There is always a certain novelty in the preparation leading up to a big trip. Making sure you have the right equipment, mapping out your journey, and reading travel guide after travel guide in the singular hope that it will capture a sense of reality to where ever it is that you are going.
The preparation leading up to a big trip alone, however, is another experience entirely. True, embarking on a solo endeavour can be daunting, but traveling alone as a woman can be one of the most rewarding, challenging and character building experiences that you could ever do for yourself. So, before I left my sunburnt country that I am so fondly attached to, nothing could prepare me for what I was about to undergo.
Volunteering abroad. A concept that has swiftly gained the interest of new and seasoned travellers alike. This notion was something that I was no stranger to, in fact, volunteering had always far surpassed any other way of traveling. Though the programs I selected this time around were somewhat different. They were not as physically strenuous as my recent adventures, but instead were more demanding on me as a person. Which is exactly why I packed up, waved goodbye to the familiar and boarded a plane to Africa.
“Are you mad?” people would tell me with gaping mouths and wide eyed disbelief. “Yes” my subconscious would mutter imploring me to reconsider. My mouth on the other hand had practiced reciting that travelling to some of the most rural and culturally demanding areas of Africa, alone, would be good for me. I wanted to experience something that perhaps a young woman my age needed to. I booked the trip for 2 months and with that, opportunities presented themselves in unprecedented ways.
I worked with women and children living with HIV in Kenya, I dived with sharks and surveyed fish in Madagascar, I taught on the Tanzanian border, I spoke with young girls who had fallen victim to sexual violence in Central Eastern Africa, I beheld the aftermath of ivory poaching in South Africa and most importantly, I understood how truly lucky I was to be a young woman living in Australia.
Africa. A word that will forever tug at my heartstrings. Old habits would die easily for me here. I wouldn’t reach for my phone to check social media, instead it was the only solid connection to home. My news didn’t come from ‘The Australian’ App but instead from ‘The Star’ written in Kiswahili in Kenya. As much as I had readied myself, nothing could prepare the uninitiated for the riot of noise and colour. Initially, you’re overwhelmed by everything, for me, it was how the people I grew closest to were living in grinding poverty.
I arrived in Mlolongo, a bustling town outside Nairobi that was the centrefold of HIV in Kenya. There, I worked with women, my age, living with HIV. This here was the part no amount of reading could prepare me for. I stood in front of these young girls and had to somehow empower them as women, when in fact they had the unwavering ability to empower me in more ways than I could have comprehended.
The stigma behind HIV in Africa is tenfold to any other country. Women here experience social rejection on unfathomable levels. Remarkably, these women became my friends, treating me as one of their own. Countries, cultures and circumstances apart, we bonded as young women wanting something more for ourselves. We worked together to generate sustainable income by selling crafted goods the women had produced. This placed thing into perspective. These women not only cope, but also thrive. Something that I think many of us as women hope to achieve in our lifetime.
Before my mind had the opportunity to comprehend the notion of leaving Kenya, my body was 40 meters down in the depths of the Indian Ocean in Madagascar. Studying the effects of climate change on a remote island was something that I could have never predicted. Nor could I have imagined the lifestyle change from the one I had grown accustomed to on mainland Africa. Nosy Komba, a small – 25km2- island located north off of Madagascar presented no homily comforts. With no roads, the only way to get around the island was by foot. With no electricity, running water or internet, Madagascar welcomed me with open arms. My job? Memorising all 362 species of fish so I could survey their activity. I dove twice a day, hiked more kilometres daily than I do in a week, and in my free time, I read. Madagascar was so unique to anywhere I had ever travelled before, something that wouldn’t have occurred without my volunteer efforts. With 80% of the wildlife endemic to the country, everything was untameably wild and alien.
Volunteering always seemed uncomplicated to me. It presents the rare opportunity to do something far bigger than yourself, for others. You work and live alongside the communities and its people, giving you a once in a lifetime authentic experience. Coupling this, by traveling solo is unique, and you return home both a conqueror and a better person by doing so.
Article by: Jordan Alex