The wonder of wanderlust

The one question I never have to think about before I answer is, “What are you passionate about?” Easy, travel! I have been fortunate enough to see numerous countries, savour their titillating flavours and experience cultures that have left me humbled.

I was born in Poland and before the age of ten my family moved to South Africa. Talk about a culture shock. Prior to that, the only African person I had been exposed to, was an African boy from a poem that we were taught. A little African boy, who lived in a hut and wore a loin cloth. Imagine my surprise when one of my class mates was not only a fully clothed black boy, but his home was the furthest construction from a mud hut I had seen. At the young age that I was back then, I didn’t realise how that encounter would stimulate my cultural curiosity.

When I was a kid our family holidays weren’t the glamorous, jumping onto an airplane kind of holidays. They were the local, drivable distance kind of holidays. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated every single one of those getaways, and perhaps, at the age that I was, I probably wouldn’t have appreciated the extravagant trips. As a kid, a beach was a beach, and the joy that I got from being tumbled onto a beach by a wave, with a pit worth of sand in my swimming costume, would have been the same locally as abroad. And back then, the only time I remember getting onto a plane was to go back to my home country for my granddad’s funeral.

Years passed, and as a varsity student, I got the opportunity to travel back to my home country with my parents. Not for a funeral, or a wedding, but as a tourist to explore the country I was born in. From that trip, what stood out for me the most, were the two days I spent in Krakow, more specifically the outing to a salt mine. I had studied history in high school, WW2 and Poland’s involvement in it featured extensively in my text books. But the stories, and surely, sometimes fables (I’m fairly certain that the world won’t cease to exist when the Krakow dragon’s bones fall to the ground, in fact, I’m fairly certain that there are no dragon bones.) have taught me more than textbooks ever could. The stories that the locals were so willing to share, stuck in my mind far longer than the paragraphs of my high school textbooks. Going down into the salt mine as a tourist on a guided tour, I had no idea what to expect. I looked around in wander at the salt walls, even tasted them to make sure that it really was salt, I listened, captivated by the stories. The story that stuck with me to this day was one of miners in a rowing boat in the mine. The water they were rowing through wasn’t deep, and it was a daily routine for them. Except on that day, the boat tipped over. You would expect this story to have a happy ending. They weren’t caught in the middle of a furious storm in the Pacific Ocean, they were barely shoulder deep in water, easy to swim out of, assumingly. Except the mine water is so salty that they were unable to swim under the capsized boat, and due the boat’s weight they weren’t able to lift it off of them and they suffocated. Over a decade later, and this story still remains with me.

At the age of 24, thanks to my amazing sister, I got the opportunity to travel to London and Italy. This was my first visit to a country I wasn’t born in and when the wheels of the plane hit the tarmac, I was ready to start exploring. London was everything that I expected it to be. It was busy, bright and exciting, and best of all I got to experience it with my sister. We crammed our days with as much sightseeing as was possible to fit into the three days that we were there. From posing with wax figurines, to exploring the Crown Jewels and even confusing the Big Ben for another clock tower, we felt engrossed in all the experiences that London had to offer. Even the windy rain that blew our umbrella upside down and the local fish and chips, washed down with a very British pint. We met locals, and realized that some of the “locals” were more foreign than we were. This hybrid city, as we were about to learn, was the polar opposite of the cities we were going to.

Anna Akhmatova said that Italy is a dream that keeps returning for the rest of your life. It has been a decade since I visited Italy, and it seems as it was yesterday. I can still picture the mozzarella bubbling on the freshly made pizza and smell the napolitana sauce that had been cooked from tomatoes picked off the vine earlier that morning. Italy not only managed to feed my soul, but it fed my tummy pretty well too. The pizzas, the pastas, the midnight snack cannolis that we drove for over 30 minutes to try, and my favourite memory. The home made limoncello, which after one tasting left me with a slight headache. Yes, Italy definitely fed my tummy and my love for authentic Mediterranean food. Having studied Latin in high school and the Roman way of life, I was inquisitive not only about the food, but also about the history of Italy and the modern way of living. As we were lucky enough to stay with family in one of the cities, I was blessed to be able to experience both.

