In the summer of 2013 I travelled to a small town in South Africa to volunteer as a teacher. When I landed at East London airport, Thobela, a young and charismatic program coordinator greeted me as I gathered my belongings at the baggage claim. Soon we made our way northeast for 30 miles towards a beachside village known as Chintsa. As I peered out the passenger window, I remember being surprised by how lush and green the hills looked, especially in comparison to how I'd once pictured Africa; as a beautiful, but barren and dry land. Instead, I saw life all around me. Tireless commuters navigated to and from work on busy highways as we passed bustling supermarkets, a surf shop, and bookstores. The entire scene was reminiscent of a small town hugging the California coast.
As we neared to Chintsa, I noticed people walking on the side of newly paved roads, seemingly in the middle of nowhere with no bus stop in sight. This was a vastly different place than any I had ever known, and yet I’d never felt more at home.
I found my experience in Chintsa to be deeply rewarding. Time seemed to breeze by during my stay at this seaside town. The volunteers all bonded effortlessly as we were thrown into the unknown, paired off to teach computer literacy classes to children between the ages of 6 to 17. I always felt one-step behind as the kids sailed through assignments that I found completely bewildering. They were wildly creative, brilliant, and taught me far more than I could have imagined.
When my volunteer service ended I decided to rent a car and drive to a game reserve just outside the city of Port Elizabeth. My dad had warned me that I’d never forgive myself for traveling so far and passing up the chance to see lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, and buffalo, otherwise known as the “Big 5” in their natural habitat. Fearing a lifetime of regret I took his advice. What my father didn’t mention was that during my drive to South Africa’s “Windy City,” I’d completely redefine my personal meaning of time.
When I walked up to my white Hyundai rental, I thought to myself, Just do the opposite of what you would do back home. It was rarely sound advice, but this proved surprisingly effective when navigating South African traffic. What I did not expect to discover upon opening the car door was a stick shift. Handling a manual transmission back home was far from a crisis, but driving a stick shift with my left hand on the left side of the road seemed almost like a dare.
I plopped myself square in the driver’s seat, took a deep breath, placed my right foot on the brake, my left foot on the clutch, my right hand on the steering wheel, and started the car. I felt as if I were playing a high stakes game of Twister. Consequently, the drive out of my parking spot spanned a glorious half-second before the car abruptly stalled in front of a live audience. It soon dawned on me that I might be here for a while as I considered stocking up on bottled water.
Eventually, I got out of the car, feigned confidence as I strode up to the agent and politely asked for an automatic. She smiled and kindly replied, “No.” It was not an option.
After some time, I began to slowly grasp the idea of driving a stick with my left hand and awkwardly exited the lot. Soon, I was in one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen, driving on roads that hugged stunning mountainsides as they wound and weaved me through charming little towns, allowing me a sneak peek into the Xhosa culture. The more I took in my surroundings, the less I allowed the smell of burnt clutch to dishearten me.
A few minutes into my drive I decided to try the radio. I was in good spirits and thought the right soundtrack would liven up the journey. After carefully turning the dial as if I were opening a safe, I had no luck finding any reception. Only the white noise of static crackled throughout the car. Just as I resigned myself to a silent drive, I decided to play the fool once more and gave it once last shot for good measure. This time, I turned the knob and landed on a broadcast I had somehow passed over in my previous attempts. But this was not music. Instead, I heard the booming voice of a preacher speaking passionately in an unmistakable South African accent. "Take my house. Take my car. You can even take all my money. But please, do not take my time! Do not take my time because that I cannot replace!" Seconds later, the station vanished like a morning fog. It was a lesson I neither expected or ever forgot.
Dewey, a thirty-something actor originally from San Diego, shared this bit of advice with me: "The best advice I ever got was to never take what other people say or think about you personally. I got that from my Buddhist teacher when I went on a retreat last fall. And it has helped me in the ways I communicate with people who are closest to me as well as in my career."