South African Dream: A Celebration of Cultural Identity

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many people need it sorely on these accounts.”

~Mark Twain

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On July 12, 2018, I journeyed to Cape Town, South Africa. After 21 hours of sustaining my stiff back on airplane seats, I finally arrived to a unique hemisphere of the world, one where Taxi drivers swooned over my strong, Latin accent. I’m sure Taxi drivers everywhere are intrigued by tourists because they come from different countries, but when I told my Zimbabwe native driver that I was from Puerto Rico, he immediately referred to my island as “the land of Despacito”. Never did I believe this song was popular enough to reach the African continent, a place that is built on music, dance, soul, and some of the most beautiful people I have ever seen. I must say that watching this taxi man bob his head to the beat of Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi’s record breaking song was one of the most mesmerizing experiences of my life. In that moment, I realized I was in for some very special weeks full of great adventures, fascinating people, and immense learning opportunities. Also, this trip served me as a reminder of how my cultural identity has tremendous value in every territory.

Initially I thought I was insane for wanting to travel this far from home by myself to do volunteer work at an elementary school. I wasn’t sure were my intuitions were leading me, but I knew I needed to go. I gathered some extraordinary lessons on what the world truly looks like, how we perceive it, and how human beings change when they are placed in the unknown. Once I settled into a travel house filled with more than 25 women, I noticed how fast I was changing because, prior to this, I wouldn’t have considered sharing one toilet with this many people! The next morning, I was hiking trails with the most stunning views ever created, which was most unlike me because I hate sweating. After this, I assumed my duties in a primary school full of children I thought would never gravitate towards me, because for some reason, I tend to repel kids. However, I soon concluded how wrong I was in all these accounts. By feeling out of place, I began to grow fond of this environment, I started to make connections with amazing people, and I kept exploring everything I was capable of.

When people ask for my name, I make a conscious effort to pronounce it in Spanish. This caused a huge stir among the second- graders I was teaching, because they could feel my foreign roots in the tone of my voice, in my accent, and in my approach. Aside from helping them practice their reading and writing in English, I wanted to show them where I come from. During recess, when everybody was playing outside, kids would gather around me, and I would teach them how to say their name, count, and sing in my vernacular. They would marvel at how pretty everything sounded in Spanish. I proceeded to explain that, just like them, I also live in a beautiful place, with impacting customs, enthralling speech, and irreplaceable people. We bonded over our differences and appreciated each other completely. They made it easy for me to learn about their culture as well. I would show them Google images of Puerto Rican beaches, and they would praise their national hero, Nelson Mandela, around me which was a great honor. They say children are the most innocent and sincere beings, and based on the love I received from them, I realized that the mind and spirit of a child must be left untainted so they don’t lose the desire to welcome and respect people from all walks of life.

A unique experience I had during my stay in Cape Town pertained to how open everyone was to sharing their history. Whenever I asked restaurant waiters, tour guides, cab drivers, and locals about Apartheid and other issues that are prominent in South Africa, I received candid insights. I was surprised to learn that Apartheid is a movement that disappeared in name, but is still deeply felt among citizens. This made me question the logic behind racism, which is a discriminating mentality that many won’t abandon. When I interact with people, I never think about the color of their skin. I don’t decide how worthy they are of respect and dignity based on what they look like. I try my best to treat everyone the same. When one of my tour guides mentioned that he had to sit in the back of the bus during the 1990’s (which is the decade I was born in), I was disappointed because I recognized that some people around us still believe this is how we should react towards each other. I also noticed some very divided areas. Although the law no longer says things need to be this way, it is understood that certain places are designated for the black population, and other areas are reserved for the white population. I would assume that in 2018 the idea of merging both races isn’t so shocking, but there is a lot of prejudice following this matter. However, in comparison to the extremes of Apartheid before Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa, there is more tolerance among people today. Ultimately human beings are not different from one another on the inside. Regardless of how we want to believe we are “better” than some groups because of appearances and positions, we all have the same red blood coursing through our veins!

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South Africans are blessed with their unbreakable spirits and joyous attitudes. Part of the reason why I enjoyed my adventures in Cape Town so much was because I had a strong group of people to keep me company. When I went on Safari for instance, I made some phenomenal memories with people I had recently met, but we had so much fun together that it seemed as though we had known each other for a lifetime. Now that I am on the subject of my Safari getaway, let me tell you that I witnessed some sights that I thought were only possible on Animal Planet. From walking with Elephants, seeing Lions rest in the African savannah, watching Giraffes munch on grass, looking at Zebras travel in herds, and having Rhinos walk around our Safari mobile, this excursion was perfect in every way. There was a brief moment where I felt emotional about everything I was being a part of. If somebody had told me a year ago that I was going to ride around the home of some of the world’s greatest species, I would have died laughing in disbelief! I suddenly became aware of how fortunate I was to be experiencing a new version of reality and recognizing how breathtaking this reality was. When I saw an eight-week-old baby Rhino stumble around its mother’s side, I felt tears streaming down my neck. The same feeling struck me when I fed Elephants and Giraffes. In my mind, this was all too good to be true, and now that I think about it, it still is!

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I had plenty of epic moments in Africa. Riding horses on the beach was fantastic. I felt like I was riding towards a dream when the horse crossed the water and landed on the sunset-bound shore. The conversation I had with the horse trainer, who was a South African native, showed me how important it is to make connections with people when you travel, because this is how we invest in cultures and reach an appreciation for cultural identities. Of course, I had to pull out some of my Spanish and teach her a few words.

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Contrary to popular belief, traveling is not all about doing monumental things. Traveling involves reflection, and we need time to think about every new perspective we earn. I did a lot of staring at spectacular views, looking out for Ostriches and Baboons from car windows, pondering about life, and enjoying every moment I spent with those children at the school. I learned about the power of simplicity. I didn’t need freshly pressed clothes, fine foods, perfect hair, Wi-fi, or major artifacts to be happy where I was. I realized that my commitment to having a positive attitude helped me relish in everything I was doing, no matter how big or small. Playing hide and seek with the kids in the patio made me reminisce about my childhood and how school was always a safe haven for me. Reading stories in class and teaching students to form sentences (both in English and Spanish) allowed me to gain some humility, because most of these children came from less fortunate backgrounds, and yet they still arrived at their school with great enthusiasm. The teachers in charge at this school also helped me solidify my respect for my own teachers and professors. This experience made me understand that I never want to miss a single opportunity to grow and accept others for who they are where they come from. I also know that I come from Puerto Rico, a place that celebrates diversity, a land that needs to be showcased in all corners of the world.

Over in South Africa they now know a little Spanish and some “Despacito”. Here in Puerto Rico I have strong memories of a marvelous African wonderland, a culture whose identity was as strong for me as mine was for them!

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