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We started in Rome and spent the day exploring the sights and little alleys. It seemed as though we walked for days in that one afternoon. We walked so much, that when we got to the Spanish steps I happily stopped half way and decided to wait for everyone else to return from summiting the top. In those hours of walking, we found the Trevi fountain, and as expected I threw my coin in, closed my eyes and made my wish. Do wishes made at the Trevi fountain come true? When my knight in shining armour arrives on his black stallion and rides off into the sunset with me, you’ll probably get to read about it in a follow up article.

As magnificent as Trevi fountain was, it did not compare to the grandeur of the Colosseum. I read the stories about the brave gladiators fighting for the entertainment of the public. Of how the Emperor decided the fate of the men who fought for their lives in the arena. Walking through the passages of the Colosseum, and wandering the corridors, I almost expected the ghosts of the past to come alive and tell their stories. Standing in the arena, I couldn’t help but think of the number of men who had lost their lives for the entertainment of the masses. No lecture and no book could have conveyed the feeling that I had standing right there.

It was the same feeling I experienced when walking through the streets of Pompeii, the city that was covered in a sheet of ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79AD. Clay pots, shelves and the villa baths still well preserved after thousands of years since that fateful eruption. Some of the rooms still had the ash covered and hardened remains of the men, women and children who had perished on that day, their stories told through what was left behind. I was engrossed in those stories as I walked through the streets and discovered the city of Pompeii.

With all the history that Italy has, its daily family life is just as thrilling. We experienced the daily siestas where families come together to lunch and talk. And talking is done as much with the hands as it is with words. A wedding was also on our agenda, and we were caught amidst all the prepping and the fussing, and finally the reception. It was an amazing experience that I was grateful to be a part of. I was engrossed in every moment and left Italy feeling content.

During that time I was lucky enough to be employed by a company which had a strong presence in Africa, and my job required me to travel to the countries in which they operated. I was finally getting to explore the content that I call home. Botswana, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe were all the countries that I had the privilege of visiting. Travelling for work doesn’t allow much time for sight-seeing, but it does offer the opportunity of daily interactions with the people who live there. What struck me the most about these visits were the locals and their positive outlook on Africa’s and their respective country’s future. They weren’t blind to the problems their countries were experiencing. They were aware of the political factors and the impact it had on the economy, but they managed to look beyond that and see the beauty in the places they grew up in. These were internationally educated individuals who had travelled the world and they refused to allow the current situation in their countries to set a negative perspective of the future for them. This is what I find inspiring about the African continent, the people. The people who refuse to give up, and even in the toughest of times have something positive to say.

My mid and late twenties were the years of exploring for me. I was single, had few responsibilities and the obvious choice for me was to throw caution into the wind, pack my suitcase and go on more adventures. I was lucky enough to have friends who lived overseas and who were more than happy to have me stay with them.

June 2009 saw me heading back to Europe. I stayed in London and ventured to places I had not experienced on my first trip. The Royal Ascot was my favourite experience. Getting dressed up in a fancy dress and placing an oversized fascinator in my hair was as exhilarating as the experience of jumping up and down on the side of the race track, shouting at my horse of choice to win. This was only surpassed by seeing the Queen of England drive past in her carriage waving to the excited crowd.

Every trip has some let downs, and for me the low light was my visit to the Stonehenge. This could be due to the expectations I had created for myself or simply the lack of research. I had always envisioned the Stonehenge to be in a clearing of a forest. I imagined taking a long walk through a forest that had an enchanting air around it. The reality was nothing like that. The tour bus parked in a parking lot that was spilling over with cars, we crossed the busy road, and there it was. The Stonehenge. Perhaps the magic of the experience was diminished by my overactive imagination.

