I’ve only ever lived in Dublin. In my 29 years, the longest I’ve spent outside of Dublin was 3 weeks in Vienna when I was 16. Even that wasn’t so different; I was with a group of my peers spending time with another bunch of my peers. The only real differences were that the public transport worked, I could drink legally, and people primarily spoke German.
Three months from today, I will have been in South Africa for a week. This won’t be a holiday. A holiday is a chance to see something different or weird and then retreat to the safety of your hotel to contemplate it. A holiday usually ends before you get to know a place, and before you start to miss your home. I visited the Great Wall of China with my family and people stopped my brother to take pictures with the pale, freckled white kid with frizzy blonde hair. I thought that was weird, but it was non-threatening, and when we were back in our hotel room safe and sound, we had a good giggle. That was a holiday experience.
We’ll be staying with a family that we’ve not met. I find it odd staying with a family with whom I am familiar – the small but striking differences in everyday rituals like having dinner (or is it tea, or is it supper?) amplify the feeling that you’re not at home. But at least you can always have a nice cup of tea. Living with a new family is going to be interesting, but I think of all the differences we are likely to encounter, this is probably towards the more trivial end of the scale – neither of us are particularly shy, and the family will have hosted scores of volunteers before us. And hospitality is the same everywhere. The tea, however, will not be the same – if you ask for a cup of tea in South Africa, you get rooibos instead of the black tea you’d get in Europe.
South Africa is a country where white people make up less than ten percent of the population. I am so pale that I have been mistaken for a sheet of paper. I’m used to things being so racially homogenous that we discriminate against ginger people. It will be strange to be in the minority for once. I’m hoping it will be a nice change of perspective without being too intimidating – I have been self-conscious of my Irish accent in London.
South Africa is a country where there are 11 official languages. Ireland has two – let’s be clear here, Gaeilge na hÚladh, incomprehensible though it may be, is still officially the same language as what you hear on the Nuacht on RTE. Most people in South Africa speak more than one language. I love learning new languages, and with nearly 3 months, it should be possible to pick up the basic elements of a language, but which one?! I’ll probably try and pick up a bit of whatever language our host family speaks.
So South Africa is a very different place, and acclimating to all of these changes at once is going to be a lot. However, I will have my best friend with me for back up. And if I get too homesick, well at least some people in South Africa seem to swear in a Dublin accent.