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Coming Home with SAS: Reflections of a South African Student

Two of our South African shipmates Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mariechen Puchert

Mariechen Puchert is a 5th-Year Medical Student from the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu was one of the first two political names I learned when I was little; the other being Nelson Mandela.  I recall wondering if the Archbishop was pink, or purple, because everyone kept talking about how this man of colour reconciled South Africa.  People always thought it was funny when I asked that, but it was only much later that I realized what a stark history my country had undergone.

Arch’s presence was the deciding factor that I had to come on Semester at Sea.¬† Years ago, when I was still in high school, I dreamed I would attend college in the USA. ¬†When my life did not work out that way, it was okay; instead, I went to medical school in my own country, South Africa. Nothing really beats your own country, but with Semester at Sea I would finally be able to see what else was out there.

It was with some trepidation that I boarded the ship this past January.  I had traveled before, but never for such an extended period of time.  My accent was different than everyone else’s and I often had to repeat myself two or three times before being understood.  I soon learned that there is a reason they call it homesickness: the more time I spent away from the country I call home, the heavier the pit in my stomach felt.

But I was so happy to be embarking on this voyage with Arch.  I was star-struck at first.  I often found myself right in front of him, clamming up, unable to greet him before he walked on.  My roommate found it hilarious how I struggled to open my mouth in his presence. “Speak to him!” she would whisper.  Eventually we met at the Captain’s table over lunch, and when he heard that I, too, was from South Africa, training at a hospital so close to his heart, his hearty laugh filled the room.  I had finally met my one of my role models.   We often spoke about the country we both love, and conversed in Afrikaans, my home language.  I always felt a little closer to home when I was around Arch.  What a blessing that was.

It is so interesting to view the countries we have visited through a South African lens.  As a medical student, I look at Japan and Hong Kong and Singapore, with their high life expectancies, and I realize that a high standard is possible, and just how far South Africa still has to go.  But then I see Burma, where children learn English at the markets instead of at school.  I see Vietnam, where I am still shell-shocked from the little children who die daily from diseases that need not be fatal.  I often talk a lot about how under-resourced we are in South Africa, and how much our children suffer, but I also realize how fortunate my country is.  We have our shortcomings, but we also have plenty to offer.

In South Africa, we celebrate our diversity and our sameness.  Traveling around the world has given me even more cause for celebration.  How different we all are, citizens of the world, and yet, how alike we all are.  We mourn the same way.  We fall ill the same way.  We detest corrupt government the same way.  How much our countries can learn from one another.

Unlike most students, my home country was one of the countries on our itinerary.  I started counting the days a month before we would arrive in Cape Town.  I became one of the resident experts on South Africa, answering countless questions and giving recommendations for authentic local foods, which mountains to climb, which streets to avoid.  The real restlessness began after leaving Mauritius. One evening we were very close to the Eastern Coast of South Africa –

so close that we could see the lights of what I presumed to be Durban – and I managed to get cell phone reception. I spoke with my loved ones for hours.

The night before our arrival, I found myself getting up to look for land at regular intervals. Finally, we watched the sun rise over Table Mountain – a scene I have seen a myriad of times, but never from this angle. What a stunning angle it was.

As we got closer, I cried.  This is home. The ocean smells different. The sky is a different blue here. And the people! These are my people, and I am theirs. We share this great history, and this great responsibility for the country of our roots.

What did I do in Cape Town, while my new friends safari-ed and climbed mountains and visited townships?  I lapsed into the old routine of three hours’ sleep a night, cramming as much family and friend-time into six days as I could.  I saw my favorite places, and ate my favorite food, and stocked up on Rooibos tea for the next month. I introduced my family to the MV Explorer and they finally understood why, after just two short hours spent touring the ship in 2012, I decided to enroll on Semester at Sea.

All too soon it was time to go – so bittersweet.  I have had the opportunity to see my country through the eyes of a visitor.  My shipmates tell me how much they loved South Africa, and how striking some of the inequalities were.  I do not love my country any less – quite the contrary.  Returning home in this way, seeing my country in a different light, I have been re-sensitized to her faults and to her potential. Today, problems I considered to be inevitable suddenly appear beatable.  I will see this country again in less than a month, and then I will stay a while.  For now, I am off to learn from two new African countries. Ghana, Morocco: what lessons might we learn from you?

The view from the ship the morning of our arrival in Cape Town.
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