During that trip I decided to visit Ireland. I didn’t want to see another big city, but wanted to experience the country side and decided to stay in the town of Cork. I wanted the experience to be as authentic as possible and booked a room over a family owned pub. The place was charming and the owners welcoming, but as comfortable as the bed was I struggled to get a restful night’s sleep. What I hadn’t realized was that the charming pub was next door to a cemetery, so when I eventually managed to get some shut-eye, the nightmares I had could be used as material for a horror story. Even though I was sleep deprived, I loved the two days I spent in Cork. I got to meet the locals, hear the stories of how they grew up and taste the best of the local food and drink. I even took a walk over to Blarney Castle and kissed the Blarney Stone. Legend says that kissing the stone bestows the “gift of the gab” on the kisser, and this is a legend that I think may be very true.

I wanted to make every day of that trip count, and on the spur of the moment I booked the Eurostar and headed out to Paris. As I boarded the train I met two wonderful American girls, and we decided to stick together for the rest of the tour. We explored Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and took a cruise on the Seine River. We saw all the historical sights possible in one day, and indulged in fresh baguettes whilst sipping champagne and exchanging stories about ourselves. We didn’t get to socialize with the locals, but we got to know each other and each other’s cultures. It was a very special trip and I made two wonderful friends with whom I kept in touch for many years after that.

I left Europe with a heavy heart, but was filled with excitement as I was about to see one of my best friends in Dubai. It was the first time I was travelling there and had no idea what to expect. I can only describe Dubai as lavish. And humid, it’s definitely very humid. I spent two days there, and felt absolutely overwhelmed. The high rise buildings, the extravagant cars, the conservatively dressed women wearing shoes and handbags that cost more than my entire holiday. Dubai oozed luxury and it was an experience that I won’t forget. I felt truly grateful to be able to visit this incredible country and experience a culture that is so different from my own.

I took a break from travelling for a couple of years. I got married, had a baby, and went through a divorce. These events didn’t allow for travelling, I had different priorities to focus on. My love for travel didn’t disappear, and when an opportunity presented itself for a job that would require some travel, I jumped at the opportunity.

Singapore and Australia were the two countries I visited first. The best part was that I was travelling with my colleagues and we got to experience the new places together. Singapore is probably the cleanest city I had ever seen. It has majestic views, and the best crab I have ever tasted. Much to the dismay of my travel companions, I even found a 24 hour shopping centre, which meant they were shopping with me until the early hours of the morning. In order to make up for my complete loss of timing, I thought it would only be fair to take my colleagues for a drink, especially as we were leaving the next day. I found a place that was opened, we were welcomed through the front door by a very friendly gentlemen. We stood at the entrance to the curtained off section, and realized that I was the only lady there not wearing a number. We were uncertain of how to react, and eventually blamed the lack of wine on their menu for our hasty retreat. Although this happened nearly two years ago, it is a story that we still laugh about.

When we were in Australia, I had a feeling of a home away from home. In all the countries that I had visited, Australia, more specifically Melbourne had the most likeness to Johannesburg. We loved walking the streets in the evenings, and loved seeing the view from the Eureka tower. It was the magnificent view I had seen thus far.

My last trip for work was to the beautiful city of Tokyo. The Japanese culture is so respectful and humble and their work ethic is like none other I have seen, it was awe-inspiring to witness. The sad part of that work ethic is the amount of elderly folks we saw working late into the night. It’s common knowledge that Japan has an aging population, but seeing a lady who was old enough to be my granny working late at night in the convenience store made the theory I knew real. We also found the Japanese to be extremely helpful, whenever we got lost, anyone we asked was willing to give directions and try assist us. Sometimes we weren’t sure that they understood us, this was usually after we walked around the same building for the third time, but no one ever said they couldn’t help us. Tokyo is an incredible city with so much more to see, and I hope to return again to experience more of it.

I have learned so much about different cultures and countries through my travels. I believe that it has allowed me to appreciate the differences in cultures and religions, rather than dismiss them. I cannot wait to see more of this incredible world and go on more adventures. To anyone who is thinking of travelling, I would say do it. Embrace it and experience everything that your chosen destination has to offer, you may learn more than you ever expected to.

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