The first thing junior Isabella Weindling felt as she drowsily made the transition from sleep to wake was the hard African dirt beneath her sleeping bag. It was 4:45 a.m., and the Namibian sky above was still dotted with stars as far as the eye could see.
The cold air nipped at her face, and she hurried to pull on her army green cargo pants and blue sweatshirt, anxious to get on the road. Along with her 15 classmates, she rushed through the morning routine—shoveling down what seemed like the millionth bowl of cereal that she’d eaten since she had started this adventure, washing her dishes, and packing up everything that she had used during the night, saving the green canvas tent for last. By 5 a.m., the group rolled out of camp, under a sky still pitch-black except for the clusters of stars.
While her friends from home were sitting in classrooms receiving a traditional high school education last semester, Weindling was traveling around southern Africa with a program called The Traveling School. She initially heard about the program from East graduate Margo Brookfield, who went on the trip during her junior year. At the end of her sophomore year, Weindling decided that it was something she wanted to try.
“It was kind of an impulse decision,” Weindling said. “I think I was just looking for something new. I was bored with the monotony of my everyday life.”
On Aug. 19 she boarded a plane to Washington D.C. to meet the 15 other girls that would eventually become her second family. But becoming so close was by no means an overnight process.
“A lot of the girls were really quiet, which was very different for me,” Weindling said.
The plane ride from Washington D.C. to Johannesburg consisted card game after card game, where the sound of the cards hitting the tray tables was the only thing interrupting the silence on the plane.
“We were all thinking it was so awkward,” Weindling said. “But we just went with it because we were all kind of freaked out at that point.”
Eighteen hours later, the plane touched down in Johannesburg. They were officially in Africa.
It took close to a month, but eventually the awkwardness subsided and the girls became “like a family.” They shared their thoughts in discussion-based classes like Southern African history and travel journalism. A circle of Crazy Creek camp chairs became their classroom. They learned to surf together in South Africa’s Jeffrey’s Bay, nicknamed “J-Bay,” and canoed down the Orange River despite triple-digit heat. They drove to the center of a salt pan in Botswana that was the size of Switzerland, where they were surrounded by nothing but white ground and silence, from horizon to horizon.
“I became so comfortable with the tent I was in and the people I was with and my sleeping bag,” Weindling said. “It really became my home.”
The fact that she was surrounded by other girls made for a laid-back atmosphere, which she noticed as soon as she left.
“I think the thing I miss most is just not caring,” Weindling said. “It was really nice to just not have to think about what you’re wearing, or your hair, or your make-up. It was refreshing and really carefree.”
Their blue truck pulled up to what looked like a mountain of sand—Dune 45. The girls took their shoes off, and felt the fine grains between their toes. This was one hike that didn’t require hiking boots. As the sky lightened, they started up the side of the dune in a single-file line, feet sinking into the brown sand with every step.
Before long, they were at the top, surrounded by a sea of sand in every direction. The dune sloped down on either side of them as they sat in a line and watched the sky grow lighter. Finally, the orange sun peaked out from the horizon beyond. Weindling sprawled out in the sand and watched the glowing rays rise higher into the sky. This had to be what paradise felt like, she thought to herself.
And then it was over.
“Coming home was weird,” Weindling said. “It felt like I had never left.”
Posters from her friends lined her walls. A giant stuffed giraffe from her mom sat in the corner of her room. Her house felt like a castle, so much bigger than when she’d left three and a half months earlier. She immediately started getting rid of the unnecessary things that just a few months ago she couldn’t live without.
“Everything was so cluttered,” she said. “I just felt like there was stuff everywhere.”
Looking around her room, she thought back to the townships she’d walked through in Cape Town—the discombobulated wooden shacks, the tin rooves, the barefoot children playing in the dirty alleys.
“People were so content with so few things there,” Weindling said. “That’s what’s so difficult and hard to grasp, is that people here have so much more, and they’re never happy. And then you see so many people who I might consider have nothing, and they’re so happy.”
In Weindling’s room, a picture of the group on Dune 45 hangs on the wall right next to the picture of her real family, because the girls know her almost as well.
The picture shows them jumping in the air on top of the dune, High-School-Musical-style. The desert goes on for miles in front of them, meeting the sunrise at the distant horizon. The fifteen pairs of hands and feet are all caked in a solid layer of sand, but none of the girls seem to notice.
“You were just always dirty,” Weindling said. “There would be times when my feet were literally coated with dirt and sand, and yes, it was disgusting, but it was just another day in Africa. I miss those days.”