It's been over four years since I travelled to South Africa with the AV programme, and whenever I look back at the photos or videos I feel a wrench in my gut. I worry that I'll never have an experience like that again. I miss it.
In total, there were nine of us; 6 girls and 3 boys. I think that was a good balance, and over the flight we got to know each other very well. Everything had been organised by AV, and they were there to meet us at the airport. True to rumour, the staff had already memorised everyone's name and details from their application photo, and so it felt like you already knew them.
I felt that the induction week was pitched just right. Although we'd just left school they didn't treat us like kids, it wasn't patronising. WE were allowed the freedom to start make the community our own, and I feel that this approach is what helped us to feel at home so quickly. Having said that, we were trained in the essentials, and I remember the teacher training being particularly helpful.
We were supported in the community by a lady called Kate Groch, but by the end of the trip most of us referred to Kate as 'mum'. Kate made introductions to our respective schools, and we arranged to start work. It was early starts, and lesson planning took longer than we expected, but we would all pile into our little living room and do our work together, which mean that it didn't feel like work at all.
To say that teaching in these school is not challenging would be untrue. It was hard. The sheer exposure of children living in such terrible conditions left us feeling pretty powerless, and that was the hardest thing. Kate was always there to support us though, and we supported each other. This helped us to get very tight very quickly.
I remember my mum being very happy when I managed to call her from a local payphone. AV had been calling her every now and then to keep her up to date with how I had fitted in to the new environment and how I was doing. I know that this was very important to her, she felt like I was being properly looked after and that she was a valued member of the experience, even though she wasn't there.
AV sent out staff every now and then. I felt that they got the balance just right. We never felt like we were being molly-coddled or 'supervised', but it was lovely to see a friendly face. They let us take the lead and explain what we had been up to, and they came along to watch us in action. We felt like this was our community now, and that we were showing our guests around.
A few months in, we got our first surprise treat from AV; a trip into the mountains of Lesotho on ponies! we were mostly novices but by now all had perfected our 'Just go for it' attitude. If something went wrong, somebody would shrug and say "TIA: This is Africa", and suddenly everything would be OK again. The trip was stunning, we even found a hidden waterful with it's own rainbow, although we had to trek upstream through a shallow river to get there!
At the end of the teaching experience, AV had organised a series of treats for us. We were on the road! We filled the long bus journeys with disney medleys, and were thrilled with our surfing lessons in what is surely the coolest hostel in the world. We felt very pampered in the luxury safari, and as this was all included in our initial price, we knew that all we had to worry about was our beer money.
Finally, we were afforded the ultimate freedom and independence in our 'free travel' phase. This was real growing up time, we travelled around and so had to book our own flights! AV had advised us on the delights of SA, and whilst one group headed east towards Durban and Mozambique, our group travelled along the south coast, South Africa's 'Garden Route'. A few of us took on the world's highest bungee jump, grabbing the DVD and earning bragging rights for years to come.
Then came an added bonus. Our flight home stopped off in Nairobi, and AV, who have representatives in Kenya as well, were able to link us up so that we could stay for a week in the capital! The three boys took full advantage of this, squeezing a quick safari to the masai mara.
This is still the best experience of my life. I look back and it feels like a blur. We were allowed to get things wrong, party hard, and make a difference.