My Goodbye to South Africa
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I am officially out of South Africa. After being there for nine weeks, I can (once again) confidently say that I fell in love with the country. The fynbos, the beaches, the mountains, and the karoo all took my breath away and made me want to come back for more. The people were friendly and accommodating, and wow, they could cook. The entire experience played with my imagination; it was all like something out of an adventure story. As I’ve said before, I learned a great deal from my experience, not only about science and conservation, but about life in general. So, at the risk of being too sappy, here are some lessons I learned while on the other side of the world.
You Can Do It
In culture today, we seem to focus on the empowerment of all people. The phrase “You can do it!” isn’t exactly new to anyone. However, self-confidence is something that a lot of people struggle with, myself included. When I first looked into working with Nature’s Valley Trust, my thoughts were all pretty dubious: “You can’t travel to Africa alone”, “You don’t have enough field experience”, “How will you ever afford this?” The chorus of self-doubt was definitely strong. Still, I couldn’t ignore how great of an opportunity it would be, and so I went. While on my trip, I flew alone for the first time. I kayaked for the first time. I put a ring on a bird for the first time. I drove on the “wrong” side of the road for the first time. In fact, I wasn’t prepared for anything; I simply took a deep breath and tried. Eventually, the trying stopped seeming so scary, and the adventures began. Sometimes, you just need to have a little faith in yourself and take a risk. If you fail, you’ll learn. If you succeed, you can gain a little bit of confidence to move on to the next challenge. But whatever you do, try. You can do it.
See the Beauty
I am not an optimist. Anyone who knows me well knows that I have to consciously choose to see the bright side in most situations. But on my short travels, I have begun to try something new; I try to see the beauty in everything that I can. This can take on many different forms, but almost always is something a little bit special. This could be the way the moonlight reflects off a puddle at night, the flash of iridescence that a pigeon gives off as it flies away, or even the gentle curve of an archway on a building. These little things are the types of things that often turn my bad days into good, or at least tolerable days. This was especially evident one day after work with the Trust. A wildfire had broken out close to Plettenberg Bay, and the smoke was travelling quickly to the area where we were working. It stung the throat and covered us in fine bits of ash, and was just generally annoying. However, as we drove back into the valley, the smoke had made one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. If you can see the beauty in even the small or annoying things, it can add just a little bit more happiness into your life.
Little Actions, Big Consequences
One of the less warm and fuzzy lessons that I learned in the past few months if that small actions add up. Part of my job at the Trust was to speak with people on the beaches in order to find out what they know about the rules, and how they use the area. I was astonished by how many people said that they had been going to a beach for several years, but could not tell me one single beach rule. Or worse, they knew the rules and simply did not follow them because the rules were “inconvenient”. After all, what harm could one person do by themselves? Unfortunately, the answer to that is quite a lot of harm, especially when every person has the same mentality. No, one person driving on a beach will not erode it away to nothing. But 50 people? That could cause some serious problems for the beach. Still, so many people believe that they are the exception, that they are immune to the consequences, especially if they don’t see them directly. This is a dangerous belief that needs to stop. If a group of people are ever going to make any positive change happen, they need to understand that individuals count, and that each person needs to take responsibility for themselves. Remember, you matter, and so do your actions.
Again, I’m not an optimist. Seeing the state of conservation in various parts of the world often threatens to make we wonder if we could ever turn things around. But I’ve found that it’s important to have hope. I saw this time and time again when working with NVT. In my last few weeks working out on the beaches, Selena (our PhD student) and I came across a fledgling plover with its parents. Its head was puffy, wings drooping, and it was severely underweight – all classic signs of botulism. As bird rescue was part of our job, we quickly grabbed the poor little bird and wrapped him in a scarf to calm him as Selena called the local rehabilitation center to let them know we were coming. As we walked off the beach, however, I could feel his breathing slow and eventually stop as the bird passed away in my hands. Don’t get me wrong, death is actually very common in this line of work; we saw dead and dying animals every day. But to have one of our special birds die in my hands was not fun, and both of us were pretty affected by it. Only a few days later, though, I was lucky enough to watch an egg hatching, again in my hand. Yes, things die, but that is just a part of life. When things start to seem hopeless and grim, sometimes you just have to trust in good and to have a little hope. Give it a little time, the world may surprise you.
All in all, my time in Africa was completely unforgettable. Working with the team at Nature’s Valley Trust taught me so much about being a biologist, a student, and a traveler, all while helping me gain a confidence that I never knew I could have. Of course, not everything was easy; I was hot, tired, frustrated, and even sad several times along the way, but it all made my experience what it was. I would like to thank all of the NVT crew for bearing with me through the past few months and for being the best team I ever could have asked to work with. I’d like to specifically thank Mark, who still got me to Africa after my “accident”, and for allowing me to stay on the shorebird project after I fell in love with it. Thank you, also, to the entire extended Brown family for taking me in not once, but three times throughout my travels and for showing me South Africa through the eyes of locals. It’s so great to know that I always have a South African family to turn to! Finally, I’d like to thank all of the donors of my GoFundMe campaign for donating your money and support to this trip. Without all of you, I never would have even had plane tickets, let alone the confidence in knowing that people are cheering for me back home. While this trip certainly did not change the world, it definitely changed my life, and I am grateful.
To wrap up, I guess all I can say now is watch out, South Africa; I may not be through with you yet.