Whenever I'm on an airplane, you can count on two things: 1) I'm saying a few prayers and 2) I'm tracing my finger over the map of the country I'm headed to, imagining how it'll feel when a group of lines and names that mean nothing to me soon will take on an entirely new and personal meaning. I love how something represented in 2D can suddenly come alive in full-color.
But one of the things I can never get a grip on before touchdown is how that living, breathing, humanized version of a place will actually look and feel, like seeing a celebrity for the first time in real life. I've probably seen pictures of the place before, but the impossibly perfect kind. I haven't seen it through my eyes or my lens, with the freckles and wrinkles and imperfections. Until that happens, you really have no idea about a place, which can be an anxiety-inducing position for a volunteer, teacher, student, or traveler heading to that new destination for the first time, and especially for an extended stay.
If you're bound for South Africa, you're probably facing even more conflicting hear-say from people who have been there before: It's really dangerous. Don't walk anywhere. There's so much racism. You probably expect the safari, the wine, and the legacy of apartheid, but what's in between?
In reality, you'll discover South Africa to be one of the most diverse countries on Earth, where its dynamic modern history is still being written on a daily basis, coming alive before your eyes in everyday situations. You'll discover cosmopolitan cities, warm people, magnificent natural landscapes, and boundless opportunities for adventure. You'll find interesting parallels with American history along the way, and make friends with locals and foreigners of all colors and backgrounds.
I spent six months working in Johannesburg last year, so here are some snapshots and tidbits of my experience that can help you get an insider's view into life in South Africa before you arrive -- to show rather than tell you what it's like to take a gap year in South Africa. I try to provide unsanitized and candid photos wherever possible.
Don't Be Afraid to Explore the Townships
The word "township" has a very strong connotation inside and outside of South Africa. It's true that these areas have had, and still have, an important historical and often racial role, so they make for very interesting places to learn about the history and culture of South Africa, but they are, at their core, just places where people live.
I visited many townships while I was in South Africa, usually first with a guide, and then on my own once I became more comfortable and made local friends. While on your gap year, you will probably discover opportunities to volunteer or visit these spaces. Do it, and learn from these experiences.
Soweto, for example, is one of the most famous townships in South Africa, but it's actually comprised of approximately 32 smaller townships and houses an estimated population of 1 million.
You'll Fall in Love with Cosmopolitan Jo'burg
You'll likely start your gap year in Johannesburg. It's the largest city in South Africa and one of the most dynamic metropolises on the African continent, but it also has a deeply ingrained reputation for violence and crime, which unfortunately deters many gappers from spending more time in Johannesburg.
However, most people who spend any length of time actually living in Johannesburg can testify to the fact that the city boasts an incredible standard of living, especially for foreigners, and with a few proper precautions (ie. don't walk around with a huge camera in poor areas, watch to make sure you're not being followed when driving home at night, keep your purse on the floor of your car not on the seat next to you) doesn't feel more dangerous than any other city on Earth.
You can do everything from having lunch in an authentic Congolese neighborhood, to dancing salsa dancing on rooftops (with locals), or getting dressed up for brunch in Maboneng district, which might easily trick you into believing you're in London or New York. You'll get lost in shopping malls, eat the best food you've ever had in your life, see Porsches drive through the slums, hang out at Nelson Mandela's house, and dance to South African house music... all in one day.
Whether you base yourself in Jo'burg during your gap year, or simply pass through on your way south, take some time to explore it.
Get Ready to Get Close and Personal with Wildlife
This is the part of South Africa you're expecting, but it will surpass all expectations. It will put human life into context of the greater animal kingdom and delight you with its proximity and vibrancy -- especially if you get the chance to volunteer or do an internship that lets you learn even more about the country's wildlife.
You'll Be Amazed by All the Nature
From the steep cliffs of the Wild Coast to the lazy, sprawling mountains of Pilanesburg, South Africa's huge variety of natural landscapes will 'wow' you at every turn. You could easily spend your entire gap year in South Africa just exploring the nature and all of its adventure travel opportunities.
The Sheer Diversity of the People is Something to Marvel At
There is no typical South African. After arriving in South Africa, you'll soon get used to hearing a cacophony of languages and accents. The people speak Zulu, Xhosa, SiSwati, Tshivenda, Afrikaans, Xitsonga, Sestwana, just to name a few, and you'll pick up the basics of each one with a little homework.
Cape Town Will Blow You Away
This is another thing you are expecting from South Africa, but it deserves to be mentioned again. To be honest, I had heard so much about Cape Town before I arrived that I expected it to be thoroughly over-hyped. The complete opposite happened: Like every visitor, I was enamored. There's a reason why so many study abroad students, gappers, and international interns base themselves here.
And don't forget the spectacular winelands just a short drive away...
... Just Be Prepared to Leave Your Heart in South Africa
Before you finish your gap year South Africa, you'll be fluent in terms like lekker, yebo, sorry, hey, peri-peri and dozens of other little quintessential South African-isms.
You'll have traversed the coastlines, hosted your own backyard braai, safaried across the interior, mastered the art of flagging down those charmingly overloaded local minivans, and rubbed noses with baby lions and baby South Africans alike.
Wherever you go, whatever you do, and however your camera captures it, South Africa will teach, challenge, and amaze you.