This year marks 10 years since I stepped aboard my first Virgin Airlines flight and crossed the Atlantic for a 3 month semester in London. Memories are flooding in of who I was and who I’ve become as I return to London at the end of 2012 to celebrate the holidays with my cousin and his family.
Wait, you have a cousin in London?
Yup, and the story gets more interesting but give me a moment.
I spent the first two days back in London town roaming the streets with new friends, strolling along the Thames and enjoying the landmarks that left an impression on me a decade ago. I was 18 and a few weeks shy of my 19th birthday, which to this day, I still remember what I was wearing and the alternative and hip underground bar my friend Nicole and I found ourselves in, in Camden Town. It would be 3 month’s filled with firsts- first time away from home, first time flying by myself, first time in Europe, first time staying in a hostel, first time traveling with friends and planning how to get from point A to B, first time learning what a gap year was (taking a year off between high school and university and traveling) and I wanted to do it too, and first time meeting my Chilean family.
I don’t remember having many expectations but I found comfort knowing I would be staying with an English host family and living in a country that spoke the same language. Well, almost the same language, as I quickly learned the various expressions, words and different spellings (for example: I promise you, lorry/truck, Pist/drunk, cupboard/closet, colour/color) of British English. Who knew? And yes, ten years later, I’m still snickering at the various differences and discreetly writing down expressions and words that you’ll later hear snuck into my vocabulary.
I call it a language souvenir…
I researched the details of the program sponsored through my junior college and eagerly told my mom the possibilities who was supportive of my decision- as long as I figured out how to pay for it. I was a bit surprised when I told my father, whose immediate response was, “Are you asking me or are you telling me?” Taken aback by his lack of enthusiasm and encouragement, I responded, “Well, I guess I’m telling you.” He wasn’t too happy with me but at 18 years old, I didn’t think I really needed to ask him. In fact, it hadn’t occurred to me as something I needed to receive permission for, especially since I was going to find a way to fund a semester away. A semester abroad was what I wanted to do and I was going to see my plan through.
My time in London would have a significant impact on the direction of my life considering I was only a year into university. It was the first time I had been on my own and away from my family, except for when I went away to camp with my 5th grade class. London gave me a thirst, a hunger and an itch for travel. It was while here I realized there was “a whole another world out there” and I didn’t need to follow the conventional path of the American dream (university, great job, find a spouse, buy a house, settle down, have kids, and enjoy your very short 2 week vacation).
As I walk through Picadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square, faint memories roll in of my time here. Ideas I had of what I wanted to study in university to the shattering of all that I had been trained to think. The world was truly at my fingertips and it was London that provided the insight. Despite returning to London a a handful of times to visit my cousin, often en route to other destinations, this time around I added a few days to wander in London before I spend most of my week in the South of England where my cousin’s wife’s mum and dad live.
First time meeting another side of my family (2002):
I remember when my dad told me a month before my departure that I had a Chilean cousin living in London. He encouraged me to get in touch with him and despite being apprehensive and very shy, I emailed him and soon after met for the first time. Turns out, he was living in London after meeting a charming English gal, who was taught English for a year in Chile. (And now, I’m celebrating Christmas with her family ten years later). On one of my weekend visits, we surprised his sister Sophie, aunt and uncle from Chile, who had no idea I was living in England. It was such an incredible experience to meet family whom I never really knew existed. We communicated a little and played a lot of charades, despite having studied Spanish for 5 years with a 2 year break, I found communicating difficult with my lack of speaking skills and their lack of English.
I remember one sunny Fall day, my Chilean family and my cousin’s girlfriends’ family all packed into two cars and drove to Hampton Court Palace. While in the parking lot taking family photos, a happy feeling came over me that I would and could go to Africa. I wasn’t sure how but I felt I had the confidence- from traveling solo to get to London and meeting family I didn’t know I would be meeting only a month before, I just knew it was all possible. It was going to happen.
