This semester – for the first time since I’ve been a Penn student – I happened to be enrolled in 5 classes with take-home papers instead of final examinations. With the prospect of working on these papers from a sunny room in my home in Johannesburg, South Africa finally a possibility (instead of from my apartment with a view of grey, gloomy, December Philly) I got on the phone with an airline official at the start of the semester and negotiated an earlier flight back to Jo’burg. In early December, I landed on home soil in the peak of South Africa’s festive summer season: a time of barbecues and sunshine mixed with Christmas meals and family reunions. A giant white Christmas tree stood next to a “Save the Rhinos” statue as I walked off the plane and into the now-familiar routine of customs and baggage claims.
Yet, instead of joining a long queue of foreign travelers with visas to be scrutinized and passports to be scribbled in (as I so often have in the past few years), I waltzed beyond the “SOUTH AFRICAN PASSPORTS ONLY” sign and directly up to a welcoming South African airport official. We chuckled together, glancing over at the winding line of tourists, whose wait would surely be longer than that of the South Africans returning home for the holidays. With my too-large-to-carry (and poorly packed, sorry mom!) bag of clothes and Christmas gifts safely in tow, I made my way to the barely air-conditioned international arrivals hall of OR Tambo International Airport. Here, I waited for a few minutes while my parents navigated peak morning traffic on their way to pick me up.
I was, finally, home. Around me, deeply familiar airport sights abounded: parents waiting for children to arrive home from university, drivers from safari companies waving signs around (ready to collect tourists geared out in khaki and carrying fancy cameras) and people fanning themselves to mitigate the December heat. In the back of my parents’ Toyota, the car journey home to the North of Johannesburg had a similarly familiar quality. I knew that I had heaps of work to do over the course of the next week or so – with five final papers due, and, as is typical for me, much left to be written at the last minute. Somehow, though, I felt excited for this period of extensive writing: I was passionate about my courses and knew that working on them couldn’t be too onerous in the midst of Jo’burg’s beautiful summer weather and while surrounded by my family and old friends.
My week of writing flashed by, and I was proud of the essays I’d produced while sitting at my old desk, surrounded by photographs and other trinkets from high school. Just before Christmas and after I’d submitted my final essays, my family traveled a few hours North to a nature reserve. Without cell signal and far from all signs of normal human life, we spent a week watching South Africa’s wildlife go about their days in the summer heat. Baby elephants splashed in mud puddles with their herds of mostly matriarchs, giraffes munched slowly on the soft leaves at the tippy-tops of acacia trees and lionesses stalked unknowing wildebeests. Though I’ve been on similar family trips almost every holiday since I was a tiny baby, this week in nature stood out because of its utter contrast to the bustling, jam-packed life we all have at Penn.
As I landed in snow-spotted Philly in January, I felt the same sense of anticipation I did just a few weeks earlier on the plane to Johannesburg. A month of summer and family time had prepared me for a long spring semester away from home and had reminded me that I have the best friends anyone could ask for here at Penn. Back on campus, I caught up with everyone, sharing stories about our breaks and chatting about our expectations for the coming semester. Someday soon, I hoped, my friends might be able to visit me at home in South Africa; to see the sunshine, the nature, the brightness and diversity of cultures that defined my wonderful childhood. Then, only, would my two worlds really collide.