Tea over Coffee

Mark and Hayden were my only two real friends in South Africa.  Why had they gravitated towards this awkward American teenager who stuck out like a sore thumb in their comfortably homogenous school?  Were they curious about other cultures?  Did they want to learn more about America and the rest of the world?  Or was it just the pure novelty of hanging out with the “different” kid?

Whatever the reason, I was happy to at least have a couple of friends in this strange new land.

One day after school, Mark invited us over to his house.  The three of us sat at the small table in Mark’s kitchen, and he offered us some tea and biscuits.

I was speechless.

I was a 13 year old American and had never tried coffee or tea.  All of the adults I knew back in the United States drank coffee, so that seemed like a logical progression for me—once I was old enough.  But tea?  Nobody drank tea back home.  Iced tea, maybe.  Sun tea, occasionally.  But hot tea?  Why on earth would you drink it hot?  Was it even safe to drink this scalding liquid?  Wouldn’t it burn my throat?  Not to mention, was I even old enough to drink tea? Wasn’t there some kind of law against that?

You would have thought they had offered me some heroin.

Deathly afraid of what I was about to ingest, but knowing that I had to do it or face the wrath of schoolmate ridicule, I gave in to peer pressure.  I watched anxiously as they poured a little milk and sugar in to their tea; I responded by drowning my tea with copious amounts of milk and sugar.  I was prepared for my fate.  Let’s get this over with.

I quickly gulped the hot liquid down.  Horrendous noises emanated from my throat, and Mark and Hayden looked at each other and started giggling.  I was so happy when that awful experience was finally over.  Never, ever again.

“Would you care for another cup?” Mark asked.

And that’s how I became a lifelong tea drinker.


On my last day at Florida Park High School, Mark decided to finally introduce me to the other American student there.  I had heard rumors since my first day that I wasn’t the only one; that an American girl a little older than me had been going there for a couple of years.

Mark made the introduction, and we chatted for a few minutes about where we were from in the States (she was from Michigan, I think) and the circumstances that brought us to South Africa (her parents might have been missionaries).  I don’t even remember her name.

I’ll never know exactly why, after almost 8 months there, Mark finally decided to introduce me to this girl on the last day of school.  It seemed a little odd, but it really didn’t matter much to me.  My time in Africa wasn’t about finding comfort in associating with people like me, from the same place, who liked the same things, who talked like me, and who thought like me.  It was about experiencing a different culture, and trying new things.  Because you never know what strange thing you might end up liking unless you try it.


This story is excerpted from my book Down to Africa [ Paperback | Kindle | iPad ].


Charles Darwin and the Voyage of the HMS Beagle

When we think of Darwin’s voyage, we think of the Galapagos Islands. But there is much more to this story…

At the age of 22, an English naturalist and geologist left on a voyage around the world, which eventually resulted in his book describing his revolutionary new theory of natural selection. So today, on the 182nd anniversary of his departure, this map tour recounts his epic journey–in his own words.

Charles Darwin and the Voyage of the HMS Beagle