By Daisy Jasmine, Staff Writer
A young woman stands on the deck of a pirate ship, peering over the railing at the choppy waters below. A single dolphin cuts through the surface, cheerfully keeping pace in the ship’s wake. The woman pulls her jacket closer, shielding herself from the whipping wind. As she gazes overboard, her attention is captured by what appears to be a plastic bag in the water, then another, and still more. Scanning the ocean around her, her frustration shifts to confusion and then relief as she eventually recognizes the unfamiliar sight of what is not litter, but countless jellyfish floating mindlessly by.
The boat bounces over a sharp wake, breaking her from her reverie as she grabs for the railing. A flock of birds, disturbed from their jetty perches, alight with a rustling of wings. Her companions laugh at some unheard joke behind her as the waves break against the ship and the rocks. She steps back, looks at the bright midday sky, and stifles a yawn. It is three in the morning back home. It dawns on her for the first time that she is as far from home as she could possibly go.
During my first year at Thunderbird, I sometimes felt like a bit of an odd one out. Every classmate I spoke with had amazing stories to share of their experiences around the world—their home countries or the far-off places they’d visited. I, meanwhile, had never gone farther than New York, and though New York does feel like a completely different world from Phoenix, it still meant that I wasn’t a Traveler with a capital T. Not in the way that my classmates were. I didn’t even have a passport. The world felt prohibitively huge.
I surprised myself with how attached I got to the idea of participating in the Summerim program. I had heard very little about it, and I had no idea what to expect, but I knew that I had to try. So try I did, and after just a few short months of bureaucratic red tape, paperwork, and the occasional moth flying out of my wallet, I found myself on an airplane—then another—then another—and suddenly I was in my hotel room in Cape Town, a day and a half before the program began. It was early evening, and I went straight to bed. I spent the free day doing the tourist thing, posing a photocopied Flat Stanley in front of every scenic view for my cousin’s third-grade summer homework. (Flat Stanley also visited a liquor store, not that I sent that one to my cousin.) Eventually the rest of my classmates began to arrive, and not a moment too soon—any longer and I probably would have started having conversations with the paper doll.
Once the program started in earnest, we quickly fell into a steady—if frantic—rhythm. Suddenly there weren’t enough hours in the day, and yet we kept going strong. We always managed to drag ourselves out of bed, because we had fascinating and new places to be.
The first time I really processed just how far out of my bubble I had gone was over breakfast. I sat with my roommate, and as we oohed and aahed over the best chai lattes we had ever tasted, I messaged “good morning” to my friends and family back home and received responses of “good night.” I had time-travelled—we were out of sync. The only way I could have been farther from Arizona was if I hopped on a shuttle and took it to outer space.
We saw a lot and experienced even more in South Africa—if I described every event in detail, this would never fit in a single essay. For every lighthearted visit to a brewery museum, there was a thought-provoking stop at a historical landmark or museum on the era of Apartheid, honoring those who were oppressed by a bafflingly racist and cruel system. We learned the history and then saw how its impact stretched to the modern day during several of our company visits. We balanced our historical lessons with cheerful experiences of both “authentic” (read: tourist-y) and truly authentic local cuisine.
And while in the midst of all of these new and mind-expanding experiences, I came down with the kind of bronchitis that turned me a shade of blue that would make the Thunderbird logo blush, but I just rushed off to the hospital so I could jump back into the routine. This gave me a chance to not only experience tourist destinations, authentic locations and cuisine, but also South Africa’s hospital system. Who has time to slowly succumb to oxygen deprivation when you’ve only got three weeks in a new country?
After a week-long adjustment period followed by a week of not being able to breathe, we took a break from our education-centric schedule to spend three days in Kruger National Park. I had eagerly anticipated this part of the trip since my plane ticket was booked. I’ve always felt a strong connection with the night sky—there’s a bittersweet comfort in looking up at the stars here in Phoenix and realizing that in an endless universe, very little is impossible. Now that I was in the Southern Hemisphere, though, there was a whole new sky to see—stars that had never been visible before—and I took the gravity of this new experience VERY seriously.
In anticipation of the Kruger National Park trip and the chance to see the South African night sky for the first time without the hindrance of city lights, I spent the first two weeks of the trip actively avoiding looking up at night, the way you might avoid Game of Thrones spoilers when you haven’t finished watching the season finale.
When I finally allowed myself to look, in the middle of the national park, at midnight, devoid of light pollution, I was instantly moved to tears. A sky full of stars and not one that I could recognize. In that moment, the world felt more enormous than ever—and I finally saw that not as a barrier, but a challenge. I gained a new faith in myself that night—if I could make it all the way across the world, there was nothing stopping me from going absolutely everywhere.
On our way back to Johannesburg from the national park, we took the scenic route through Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve. One of our stops lead us to a breathtaking view of the canyon, with a boulder perched all too perfectly in front of the view. I watched as some of my classmates took turns teetering on it for new profile pictures, feigning disapproval of their recklessness, but the minute the rock was vacant I made sure to get up on it for my own picture. In that moment, I could have been mistaken for someone who’s not petrified of heights.
For all of my adult life, I’ve noticed something of a trend amongst the world’s Travelers with a capital T. There’s always a photo of them perched on some faraway precipice, ignoring the danger below, lost in the moment of being lost and in the moment. Before coming to Thunderbird, I never even halfway entertained the idea that it might one day be me—after all, I didn’t have a passport, and I got shaky knees standing on the second rung of a stepladder. But on the opposite corner of the globe, under a sky I didn’t know, I knew that was my rite of passage to become a real Thunderbird—not an odd one out, but someone who has stories to share of somewhere that I flew.
I think I can finally call myself a Traveler with a capital T.