Looking back at my childhood, I loved digging holes. Any excuse would do, but an excuse wasn’t even necessary.
I remember setting a huge goal for myself one summer vacation in third or fourth grade: I would dig a hole all the way to China. My imagination ran wild with visions of breaking through on the other side of the world and being greeted enthusiastically by people wearing funny hats and holding chopsticks.
It was a lot of work, digging all the way to China, and I gave up after the hole was only about four feet deep. But if I had managed to do the impossible and pass through the center of the earth and break through the other side, ironically I would not have found myself standing next to the Great Wall of China or anywhere near it; my exit point would in fact have been much closer to southern Africa, which was literally the other side of the world from where I lived in California.
I eventually made it to the other side of the world. But not by digging.
In January 1976, I moved to South Africa. I was 13 years old. It was my first time out of the United States. It was my first time on an airplane. But it wasn’t my first time moving away from home: for as long as I could remember, we had been moving, from one southern California suburb to the next. Changing schools and having to make new friends was always difficult. But this was different. I was moving halfway around the planet, to a strange, foreign land.
My apprehension was tempered by excitement. After all, this wasn’t just another cookie-cutter southern California suburb we were moving to; it was Africa. I yearned for it to be an amazing, unforgettable, grand adventure.
And it was.
I saw large, wild animals in their native habitat. I spent countless hours wandering through the brush and grasslands by myself. I entered high school, made new friends, and attempted to learn a new language. I experienced riots, unthinkable repression, and even war. I hiked across the stunning grassy plains and tasted some of the best that Africa had to offer.
My move to South Africa took place more than 35 years ago. I think about my time there frequently, reliving the unforgettable experiences of my adolescence. But only recently was I able to put all of those experiences into context. Although I only lived there for a short time, it happened during an important stage: my transition from child to adult. In many ways, Africa changed me, and Africa made me who I am today.