Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

How I Got Here

Sometimes when I tell people about my internship in South Africa, they respond with statements like, “Wow… it’s really brave of you to move to a new country on your own” or “Wow… it’s really noble of you to give up a decent salary for volunteer work.”

Or sometimes it’s a sad, wistful, “I wish I could do that.”

I think it’s time to set the record straight: I’m not brave, noble, or any other adjective more than the average person (except maybe impulsive).  Furthermore, there are tons of opportunities to work overseas if you want – you just have to look for them.

Even if it’s not in your “plan,” however, you never know what will happen if you’re open to possibilities.  I didn’t plan on coming to Johannesburg: I ended up here through a series of random events.

Yesterday my coworker asked me if I traveled a lot with my parents when I was young: “Did you grow up this way?  Why are you a world traveler?”

“No,” I answered.  “My parents don’t like traveling.  We only ever left home to visit family in the States.”

As I child, I was always super jealous of my friends who went on exotic vacations –and to me, pretty much anywhere was exotic: Hawaii, Mexico, Europe, Alaskan cruises, Kelowna.  I remember my parents had a BCAA (British Columbia Automotive Association) magazine with a photo and 50 word caption about caving on Vancouver Island and I used to fantasize about going there for a weekend.  But we never did – mostly because our home was beautiful and peaceful and better than anywhere else anyways.

The point, however, is that you don’t need to grow up traveling to become comfortable with it.

I didn’t start traveling extensively until I was 22.  I thought about taking a year off after high school to backpack around Europe before going to university, but I wasn’t mature enough yet.  It took me awhile to achieve the confidence and self-awareness necessary to go off on my own, plan my own adventures, and feel comfortable chatting with strangers every day.

Moreover, I was in a serious relationship for a long time and traveling wasn’t one of our priorities.

When we broke up, however, it was both devastating and enlightening.  Through the process of breaking my heart and then rebuilding it piece by piece, I was able to recreate myself into the person I wanted to be – which unfortunately was not the person I was at the time.

Within a few months I had changed from someone who planned dinner for each night of the week to a woman who bought plane tickets to Cancun while drunk on her birthday.

It was this re-awakened impulsive streak that eventually led me to Jozi.

In my final year of university, I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.  My engineering class had all graduated the previous year, but I had decided to another year of school and study geography – despite everyone’s reaction of “What’s the point?”

Even with an extra year in school, however, I still felt like I was floundering through life without any direction.  I only had one post-graduate plan with no idea if it would happen or not: a few months before graduation, I applied to volunteer for a year with Engineers Without Borders.  Right after classes ended, however, I received an email that I wasn’t accepted.

Upset and angry, I spent a couple days crying and trying to figure out what to do instead.  I decided to stay in Van for the summer, play lots of ultimate frisbee, then maybe visit Europe for the first time in the fall.  Soon afterwards, however, I went to an ultimate tournament and broke my foot, although at the time I believed it was a bad sprain.  Regardless of the correct diagnosis, I knew I wouldn’t be playing any ulti for at least 6 months.

The next day I had all four of my wisdom teeth removed.  A few days after that I turned 24.  I wore a veil at my party because my face was so swollen and limped around to chat with the guests.  It was a bit of a low point, to say the least.

But every dark cloud has a silver lining, right?

One guy I used to date emailed me a “Happy birthday” message and we sent a couple emails back and forth, catching up on what the other person was doing.  He told me that he checks the website YVRDEALS.com almost every day for cheap plane tickets.  I looked at the website and found a one-way flight from Toronto to Barcelona for $600 leaving in 3 weeks.

“I might as well go now since I can walk but can’t run,” I thought and bought it.

For those of you who don’t know, Toronto is really far from Vancouver.  It’s a 5 hour flight from Van.  Why did I buy that ticket then, you might ask?  Because EWB’s office is in Toronto and I wanted to visit and convince them to hire me during their next round of recruiting.

I had a couple of weeks before I left, though, so I spent some of my spare time perusing the CIDA internship website.  It was a bad time to be looking: by May most 2012 internships had already been filled.  Furthermore, almost all the positions were for accounting or arts majors.  I didn’t see a single posting relating to engineering.

But I was bored so I sent out some emails anyway.  “Is this position still open?”

One company, Rooftops Canada, emailed me back right away to say that although the particular position I was enquiring about had been filled, an intern had dropped out last minute and attached was the position’s description.  Surprisingly, it was for an engineering job in Johannesburg!  I wrote a cover letter, sent my resume, and had a Skype interview 3 days later.  The following day I was offered the job.

Thank goodness I’d only booked a one-way ticket to Europe!  My three month backpacking plan was shortened to three weeks and I returned to Vancouver for the month of July to get my ZA Visa, medications, and other necessities in order.

In the span of a week, I had made various declarations to my parents.

First: “I want to spend a year volunteering in Ghana with EWB.”

Then: “Waaahhhh I don’t know what I’m doing with my life!”

Then: “I’m going to stick around Vancouver for the next couple months.”

Then: “I’m going to Europe until my money runs out.”

Then: “I’m only going to Europe for 3 weeks.  After that I’m moving to South Africa for 6 months.”

They were amazingly tolerant of my changing plans.  Probably because they realized there wasn’t much they could do – after all, they were the ones who raised me to be independent – but I still very much appreciated their patience and support.

So you see?  You don’t have to make any long-term plans to work overseas.  You don’t need to anticipate travel that far in advance.  You just need to be open-minded about the possibilities that may open up unexpectedly.

Being single helps too.

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