Going to Chile (2003)
A year later in November 2003, I bought a return ticket for a 6 week stay to visit my Chilean family. I’m quite sure if I hadn’t gone to London the year prior and hadn’t meet them, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable to hop on a plane solo. I had a great time meeting more of my family, practicing speaking Spanish (which was harder than I thought but now realize after living in Andalucia that Chileans have a very distinct accent that is hard to understand, just like Andalucians). No wonder I couldn’t understand, they don’t pronounce the words or as they say, Comen las palabras.
Taking off to Africa (2005):
In the summer of 2005, I took off to South Africa for the first time for a 5 week stay with 4 weeks volunteering at a woman’s shelter. Everything just fell into place, from finding my volunteer placement, which I barely researched but went with the only one I applied to and was accepted to, to traveling for a week after my placement ended. It was one of those moments, where I knew I wanted to go to Africa but didn’t exactly know where to start or how to research, despite having the internet at my finger tips. When I added the extra week to my stay, I felt nervous and excited having no idea how South Africa would be but assumed I’d figure something out. And figure something out I did, I booked myself a 3 day Safari in Kruger National Park and flew to Jo’burg. Somewhere between feeling brave enough to add a week of travel in a country I had never been too and meeting other travels on my safari, when I hopped on the plane back to the USA, I knew I was coming back to Africa. It was only a matter of time. I wanted to explore from East to South Africa. I went home and landed an awesome gig as a nanny, finished my degree and 2 years later, I had saved up enough money to roam in Africa for an undefined amount of time, which became 9 months and 9 countries later.
Backpacking East to South Africa ( 2007-08)
This is when I began this blog to document my travels and expereinces but more importantly, to let my family and friends know I was ok. I had no idea how long I would be gone but soon realized, call me naive, that most travelers don’t just touch down in Africa with out a set itinerary. Let’s just say, meeting fellow backpackers didn’t happen as frequently as I assumed but am so grateful I continued on and completed my goal; my dream to travel from East Africa to Cape town, South Africa even when I thought of throwing in the towel a few times.
Getting involved in Food Education (2008-2011)
While traveling in South Africa for 3 months,North to the South hugging the Eastern coast, I noticed the not-so-great quality of the produce in supermarket shelves, which was a bit strange since South Africa has a great climate for farming. This is where and when my wheels started spinning and I became curious about politics, economics and the un-balance of growing food in one part of the world and shipping it to another. Why was produce from South Africa cheaper in Mozambique than in South Africa? And why was the quality 2nd best? I’d return home, with a thirst for knowledge and a curiosity of how I could make a difference. All the while, my main goal when I returned home was to find a sustainable lodge/hostel like I had experienced at Bulungula lodge in the heart of the wild coast where we relied on solar power, “rocket showers” and compost toilets. I wanted to learn how to live sustainably and wanted to have a job that would teach me. As it turned out, after months of scouring the internet, I couldn’t find anything similar in California and soon started focusing on volunteering on farms. When I didn’t receive responses to the numerous applications I sent in, I focused on my own community, volunteered at a school garden and a university community garden. Slowly but surely, job opportunities in Food Education came and I was happy as a clam to work in a new field without prior experience, all the while learning lots on the job.
But when both jobs came to an end, I found myself ready for a change of pace, and an opportunity to leap for my next dream:
Living in Spain.
And you all know this part of the story.
It’s amazing how my semester abroad has influenced and guided me in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Sometimes, I wonder, if I hadn’t spent time in Africa, would I have become as curious as I am now about food and where it comes from? Would I have discovered this passion of mine? Who knows. Clearly this is the path, I have been meant to take and I’m grateful I’ve followed through on my dreams.
As I reflect on the last ten years, I can only hope for another amazing ten years of spontaneity, synchronicity, adventure and the unexpected. Because if you were to ask me, where do you see yourself in five or ten years, I’d stare at you blankly and then say,