we were (and who we made friends with).
I give major props to Discover Corps for finding Rukiya and selecting it for this trip. I feel it was a true gift that we got to experience South Africa with them, and not some large, commercial venture. I actually felt bad for the other tourists we would pass by on game drives knowing that we were getting a superior experience!
How did the Discover Corps’ staff support you throughout your program?
Our host and hostess, Conrad and Lilly, could not have been more attentive to our needs. They were just lovely, interesting people to get to know as well! Mike was our "babysitter" at the beginning and end of the trip, picking us up at the airport and doing the big drive through Kruger National Park with us before getting us to the airport the next day. He was great as well, extremely friendly and full of useful and interesting information about his country. His wife was also with us in the last two days and she was lovely. Prior to the trip, Alex from Discover Corps was very responsive and friendly, and very patient with my many emails asking questions!
What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?
I would have chosen a different accommodation for our last night there, which was another lodge, and so clearly inferior to Rukiya (where we spent the rest of the trip). That in itself was a let-down, plus I had a couple visitors in my room (bugs) and it felt a tad sketchy.
Describe a typical day in the life of your program.
We usually did a game drive very early in the morning, before it got too hot. We'd then come back for breakfast, and have some down time (often to take advantage of Rukiya's wonderful infinity pool!), then lunch, and after perhaps a lecture by Lily or Conrad on conservation, poaching, or the history of South Africa.
In the evening, we would do another game drive. We also did a bush walk with Conrad and learnt about local plant life, visits to a daycare and center for at-risk youth, and volunteered at a couple of conservation-themed nonprofits. The game drive in Kruger Park was by far the most spectacular, in terms of seeing animals. Every day was actually quite different, which I liked.
What did you enjoy doing in your free time?
Sitting by the pool doing work. Unfortunately I had to bring work with me, but what better place to do it than by the infinity pool, with a view of the African bush, knowing that perhaps a hippo or elephant could wander by at any moment, sipping on a cold beer?
What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?
Our accommodations were what I like to call "fancy tents," because they were NOT what you think of when you think of typical tents; our tents were made of canvas (or something similar) with plenty of screens for bug protection, and very simply but elegantly furnished (the whole lodge was, with hand-crafted gorgeous wooden furniture) and had a very comfy bed! I was concerned about sleeping in the heat (we were there in their summer), but the fan plus a nice breeze made for a good night's sleep every night (not to mention you were pretty tired at the end of every busy day!).
What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?
Make sure you come with a great camera/phone camera, because you will be taking A LOT of photos! And if you go in the summer (our winter), be prepared for some pretty intense heat. Pack light, loose, comfortable clothing and good shoes for walking, and I highly recommend a fan if you are sensitive to the heat like me. I brought two old-fashioned Chinese fans and Kate, an 11 year-old in our group with her grandmother, borrowed one from me for the duration of the trip. Everyone acknowledged it was smart item to pack!
I would also recommend getting in the night before, something I did only because you need to arrive before 11 a.m. on the first day and to book flights getting in that morning was far more expensive than getting in the night before and paying for a hotel. It did not occur to me ahead of time, but after a 15 hour flight (I was coming from Florida) I was SO happy to take a shower and crash in my comfortable hotel room, and meet Mike to begin the trip refreshed the next day. Two other women in our group did that as well, staying at hotel right near the airport, and I am pretty sure they would agree with me. Kate and her grandmother arrived in the morning and faced a full day of sightseeing, and were simply exhausted by the end of the day.
Now that you're home, how has your time abroad impacted your life?
This trip has impacted my life quite a bit. I have considered applying for a Fulbright scholarship a couple times in my life, but for various reasons never did as I felt I wasn't ready. I came back from this trip with an excited determination to apply when I graduate (I'm currently in grad school) and I will be applying to go to South Africa. It is a country I felt a connection to, from our visits with the children, dancing and singing with them and hearing them say the English words they knew, beaming with pride, to learning the history of this fascinating country and discovering such interesting parallels with some of the challenges we face here in the U.S. I have a deep down feeling that I am meant to go back there, and this time to truly immerse myself in their culture.
Would you recommend Discover Corps to others? Why?
Absolutely! I cannot think of any reasons I would NOT recommend this trip. From hanging with the children to seeing the incredible wildlife to the education component of the trip, I think this trip contains something for everyone.
Emily is a native of New York City. She attended Bowdoin College for her undergraduate studies. Emily has worked at several youth-focused nonprofits, as well as Cleveland Play House, a large regional theater, and taught in Boston and New York City. She earned her master's degree in theatre education from Emerson College, and is now at Florida State University pursuing an master’s degree in arts administration and working at the Florida Center for Reading Research.